A.C. Snow

On Claude Sitton, crayons and words

Among the many pleasures of my long stint in newspapering was knowing the late Claude Sitton, former editor of The News & Observer.

Before then, Sitton was national news director for The New York Times. During the civil rights movement in the South, he was regarded as the premier reporter covering those turbulent times. He covered every hot spot associated with the years-long struggle.

As a friend noted recently, “He was a tiger.” He was, indeed, ferociously fighting for and practicing journalism’s highest standards.

For much of the time while he was N&O editor, I was editor of The Raleigh Times across the hall. Sitton was both friend and critic.

Much can be and has been said about Sitton. To me, his strongest characteristic was his sense of ethics, at times seemingly reaching the extreme. The idea that any of us should accept gifts or favors of any kind from the people we covered on our news beats was abhorrent to him and a firing offense.

His standards were so high that if, during an interview, I broke my pencil lead and accepted a replacement from the interviewee, I almost felt compromised.

In Sitton’s mind, few people in public office were above suspicion. Helping keep the others honest was an almost obsessive goal, the mark of a good newspaperman.

The annual meetings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which we both attended, were often held in Washington, D.C. We were frequently invited to the White House for a lavish reception. Sitton was among the ASNE editors who insisted that the invitation be accepted only on condition that ASNE, not the taxpayers, pay for the food.

Only a limited number of people leave marks on other people’s psyches. Claude Sitton left one on mine as a role model practicing the finest tenets of journalism.

Manual labor

The temperature was in the mid-40s, but the young worker didn’t seem to notice as he gathered the debris from the snowstorm and pushed it in the piled-high wheelbarrow to street side. He was working alongside his father, who operates a lawn maintenance service.

“Your dad tells me you get good grades in school,’’ the homeowner said.

“Yeah,” the young man replied. “My dad told me that if I didn’t work harder and make better grades, I’d be picking up sticks for the rest of my life.”

When my wife was teaching public speaking at NCSU, one of her students said in a speech, “I’ve been taught that hell is somewhere beneath the earth. I don’t believe it. Hell is on top of a house nailing down roof shingles in mid-August.”

When I was a kid, I was convinced that hell was in a tobacco field in July, pulling those “first primings,” or bottom leaves.

When it comes to getting an education, manual labor is a great motivator.

Wall wisdom

During a visit to a Rex Hospital nurse, my wife and I were fascinated by quotations and words of wisdom posted on the office walls. One anonymous offering particularly impressed my wife, who copied it:

“Some crayons are sharp. Some are dull. Some are pretty. Some have weird names. And all have different colors. But they all have to live in the same box.”

I’ve been thinking about the similarity of a box of crayons and our culture. With all the political divisiveness of late, it seems we are not getting along nearly as well as a box of Crayolas.

Word blocks

There it was, like an oak stump in the middle of I-40, blocking the way to my destination – the end of the sentence. The word schadenfreude in editorial page editor Ned Barnett’s excellent column on the UNC sports scandal almost scared me off the page.

If you care enough to learn to spell it, it’s a good word to throw around in learned company. Schadenfreude means “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.”

During March Madness, thousands of rival basketball fans were guilty of schadenfreude as they celebrated rival teams’ defeats.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com