The greatest perk in the life of a newspaper reporter comes from spending each day in the company of lovable eccentrics, sharing cubicle space with odd fish whose misfit natures wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere else.
I’ve been blessed to type alongside hundreds of kooks: the bureau chief who moonlighted as a king of disco karaoke; the feature writer who threw up in a trash can mid-interview but kept taking notes; the business reporter who pretended to have the president on the phone whenever kids’ field trips swung through the newsroom.
But among all these characters, I pay special recognition to Jay Woodard, a charming, well-mannered and thoroughly peculiar man who died on Sunday at age 84 and was buried Thursday in a family graveyard in Cary. Those of you who attended Duke University in the 1950s may remember him from a Shakespeare class or a Pi Kappa Alpha social – that is, unless you ever spoke ill of the basketball team, in which case he considered you a cretin and disregarded you forever.
We met when I started at The Fayetteville Observer in 1996, both of us reporters on the business desk, both of us tall and gangly English majors who were prone to talking to ourselves out loud. In a newsroom where male reporters all wore the uniform – rumpled khakis, button-down shirts with sleeves rolled to the elbow, cheap department store tie – Jay sported a pair of corduroy trousers and a V-neck sweater every day of the year. On several occasions, he brought me pairs of hand-me-down corduroys in case I wanted to follow his sartorial habit. They sat on a shelf in my closet, a strange but cherished token.
He was obviously much older, a longtime widower with wavy gray hair, and the other 20-something scribes that filled the newsroom warned me never to inquire about his age – a secret he guarded with the strength of Fort Knox. One friend of mine impishly called Duke’s alumni office in search of his graduation date, having no luck. The first thing I thought upon reading his obituary was how mortified he would be to have his birthday publicized.
He came from a class of scholarly Southern gentlemen, speaking with a lilt that always sounded aristocratic to my Maryland ear but was more likely the result of his devotion to grammar. At his funeral Thursday in Cary, not far from where his family once lived off Tryon Road, his sister Gwen Pitkin told me Jay started out teaching English and French in Henderson, and that all of his books were cluttered with scribblings from both languages in the margins, offering suggestions on proper usage.
Once, to my large delight, Jay attended a newsroom party at my house – a coup because no one had ever seen this intensely private man in a social setting. He carried a 12-pack of Coors with him but I doubt if he drank any beer that night. Instead, he scanned the titles on my bookshelf, picked out “War and Peace” and sat down to read from page one. Perhaps an hour later, he left the party without a word. I still hope he had a good time.
Jay worked at the Observer for almost 40 years, starting in 1961, and he held a variety of editing and reporting jobs. But he never sought the spotlight – at least not in the years I knew him. The rest of us clamored for the front page and stalked home in a huff if anyone tinkered with our masterwork, but Jay quietly profiled local businesses for the inside of the B section. A new kayak shop downtown. Family trucking companies. Not the sort of prose that won awards, but the kind of personal touch a newspaper reader looks for over fried eggs and coffee.
He operated according to a strict and remarkably early routine: in at 7 a.m., far before any other news-gatherers began to stir. You would arrive sometimes find him barking at the police scanner, hollering “10-4!” back at the machine that clearly annoyed him. He also followed an ironclad lunchtime regimen. I discovered that Jay shared my love for K&W Cafeteria, and he was nearly always first in line when it opened at 11 a.m.
I’m told that he left the Observer before he was ready to leave, and that he harbored enough of a grudge a decade later that he didn’t want his obituary in the paper that so long employed him. I never saw him after 2000, but thankfully, he wrote me often once I started at The N&O, and I have a handful of these letters in my desk.
“Went to my class reunion at Duke,” he wrote in 2005. “I was really thankful that the names of old friends came to me so readily. Instant recall it was. In several cases, I even remembered their nicknames. Not one of them, not a single one, remembered me.”
At the service Thursday, family members told me he was famous for these letters, all written in longhand on yellow paper. Mine always included a second missive penned by Jay’s alter ego mysteriously named Toby Tuna, who told me in 2005, “Beings from other planets, maybe other galaxies, are trying to get in touch with me. It started about six months ago. I heard ‘Beep, beep, beep.’ Looked first at the check engine light. It wasn’t on.”
I asked Jay’s sister if she had any clues to the origin of this nom de plume, and she told me, laughing, “I have no idea.”
He made for such a charming anachronism in a late 1990s newsroom that was just adjusting to the Internet. I remember showing Jay how to search the web, watching him slowly type the letters h-t-t-p. ... But he made me feel comfortable as a bookish oddball who liked to read alone in his car during lunch hour. He welcomed me into the fraternity of ink-stained abnormality.
Another perk of being a newspaper reporter is the guarantee of a well-written obituary. Jay, old friend, I hope this will suffice.