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EDITORIAL PAGE HAS BEEN THIS PAPER'S HEART AND SOUL

EDITORIAL PAGE HAS BEEN THIS PAPER'S HEART AND SOUL

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A good daily newspaper is more than the sum of the paper and ink on which it is printed. It is the collective wisdom of those who write and edit it. A single issue of a newspaper is perishable and ephemeral. But if it has any worth at all, that newspaper will develop over the years a set of traditions and philosophical moorings that transcend the daily cycle. Writers and editors may come and go, but the moorings remain to guide the next set of journalists.On its centennial, the Greensboro News & Record legitimately claims such traditions. And nowhere else are those underpinnings more clearly defined than in the editorial pages. Here, a good newspaper finds and expresses its collective voice. It is here that a newspaper engages its readers in a dialogue about the future of their city, state and nation. Here, opinions are expressed that can shape public debate and sometimes affect the outcome. The editorial page is the heart and soul of a newspaper - its conscience - without which it would march woodenly through the triumphs, tragedies and foibles of its region and never utter a word of congratulation, solace, outrage or advice.

American newspapers began as journals of opinion, as organs of various political parties and factions. It is in this spirit that The Daily Record was founded 100 years ago, a friend of North Carolina's increasingly powerful Democratic Party. Similarly, the Greensboro Industrial News, precursor of the Greensboro Daily News, was an unofficial publication of the Butler faction of the state's Republican Party; one of its founders, Spencer Blackburn, was a former Republican member of Congress.

Over the years those affiliations would fade, blur and undergo interesting transformations. For example, when new owners took over the Daily News in 1911, they were more comfortable with the program of the Democratic Party; thus they announced that in the future the paper would be ``independent in politics' and that ``Republican friends of the paper' would be treated with ``fairness and square dealing.' The Record remained close to the Democrats.

Today most newspapers describe themselves as independent, and this is true of the News & Record. As competition diminished, newspapers have tried to offer a variety of viewpoints. But that does not mean the newspaper's editorial voice - traditionally heard in the editorials on the left hand column of the page - must be diluted.

Despite their long history, these editorial pages have been edited by relatively few people - nine have served as either editor or associate editor of the Daily News and three in that capacity for the Record since its purchase by the Daily News in 1930. This is unusual in a profession known for short tenures. It has made for continuity of editorial voices through the years and an intimate knowledge of the community and state. These distinguishing qualities have enhanced the newspapers' influence and reputation.

The Greensboro Daily News, which began publication in 1909, quickly earned its place among the state's leading newspapers. Its statewide influence was enhanced by the arrival as part-owner in 1911 of Earle Godbey, who came from Asheville and in 1918 became the first editor.

Colonel Godbey, as he was known, quickly established the Daily News' editorial page as a haven for good writing and progressive stands.

Godbey, who presided over the editorial page until his death in 1941, was also a renowned eccentric. A bachelor until late in life, he brought his dog to the office, and he frequently slept in a tent in a local park. It was Godbey who, during the 1936 gubernatorial campaign, wrote that one of the candidates wasn't fit to run for dogcatcher. When the offended candidate demanded a retraction, Godbey responded that he had been wrong, that the man was fit to be dogcatcher. End of retraction.

Godbey had a knack for hiring some of the finest writing talent to grace an American newspaper. Among his first and best finds was Gerald W. Johnson. It is fitting that the 100th anniversary of Johnson's birth last month should coincide with the News & Record's centennial celebration.

Among those who took note of Johnson's work was Lenoir Chambers, a Charlotte native. After attending the university at Chapel Hill and teaching at a private school, Chambers joined the Daily News as a reporter. He subsequently replaced Johnson as associate editor.

At Chambers' departure, Colonel Godbey had his eye on another talent for the editorial shop. As a young man growing up in Shelby, Henry Wiseman Kendall had been dazzled by the prose of Godbey and Gerald Johnson. He frequently borrowed the Daily News from a schoolmate.

Kendall attended Trinity College (now Duke University) from 1915 to 1918 and picked up his lifelong nickname, ``Slim.' He worked on several newspapers, rising to managing editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram before getting a long-awaited summons from Godbey in 1930.

The morning Kendall reported to work, Godbey started him off with two brief sentences: ``There's your office and your typewriter. Write what you think, only try to think sanely.' That same week Godbey got married and left for a European honeymoon.

Shortly after arriving, Kendall wrote an editorial that flayed the hide of a state official. ``Well, I guess he deserves to have it said about him,' Godbey told Kendall. ``But don't call a man an S.O.B.; prove he's one. Verbs are much stronger than adjectives.'

Kendall served as Godbey's assistant until the latter's death in 1942. Under Godbey and then Kendall, the newspapers' editorial character took shape: strong support of public secondary and higher education; compassion for society's less fortunate; advocacy of prison reform; support of economic development and a strong highway program, and the tax base to pay for them; moderation on racial issues (at least by prevailing standards in the segregated South of that day); and consistent opposition to the death penalty.

Kendall was at heart an advocate for the ``little man.' He listened patiently to every reader who called or came by to see him. When a caller was angry, Kendall's technique was to wear the person down by listening to him, then politely insert his own point of view. It worked. While many may have disagreed with his stands, few disputed the sincerity, modesty and integrity with which he expressed them.

Like Godbey, Kendall had a good eye for writing talent. After Godbey's death, Kendall hired as his associate editor William T. Polk, who came to journalism somewhat late in life. He was a graduate of Chapel Hill and of Harvard Law School. At Harvard, he roomed with fellow Tar Heel Thomas Wolfe. Polk returned to Warrenton to practice law during the 1920s and was mayor of that city.

But Polk's strong grounding in the classics and his storytelling ability drew him to creative writing and, eventually, to newspaper work. He was a learned, eloquent writer who peppered his editorials with allusions to Greek and Latin classics.

A lover of baseball and classical music, Polk wrote short stories and essays as well as editorials. He wrote a highly-acclaimed book about the South entitled Southern Accent. While declaring his affection for the special traditions and habits of life in the South, Polk also warned the South of the dangers it faced, ``from middle-class mediocrity, unmitigated materialism and unconscionable exploitation.'

In his book, Polk concluded that ``Americans are not free for nothing, but for something - to pursue truth, do good, create beauty.' An editorial on the occasion of his death in 1955 said Polk had exemplified all three of those characteristics in his own life. ``There was a gentleness about him,' the editorial said, ``covering a vein of iron visible when the essentials of his code were under attack. He was also man of the highest courage, and there was never any doubt where he stood.'

In 1951, the Daily News' editorial staff was expanded from two to three. The new arrival was another young man who, like Kendall, had spent his boyhood in Salisbury reading and admiring the Daily News. After working as a reporter for the Salisbury Post, William D. Snider had served as private secretary to Gov. R. Gregg Cherry in 1948 and then as administrative assistant to Gov. Kerr Scott in 1949. After two more years in state government, Snider began a distinguished 31-year association with the Daily News.

The years from 1955, which marked the death of Bill Polk, to 1965, when Snider assumed responsibility for both the Daily News and The Record under new ownership, were marked by enormous change and upheaval. The defining issue during this period was civil rights, and Greensboro was a major player in the drama.

Slim Kendall retired in 1967, after the newspapers were purchased by Landmark Communications of Norfolk, Va. When he died in January 1968, tributes poured in from around the state. The Kendall years at the Daily News had been fertile ones. Among the accomplishments under his editorship were the hiring of the state's first editorial cartoonist, Hugh Haynie, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning with the Louisville Courier-Journal. Kate Blackwell, a relative of Gerald Johnson, became one of the state's early female editorial writers. Another editorial writer, Holley Mack Bell, went on to become a diplomat with the State Department, serving in Latin America. With prompting from Snider, Kendall also launched the Tar Heel Talk column in which editorial writers wrote more personal, bylined essays.

There was a revolving stable of contributors over the years, including Skipper Coffin, dean of the School of Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, who wrote a column titled ``Shucks and Nubbins;' author Burke Davis; and W.C. ``Mutt' Burton, whose reflections still appear in the News & Record.

In 1961, Snider recognized great promise in a young editorial writer from The Charlotte News, Edwin M. Yoder Jr. Yoder was born in Greensboro, grew up in nearby Mebane and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where he served as editor of the Daily Tar Heel. Yoder studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before returning to a career in journalism in his native state. Yoder became associate editor when Snider became editor.

Yoder was followed to the editorial pages by another Chapel Hill graduate and Daily Tar Heel editor, Jonathan Yardley. Yardley came back from The New York Times to serve as the page's third editorial writer and as book editor.

Until that time, the Jeffress family, longtime owners of the Daily News, had frowned on candidate endorsements ever since an editor - presumably Colonel Godbey - had written, according to legend, an editorial lambasting a candidate and endorsing his rival. According to the story, the candidate carried a copy of the editorial around with him on the campaign trail and railed against the know-nothing editors of the Daily News. He won, and Godbey vowed never again to endorse a candidate for public office.

Under Landmark ownership, political endorsements were encouraged again. Notable among those endorsements under Snider and Yoder was the newspaper's backing of Republican U.S. Senate candidate William Stevens in his 1972 race against Democrat and state Attorney General Robert Morgan. The Daily News never forgave Morgan for his role as campaign manager for segregationist gubernatorial candidate I. Beverly Lake in 1960. Morgan won the election.

The editors struggled again in 1972 between incumbent Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern. In the end, the newspaper concluded that neither candidate was worthy of an endorsement. It later joined Tar Heel Sen. Sam Ervin, one of the newspaper's political heroes, in calling for Nixon's resignation or impeachment.

In 1974, Yardley left the Daily News to become book editor of the Miami Herald and later book critic at The Washington Post. The following year Yoder left to become editorial page editor of the Washington Star. Both soon won Pulitzer Prizes.

During the Snider era, other editorial writers made significant contributions. James Ross came to the editorial page from Raleigh, where he had served for many years as the Daily News' political correspondent. A member of a distinguished family of writers from Stanly County, Ross was the author of a novel, They Don't Dance Much, and of numerous short stories. He died in July of this year.

Ross was joined briefly in the editorial office by Charles Trueheart as editorial writer and book editor. Trueheart is now a writer for The Washington Post.

In 1975, Yoder was succeeded as associate editor by John Alexander, an editorial writer and book editor from The Charlotte News. Alexander served as associate editor of the Daily News until Snider retired in 1982. In 1983, Alexander became editorial page editor of the merged News & Record.

At Snider's retirement, Yoder wrote: ``Bill Snider is without doubt one of the best editorialists and essayists ever to grace the pages of an American newspaper; one whose work won its share of awards and the esteem of his peers, both in North Carolina and around the nation.'

For his contributions to his state and community, Snider received the Brotherhood Award of the Greensboro chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, among other honors. In retirement he has published one book, Helms and Hunt, and is working on a bicentennial history of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The period 1965-75 had been dominated by major national issues, from civil rights to Watergate. During Alexander's tenure, from 1975 to 1990, the issues were more regionally and locally focused. Racial tensions surrounding the Wilmington 10 case punctuated the mid-1970s. For its reporting and editorials on the case, the Daily News was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in public service in 1976. It also won first place for public service in the N.C. Press Association competition, an honor that was to be repeated several times.

In the mid-1970s, the newspaper swung its support behind district elections for the Greensboro City Council. District elections were supported by black leaders but opposed by much of the white political and business establishment. District elections were eventually mandated by the City Council in the early 1980s.

The 1970s and '80s were a time of rising environmental consciousness, too. The Daily News editorialized in favor of statewide environmental initiatives and opposed unplanned development. These efforts culminated in overwhelming voter support for a 1988 referendum to protect the county's fragile watersheds and reservoirs.

The most unsettling event of this period was the bloody 1979 confrontation between Klansmen and Nazi Party members and members of the radical Communist Workers Party. Over the ensuing months the Daily News editorialized against unwise proposals to clamp down on free speech and free assembly.

The 1980s also saw a strengthening two-party system in North Carolina, spurred by the popularity of President Ronald Reagan. Despite its frequent opposition to the policies of Sen. Jesse Helms and its endorsements of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis for president, the Daily News endorsed Republican candidates for Congress, governor, state legislature, the judiciary and county board of commissioners. But in the 1978 race between Senator Helms and Democrat John Ingram, the newspaper endorsed neither candidate.

With Alexander's departure in July 1990, the post of editorial page editor went to David DuBuisson, a 25-year newspaper veteran who came to the News & Record from the Sentinel of Winston-Salem, where he had been an editorial writer.

During the Alexander years, editorial writers Rosemary Yardley, Jack Betts and Malcolm Jones became well-known contributors to the page. Yardley, winner of a Stanford journalism fellowship, spent 10 years on the editorial staff before becoming a free-lance writer. She still contributes a weekly column to the News & Record. Jones is a book critic for Newsweek magazine. Betts went to the non-profit N.C. Center for Public Policy, where he is editor of N.C. Insight magazine.

About the author

John Alexander was editorial page editor of the News & Record until July 1990, when he stepped down to join the staff of the Greensboro-based Center for Creative Leadership. During his 15 years here, Alexander brought considerable distinction to the newspaper. In 1978, he won the coveted Scripps Howard Walker Stone Award for editorial writing. The following year, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorials on the Nazi-Klan shooting incident and related subjects.

A Florida native, Alexander, 44, graduated from Princeton University and, like Ed Yoder before him, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

Alexander is completing work on a book about the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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