Charles Craven, the longtime News & Observer columnist who built a close relationship with his readers, hung out in downtown bars and pool halls and wrote about guys named Barrel Gut Hogan, Handicap Morrisey and Bankshot Fraley.
Craven, who was born in Asheville, was an N&O fixture from 1949 until his retirement in 1980. He was attached to the characters who hung out in dark, smoky joints on Martin Street. I felt that they were coarse people, and I know some of them had a criminal record, but they fascinated me, Craven once said.
Craven was not adverse to having a drink or three with his sources. I got a beer-breath that would knock over an elephant, Craven wrote in a 1970 column. These days we generally steer our columnists toward a different kind of reporting.
Cravens legacy as a deep-rooted news columnist lives at The N&O. This week we published a nice spirit-of-Christmas column by former columnist Dennis Rogers, whose stint overlapped Cravens at the beginning of Rogers N&O career in 1976. Rogers retired in 2007. When we published his column this week, it prompted an email from a longtime reader in Eastern North Carolina.
Thanks a million for the Rogers column, the reader wrote. If you get a chance to really reminisce, please run an old Charlie Craven story.
Attached to columnists
Craven died 30 years ago this month. But the email shows that many of our readers get attached to our news columnists. Thats why when Rogers writes for The N&O from time to time, it prompts a flurry of thankful emails.
Rogers, 71, and his wife, HollyAnn, have returned to North Carolina after touring the country for three years in a Winnebago with Gypsy, a homeless mutt they picked up in El Paso, Texas, on a previous jaunt. The three of them have put down roots outside Wilmington. We wanted to be back in North Carolina. No question about that, Rogers, who was raised in Eastern North Carolina, told me this week.
Rogers was influenced by Mike Royko, the Chicago newspaper columnist who died in 1997. Royko grew up in Chicago in an apartment above a bar. Like Craven, Royko wrote about the everyday people of the city. Rogers still remembers a Royko column from the early 1970s (about the time Royko won a Pulitzer prize) about a Vietnam vet with a disfigured face who lived in his mothers basement and rarely left.
Passing the torch
Barry Saunders, who grew up in Richmond County and has worked at The N&O for 20 years, has inherited the local columnist mantle from Craven and Rogers. On a cold, dreary night this week, Saunders and political columnist Rob Christensen drew an overflow crowd of more than 250 people to Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, where the columnists talked about their work and took questions.
Columnists play a distinctive role, Rogers said. Newspapers can seem like a faceless institution, he said, and most readers dont pay much attention to reporter bylines. But they do remember who wrote columns and what the columnist said.
It makes the newspaper human, Rogers said. People would much rather invest themselves with another human being. When you deal with a real person, thats what makes a difference.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @john_drescher