Longtime NC newsman ‘loved people’ and a good story, including the whopper he made up

Gene Price at his typewriter.
Gene Price at his typewriter.

Gene Price knew how to tell a story because he knew how to get one.

“Never ask somebody if they have a story, because they never will,” he told young reporters under his direction during the nearly half-century he worked at the Goldsboro News-Argus. Ask them something else, he said, like, “What’s happening with the sewer line the city was supposed to install?” or “What was the name of that fellow who was found dead in the empty warehouse, and how did he get there?”

The story of Price’s life came to an end on Wednesday, when he died at the age of 90 after an illness, according to his daughter, Sue Price Johnson of Raleigh.

Hillery Eugene Price is remembered as a career newsman who might have moved to a more prestigious publication in a faster city but chose to stay in Goldsboro and introduce his Wayne County neighbors to one another through the pages of their local paper.

Gloria MacCormack Price, his wife of 68 years, said Price likely gravitated toward the news business because “It was in his blood,” an affliction that may have come from hearing his uncle, former News & Observer managing editor Woodrow Price, talk about his work.

But Gene Price stayed in it, she said, “because he loved people.”

Price was born in 1929 and grew up in the Beartown community outside Elizabeth City, his family wrote in an obituary Wednesday. Gloria Price said her husband’s family suffered several losses when he was young, first with the death of his younger sister and later, a brother and grandfather. Gene Price sought solace in the outdoors, his wife said, and he spent many hours in the backwoods and swamps, where he learned to hunt, fish and trap.

A lifetime newspaperman

As a child, she said he told her, he once published his own newspaper and peddled it around the neighborhood. It included a weather forecast calling for a chance of snow.

“There was no chance of snow,” she said. “He just wanted snow.”

Soon enough, he went to work for real, the family says: as a reporter for the Greenville Daily Reflector and as the first sports publicity writer for the East Carolina University news bureau. At ECU, he labored in exchange for tuition, meals and a place to sleep in a dusty room under the school gym.

While Price was at ECU, he covered a visit there by U.S. Rep. Herbert Bonner, who liked Price’s work so much he hired him as his press secretary in 1949. He took the job and moved to Washington. The next year he was drafted into the Army.

“Somewhere in there, we got married,” Gloria Price said, and after her husband got out of service, he was hired at the News-Argus. Except for a year or so when he left to cover the waterfront for the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Price spent the rest of his career in Goldsboro, working as an editor, the managing editor and, after retiring, editor emeritus and columnist.

In addition to his newspaper job — through which he and his staff garnered dozens of writing awards — Price served 24 years on the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, including a stint as chairman.

An investigation of the commission by the Charlotte Observer in 2009 found that of 19 sitting members, Price was the only one who had not gained his seat after making political contributions. A writer for the North Carolina Sportsman said Price was known as “the conscience of the commission.”

He was also a longtime volunteer for the Boy Scouts, the family said, and was given the Silver Beaver Award for distinguished service.

The Wampus cat

Sue Price, a retired reporter and editor for the Associated Press, said Boy Scouts have her father to thank for an enduring local folk tale. She said that in a column, her dad wrote that an unidentified wild animal had been spotted around Wayne County. He illustrated the column with a photo he borrowed from a monster movie, and dubbed the mythical creature the Wampus cat.

“The result: Children across the region spent long days watching fearfully from windows for the Wampus cat,” the family’s obituary says. “At the primary school near his then-home in Rosewood, daughter Bonnie remembers classmates afraid to go onto the playground during recess. When an angry parent called to complain, he had to confess that his own terrified children were crowding his bed.””

He owned up to the ruse in a subsequent column, but at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Tuscarora near Goldsboro, the family says, the story lives on.

So do Price’s words, which he published in a book in his retirement called “Folks Around Here.” It includes some of his columns and recollections from his career, with a section in which he credits Hal Tanner Sr., who became publisher of the News-Argus not long after Price went to work there, for his strong sense of dedication to his community and his employees.

Price was inducted into UNC’s Media and Journalism Hall of Fame in 2011 and was a two-time recipient of the state’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award. He was endeared to both Republican and Democrat political leaders, having been a member of both parties. He was active in the Jaycees and served on the N.C. Seashore Commission, whose work led to the creation of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

In recent years, Gene and Gloria Price had moved from the Sleepy Creek community in rural Wayne County and resettled in Raleigh. In addition to his wife, Price is survived by four children and their spouses, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, 901 Harris Street, Goldsboro. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the church or to Transitions LifeCare at 250 Hospice Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27607. Arrangements will be handled by Seymour Funeral Home in Goldsboro.

Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.