He may have been the first person I saw in the N&O newsroom in that summer of internship, a sort of shirtail-out, whirlwind of a man — longish curly hair, glasses, a nervous tick here and there, eyes darting about the room, a little growth of beard. He might have been a youngish professor, or an oldish student (which he still was). His gait was a sort of disjointed, quick move both forward, backward and sideways.
He was called David, but mostly by his co-workers on the copy desk, “Mck” (sounds like “Mick”) because his name was David McKnight. Mck would have been in his mid- to late-mid 20s then, and as I recall he’d had some off and on time at Duke University, though he was eventually to graduate. His time there — after growing up in Charlotte, where his father was editor of The Charlotte Observer — had given him a love of Durham just like a native. His girlfriend he called “the Bull City Woman,” and he lived there, too, some of the time I knew him.
McK was a true character, and that’s a compliment. His eccentricities manifested themselves in big musical talent (violin) and in a fascination with North Carolina geography, which enabled him not just to recite all 100 counties but the county seats and often, the main ways people in a certain county made a living.
But about the true character reference. I worked years ago with some young folks who set out, through dress and flamboyance to call attention to themselves. Finally, I told them, “If you are a character, you don’t have to try to be a character.”
McK didn’t have to try. He came by it naturally and genuinely, and that may be one reason that after he died of a brain tumor on January 17, some splendid and colorful obituaries appeared in The Charlotte Observer, The Durham Herald-Sun and Indy Week. He would have been, I think, monumentally pleased, because his life had not gone on a conventional path.
He didn’t lock into a career. Instead, he bounced around three or four newspapers, in various jobs, and then, in 1978, bailed out to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jesse Helms. His gimmick was walking from one end of the state to the other, and he did, finishing fifth in the Democratic primary as I recall.
After that, I lost touch, as did most of his old ink-stained gang. I saw him at his father’s funeral, and he was OK, but had been treated for mental health issues, a challenge that his friends had been aware of. Then, one day maybe 10 years later, when I was walking down Hillsborough Street, there he was, playing the fiddle for tips. It turned out he also was playing in Durham, on 9th Street, where his music connected him with those two generations younger. (He played classical music as well, and other instruments.)
It was not much of a living, money-wise, but McK never seemed to need much, and he seemed to enjoy those years, though he was, some said, homeless at times. Those who took a more conventional path might have wished a different way for him, but they would have been wrong. He played music and brought smiles to people, and he lived on his own terms, a burden to no one, and well-remembered by many — so many, that money has been collected for a memorial on 9th Street, perhaps a bench with a fiddle on it. Yes, that would suit him. A monument for a character — who possessed a measure of genius.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org