Columnist Barry Saunders is leaving The N&O

News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders in 2015.
News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders in 2015. 2015 News & Observer file photo

Barry Saunders – who entertained, informed and sometimes enraged readers for more than 24 years as a local columnist – is leaving The News & Observer.

Readers regularly turned to The N&O’s local pages – and later to its website – to see Saunders’ take on the pressing issues of the day.

“For more than two decades, Barry Saunders has been one of the Triangle’s leading voices,” said John Drescher, executive editor of The N&O. “He’s been courageous, he’s been insightful, he’s been funny. Barry’s deep roots in North Carolina clearly influenced his work and helped make him a must-read for many of our readers.”

Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt agreed, noting that Saunders often used “lingo and down-home country talk” that instantly appealed to readers, who would then discover greater truths in his work.

“We found in Barry a man who has wisdom beyond what we initially expected,” Hunt said. “From my special perch, I can tell you that ... his columns helped make North Carolina be a better place.”

Often, Saunders’ topics were serious ones and his commentary was pointed – decrying neighborhood crime, calling out racism or taking public officials to task when they needed it.

Some of his most memorable columns poignantly showed how Triangle people responded to damaging hurricanes in North Carolina or deadly mass shootings in Orlando or Newtown. He often did obituaries when local people passed away, from a beloved bookstore owner to a judge whose harsh brand of justice Saunders said would not necessarily be missed.

Saunders also brought readers plenty of laughs through the years. He shared stories of “Sweet Thang,” his female companion who either loved him or was irate with him, depending on the day. He took on what he considered crimes against music – such as Michael Bolton’s version of the classic Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman.” And he often wrote his own parody lyrics that linked a song to a topic in the news. Those always began with the familiar three words, “Maestro, hit it.”

“It has been a delight to read Barry’s lighthearted but serious and thoughtful opinions of our local, state, national and sometime international issues of the day,” said Durham Mayor Bill Bell. “What I appreciate is that Barry is not immune to criticism and takes it well.”

In a classic column last year, Saunders wrote about a special day in Chapel Hill that was planned to honor Charles Scott, the first black basketball player at UNC-Chapel Hill. There was just one problem – nobody remembered to tell Scott himself about it. Early this year, Saunders introduced readers to Lois Patricia “Peaches” Hauser Golding, who went from former UNC cheerleader to lord-lieutenant of the city and county of Bristol in southwest England.

Hunt remembered Saunders joining him on a historic trade mission that he took as governor to South Africa, after Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994.

“Barry was a vital part of that mission,” Hunt said.

Saunders, 59, came to The N&O from the Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind., in 1993. Before that, he was publisher and editor of his own newspaper, the Richmond County North Star in North Carolina.

His career also has included stints at the Richmond County Daily Journal, the Robeson Record, the Washington North Star and the Atlanta Constitution.

Saunders grew up in the town of Rockingham, in Richmond County in the southern central section of North Carolina. Regular readers were familiar with his tales of attending Leak Street School and Richmond Senior High School.

Saunders won many North Carolina Press Association awards over the years, in both the “Serious Column” and “Humorous Column” categories. Many of his columns have been compiled in the books “Do Unto Others ... and Then Run” and “And the Horse You Rode In On, Saunders.”

For several years at the newspaper, Saunders agreed to make himself look silly if readers gave enough money to an N&O holiday charity effort. One year, he danced the Electric Slide – with several fans – in front of The N&O’s building in downtown Raleigh. Another year, Saunders – a UNC fan – had to pose for pictures decked out in Duke Blue Devils paraphernalia.

And still another year, Saunders’ column photo in the newspaper changed as a result of a bet. For years, he had sported a hat and an unlit cigar in one of his column pictures. But some readers thought the tobacco product sent a bad message to kids.

So, when reader giving hit the fund-raising goal, the cigar was dropped. His famous fedora remained.