Commentary

Saunders: Remembering Chuck Stone, my journalism hero and friend

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 7, 2014 

Ever heard the adage, “You should never meet your heroes”?

That’s presumably because you’ll certainly be disappointed when he or she doesn’t live up to your exalted opinion.

Bull. I met my hero, and it couldn’t have turned out better.

Chuck Stone is, quite simply, the reason I’m a columnist today. It’s up to you whether you blame him or thank him for that. Let’s discuss that later. For now, though, just allow me to pay tribute to the man, who died Sunday at 89.

He is the reason I wear a bow tie and the reason I wore – until I no longer had enough hair to wear – a hightop fade. I also copied – i.e., stole – his unique voicemail greeting: “Hi, this is Chuck Stone. Please pardon this electronic impersonality, but I am currently in absentia. … ”

Trying to be like Chuck.

My buddy, TV journalist Dwayne Ballen, and I referred to Chuck as Zelig, the fictional Woody Allen character who just popped up in the middle of several historic events.

The main difference was that Chuck was not fictional, and he was seldom a peripheral character. He seemed so ubiquitous that we are never surprised to pick up a book on some historical figure or event and see Chuck right in the center of the action.

Pictures with Chuck

On the walls of his office at UNC, where he was the Walter Spearman journalism professor, were pictures of Chuck with internationally renowned, red-letter dignitaries, or pictures of him behind prison walls, where rioting inmates would talk to no one but Chuck Stone when he was a columnist at the Daily News in Philadelphia.

During that time, from 1971 through his retirement in 1992, the Philadelphia Police Department was regarded as one where suspects who entered in one piece didn’t always emerge in one piece. That’s why over the years, more than 70 homicide suspects called Chuck and turned themselves in to him – so he could verify, for instance, that they had two eyes when they entered the cop shop. He would then escort them to police custody.

When I was offered a job at the N&O more than 20 years ago, Chuck was a journalism professor at UNC. When I flew down for the interview, Anders Gyllenhaal, then the editor, arranged for Chuck to take me to lunch. Even had I not been champing at the bit to get out of Northwest Indiana – I stayed cold – for North Carolina’s more seasonal climate, I’d have accepted the job for the chance to be near Chuck.

Friends of Chuck

Through him, I met and became friends with other exceptional journalists, such as his UNC colleague Jim Shumaker, the model for the comic strip character “Shoe,” and Doug Marlette, the late cartoonist who drew the strip “Kudzu.”

Shu, an associate journalism professor, frequently called me and sent me marked-up copies of my column in which he chastised me for what he considered an excessive dependence on personal pronouns. With Shu, I think even one was excessive.

Chuck, because of his Zelig-like proximity to historical figures, had the best stories – such as the time he turned down the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s job offer to be spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There was no way, Chuck said he told Dr. King, he was moving to Atlanta in the 1950s. Chuck, a former Tuskegee airman, said he told King he didn’t believe in turning the other cheek.

Then there was the story about how his house seemed to tilt if Chuck’s one-time boss, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, attended one of the house parties Chuck and his late wife, Louise, would throw. It seems, Chuck said, that whenever Powell – 6 foot 4 inches, influential and matinee-idol handsome – strode through the house, all the women followed, making it appear the house was tilting.

It was at one of those parties, Chuck said, that he saw a genuine matinee idol, Harry Belafonte, sitting in a corner pouting because Powell’s arrival had upstaged him and usurped all the feminine attention.

Even years after first meeting Chuck and developing what I considered a close friendship, I would still end each of our telephone conversations by exclaiming to myself, “Wow. I just got off the phone with Chuck Stone.”

Our friendship began decades before I actually met him. When I was a young teenager, my Aunt Betty in Philadelphia – apropos of absolutely nothing – started clipping his Daily News columns and sending them to me in Rockingham. I assumed she figured that because I was going to be up to no good anyway, I might as well make a living at it.

I’d often rip open the envelope and read the clippings on the front porch, not even making it into the house. After reading his columns excoriating the powerful for their low doings in high places, I’d think, “Wow. You can make a living saying that?”

Years later, after my aunt had retired and moved to North Carolina, I asked Chuck to write to her. He wrote and called, and she forever after considered hearing personally from the Philadelphia institution one of the thrills of her life.

So do I.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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