From the Editor

Drescher: Feisty Baptist editor was one of a kind

jdrescher@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2013 

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R.G. Puckett, Editor of the Biblical Recorder, a Baptist state newspaper.

1998 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

When a search committee for the Biblical Recorder, the newspaper for North Carolina Baptists, was looking for a new editor in 1982, the committee voted against the Rev. R.G. “Gene” Puckett, 4-3.

Puckett had been an editor at several Baptist publications. He’d also been executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Even then, Puckett had a long track record as a strong-willed, opinionated figure. The search committee feared he would intensify a smoldering conflict between theologically moderate and conservative Baptists, with whom Puckett often was at odds.

Still, the Recorder’s full board voted to hire Puckett – by a split vote of 8-4. Puckett, a man who enjoyed conflict, probably reveled in the split vote. He was not for everybody. Nor did he want to be.

Puckett, who retired from the Recorder in 1998, died this week at age 80 from cancer. He was editor of the Recorder during a tumultuous time when the paper was one of the most widely read publications in North Carolina. He often was quoted then in The News & Observer.

The N&O’s Martha Quillin wrote this week, “Puckett was a verbal pugilist who enjoyed a good argument and maybe even looked for them to keep his skills sharp.”

‘Who is responsible for this?’

Quillin reported that age and illness had not softened Puckett’s opinions. That was my experience. In March, Puckett wrote to complain about a subject at least as important to North Carolinians as religion – that would be college basketball.

We had reported that Duke women’s coach Joanne P. McCallie had been named ACC coach of the year by a panel of media members and school representatives. But Puckett noted that Maryland women’s coach Brenda Frese had been named coach of the year by her fellow coaches – and that had not been reported by The N&O.

“Who is responsible for this?” Puckett roared in a two-page, typed letter. “Is it incompetence on the part of your staff, or is it a cheap, sleazy political move to once again make Duke look good despite the truth?”

The good reverend was just getting started. No, he wasn’t from Maryland, he wrote; he was from Kentucky and had been a fan of UK coach Adolph Rupp. (Puckett neglected to say that while he was editor of the Maryland Baptist from 1966 to 1979, he had been a member of the Terrapin Club at the University of Maryland.) He wondered: Had The N&O been paid off by Duke? He wrote, “There’s a bad odor here!”

The problems went beyond sports coverage. “To the discerning mind/reader, McClatchy acquired the (The N&O in 1995) not to serve the best interests of the public or for business profits, but rather to put a right-wing spin on everything.” He’d lived in five states and said The N&O was the worst paper he’d ever read.

A Jeffersonian choice

Puckett was a first-rate polemicist who knew how to close with thunder. And he did. It was Thomas Jefferson, he noted, who said if forced to choose between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he’d choose the latter. “Obviously,” Puckett concluded, “Tom never read The News & Observer!”

I laughed. Hard. I responded with an email assuring him that we had not been paid off by Duke and that I wished we had noted that Coach Frese had been honored by her peers.

I never heard back from him. I wish I had called. I would have enjoyed talking with one of the most distinctive personalities who ever passed through these pages.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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