Longtime reporter Treva Jones wrote with love and care about Raleigh’s lives and deaths

Former Raleigh Times and News & Observer reporter Treva Jones takes notes under an umbrella in this undated file photo. She died Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, at the age of 73.
Former Raleigh Times and News & Observer reporter Treva Jones takes notes under an umbrella in this undated file photo. She died Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, at the age of 73. Courtesy of Bill Jones

Treva Jones, a born storyteller, virtuosic news reporter and historian to a generation of Raleigh Times and News & Observer readers and staff writers, died Friday.

She was 73.

Jones, who authored more obituaries than possibly any other one writer ever to work for the N&O, would have crafted her own and filed it in the publishing system for use now had she imagined that her passing would be news.

It is; because of her innate toughness, she was widely expected to live forever.

“If you hear anyone refer to my ‘retirement,’ please straighten them out,” she said after leaving the paper in 1999, according to a commemorative fake front page created for the occasion. “Apparently, they think I’m sitting on my ass, eating bonbons and drinking pina coladas, and drawing a nice pension.”

She earned the right to do so, even if she preferred finding other ways to serve the community she had called home for more than half a century.

Fittingly, Treva Mitchell was born in 1945 at Mary Elizabeth Hospital in Raleigh, which stopped functioning as a medical facility in the 1970s but still stands on Wake Forest Road and is on the National Register of Historic Places. She was one of three daughters of a lumberman and a homemaker. She grew up in the Nash County town of Spring Hope and graduated from high school there.

She wanted to attend UNC, but at the time, the school did not admit women as freshmen unless they were residents of the town of Chapel Hill. So she went two years to Brevard College and transferred as a junior to UNC, where she studied journalism.

She was hired at the Raleigh Times in 1967 and was assigned not to the “women’s pages,” but to the police beat. Mike Yopp, a former editor at the Times and then the N&O, wrote at her retirement that, “It’s hard to imagine the newsroom without Treva,” who he said came to Raleigh “when Crabtree Mall was only a meadow, I-40 was an impossible dream and registering Republican meant you were talked about at cocktail parties.

“Treva matured as a reporter as the Triangle matured as a region,” Yopp wrote. “And Treva never forgot anything that happened along the way.”

At the paper, she met Bill Jones, who worked there as a photographer at the time. They married in 1969.

Jones was Old School: She identified not as a “writer” or “journalist,” but as a reporter. She honed her craft in the days of the two-newspaper town. Like it was in many other cities, Raleigh’s afternoon paper, the Raleigh Times, was the underdog with fewer employees, smaller expense accounts and, to the staff’s way of thinking, more teeth.

Compared to the N&O, Jones always believed the Times was “a real newspaper,” whose reporters hit the ground running before most people had finished their breakfast. Local news was their franchise, and it was their job to know the political, civic and business leaders well enough to track them down and get quotes from them in time to make a 9:15 a.m. deadline.

The staffs of the two papers merged in the late 1980s and the Raleigh Times stopped publishing in 1990. Jones brought with her to the News & Observer her attention to detail, her appreciation for historical context, her sharp wit and her funerary connections, those undertakers who would let her know when anyone of note had passed away.

“She used to call one of her funeral-home sources ‘Deep Casket,’” said Anne Saker, an award-winning writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who worked next to Jones for several years at the News & Observer. “She was an inspiration to me — tough, tender, resourceful. She was a voice full of the song of North Carolina, and I mourn in the silence.”

Jones was a fast, accurate and prolific writer who moved with ease from a profile of a candidate for the Soil and Water Conservation District, to a sewage spill, to interviewing a mourning parent. Photographer Robert Willett, who has worked at the N&O since 1982, liked going on assignment with her because, “I always knew we would be successful,” and come back with a good story.

Her obituaries and stories of people’s retirements were points of pride for Jones and the newspapers. Jones wrote them about all kinds of people: former politicians and their wives as well as everyday folk, all of had whom helped shape Raleigh and Wake County. The stories gave the paper a sense of place.

In one of her last pieces for the N&O, Jones wrote of the pending retirement of Sam Townsend, longtime administrator of the Capitol building and tour guide extraordinaire. She started by saying everybody knew that Townsend “could talk the ears off a tin donkey.”

Sylvia Adcock, a Raleigh Times reporter in the 1980s who now edits NC State Magazine, wrote a column for Indy Week in 2006 when the paper held a reunion in Raleigh. In the column, Adcock quoted another former staffer, David Lauderdale.

“I remember how Treva would be talking to a grieving family and she’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to just put down the phone for a minute and let you cry,” she said Lauderdale told her.

Jones had little use for journalistic trends. She preferred brevity and clarity to long-winded poetry. She could occasionally peel paint with profanity, which was often directed at a series of recalcitrant computer systems adopted by the N&O over the years. But she had a strong sense of Southern decorum that opened doors wherever she knocked.

After she retired following 31 years in local journalism, Jones served on the Raleigh Historic Districts Commission. She enjoyed cooking and, until she was diagnosed with cancer, continued to care for the roses she and her husband had cultivated for years at their Raleigh home. Bill Jones said that at one time, the couple had 150 rose bushes. In the newsroom, it was a high honor to receive a vase full of the fragrant flowers, which Jones would simply leave on the recipient’s desk.

Jones enjoyed movies from the 1930s and ‘40s, her husband said, and she loved to travel. In retirement, the pair visited Civil War battlefields and other historic sites, and drove the famed Route 66. She was a loyal UNC fan.

Bill Jones said his wife never told him why she chose to go into newspapers at a time when women in the industry often were typecast as food writers or health or fashion columnists. She never told him why writing obituaries was so important.

“But I really think,” he said, “that she wanted to honor the person, to make sure that what they did was known. That they just didn’t go off into eternity and nobody knew who they were.”

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27 at Westover United Methodist Church, 300 Powell Drive in Raleigh.

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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.