‘Mr. Spectator’ Bernie Reeves, who embraced spies, politics and culture, has died

Bernie Reeves, who founded the Triangle’s alternative weekly The Spectator in 1978, has died.
Bernie Reeves, who founded the Triangle’s alternative weekly The Spectator in 1978, has died. N&O file photo

Bernie Reeves, publisher, conservative firebrand and cultural chronicler of a growing region, died in his home on Saturday. He was 70.

To that list his obituary added: entrepreneur, civic leader, lover of literature, patron of the arts, pioneer, visionary and raconteur.

Those attributes came together when Reeves founded The Spectator, an alternative weekly paper, in 1978. During its nearly 20-year run, the publication fostered lively coverage of culture and provided a platform for his politically conservative “Mr. Spectator” column. He bowed out as editor and publisher in 1998, one year after selling the paper to Creative Loafing, which in 2002 sold The Spectator to The Independent where they merged into a single publication.

He also started what became the Triangle Business Journal in 1985, and later expanded it to the Triad, before selling it in 1992. He and his wife, Katie, started Raleigh Metro Magazine in 1999. In 2003, he launched an annual “spy conference” to bring former agents to Raleigh to discuss national intelligence issues and international terrorism. In 2010, Reeves ran for Congress but lost in a Republican primary runoff to a Tea Party-backed candidate.

But it was at The Spectator that Reeves helped define an emerging region. In a piece in The Indy announcing the merger, Reeves reminisced about what he accomplished.

“My job as I saw it was to provide an alternative to the existing media view of the region by recognizing that Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill were going to be seen as one unified community, whether they liked it or not,” Reeves wrote. “... We realized that the three newly and begrudgingly united cities would not care about each others’ local political issues so we concentrated on the ties that bind, the scientific, cultural and business critical mass appearing on the horizon. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Billy Warden, who was a News & Observer reporter during that era, said on Monday hat Reeves championed the Triangle because he believed in its potential, and he convinced his staff to believe it, too.

“The Spectator proudly and loudly announced that the Triangle – Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh – wasn't just an economic development construct, but a place where cool, exciting cultural things went down and provocative ideas bubbled up,” said Warden, who now runs a communications firm. “And that meant everything to the teens and 20-somethings then who were yearning to claim an identity for the region different than generations past. This is simplistic, but at the time it seemed to me like The Village Voice sprouting up in a tobacco field!”

Reeves’ commentary was aimed at political correctness and “the dismantling of traditional studies in all levels of education,” his family wrote in his obituary.

He did not shy from controversy and could be hot-headed in his younger days.

Writing in Metro magazine in 2005, Reeves embraced the so-called “owl theory” in the highly publicized death of Kathleen Peterson in Durham in 2001. Her husband, writer Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering her, but on appeal pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter without admitting guilt. After the trial, some of Michael Peterson’s supporters suggested an owl had caused the three-prong, talon-like lacerations on her head, leading her to collapse in the staircase of the couple’s home without her husband knowing it happened.

In a 1997 story in The News & Observer, Spectator movie reviewer Godfrey Cheshire III said Reeves once threw a chair at him.

“He’s one of these people who’s bound to rub people the wrong way,” Cheshire said at the time. “Those qualities are entirely bound up in the dynamism and strength of personality that make him such a commanding figure and someone able to launch a paper like this.”

The son of an architect and a lifelong resident of Raleigh, Ralph Bernard Reeves III graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a history degree, then sold radio and newspaper ads and worked in marketing before starting The Spectator.

“To most people in his orbit he was always the smartest person in the room,” his obituary reads. “.... His devotion to elevating the community in which he lived and worked was tireless and palpable at all times.”

His family did not disclose the cause of death. In lieu of flowers, they ask that contributions be made to Transitions LifeCare, the North Carolina Heart and Vascular Hospital, Hilltop Home or Christ Episcopal Church. Centerpeace Home Healthcare was singled out for recognition.

A memorial will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Christ Episcopal Church, 120 E. Edenton St., Raleigh followed by a reception. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Brown-Wynne.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO