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Ford: Writers, editors, heroes to remember

November 25, 2012 

My time at The N&O has put me in touch with many smart, accomplished and public-spirited people of good will, both in the news business and what could be called the community of civic affairs – government, education, industry. Then there are imposing figures from the past whom I’ve come to “know.” We’ll take a little nostalgia trip today to salute, once more, a couple of them.

It was only gradually after moving to Cary in 1981 from another little town beside a river in eastern Pennsylvania that it dawned on me just how accomplished were the Pages, the family who had put Cary on the map.

Frank Page, Cary’s founding father, was an enterprising sort who built a homestead just north of the railroad that ran west toward Hillsborough. His chief business was lumber. As the town he laid out took root, he opened a hotel to serve train travelers – today’s handsomely restored Page-Walker Arts & History Center. The homestead’s site became the Town Hall campus.

It was Frank and Catherine Page’s eldest son, born in 1855, whose achievements merited the state historical marker that is perched unobtrusively along East Chatham Street.

Following the barebones clues on that marker, one learns that Walter Hines Page was a giant among North Carolinians – even if he had to travel far afield to reach his potential as writer, editor, publisher and, finally, diplomat.

Page was on his way to earning an advanced degree in classical Greek at Johns Hopkins when he decided to strike out into the real world as a journalist. His breakthrough came after an 1881 reporting tour through the South yielded a series of dispatches published in New York.

When Page the following year started up the State Chronicle newspaper in Raleigh, he was all too aware of the conditions and forces that, in those decades following the Civil War, seemed to have mired the South in poverty.

He became an ahead-of-the-curve crusader for economic uplift through education, with opportunities for each and every citizen. As a founder of the Watauga Club, he was instrumental in convincing the General Assembly to establish the college that became N.C. State University.

No, North Carolina in those days was not blind to the benefits of education if the state was to prosper. But there were powerful conservatives who preferred to rock along with the old ways that advantaged the few and oppressed the many.

Page would go on to skewer these conservatives as “mummies,” unable or unwilling to change. But by that time he had sold the State Chronicle to his former Wilson correspondent, Josephus Daniels, and lit out for New York – by no means the first Southerner to take his act to the big stage.

We know what happened to Daniels – he wound up buying The News & Observer and using it to promote the cause of the Democratic white supremacists who took over state government at the end of the 19th century. There’s more to that story, thank heavens, but Daniels definitely got off on the wrong foot.

Page, meanwhile, hit his stride. He became editor of a magazine with national influence, The Atlantic Monthly. He became a founding partner in Doubleday, Page and Co., a top publishing house. And along the way, he helped organize a presidential campaign for an old acquaintance, Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s victory in 1912 put Page on track for a good job in the new administration. The job turned out to be that coveted diplomatic plum, ambassador to Great Britain. Some plum, as war broke out.

Not long before the Armistice of 1918, Page – his health in decline – resigned his London post and came back to North Carolina. When he died, he was buried near Aberdeen, which his father also founded when he took his logging operation to the Sandhills to harvest longleaf pines. (The cut-over land, sold off, was developed as Pinehurst.)

Raleigh’s Josephus Daniels was another Wilson supporter rewarded with a post that drew a spotlight in wartime – secretary of the Navy. When he returned to The N&O, he steered it toward economic progressivism.

It was one of his four sons, Jonathan, who – while serving as editor – shepherded the paper into the camp of those Southern liberals for whom equal justice extended to matters of race.

Jonathan Daniels was a talented and prolific writer. Like Page, he showed his mettle with a book of reporting that drew upon his travels across the South. He helped affirm a political climate in North Carolina that allowed for a peaceable passage through the years of integration.

Walter Hines Page and Jonathan Daniels used their powers with the written word to inform and persuade in the service of their state and nation.

Their views have echoed down the years in the policies of enlightened, action-oriented leaders such as Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt and Bill Friday. Both stood against forces that would have held the state and its people back. They should be remembered.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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