After 31 years, editorial writer Jim Jenkins walked out of The News & Observer building for the last time Friday afternoon.
A lot of history walked out with him.
Jenkins (for some reason he often is called only by his last name by those who know him well) is the kind of newspaper man who became his newspaper. He seems to know everybody in Raleigh who has been here a while. Some readers grew up with him, others grew old with him. He gave The News & Observer a face and a heart. He also gave it a memory. He knows who’s who and who did what when, and where the N&O has stood on the issues.
Jenkins’ head is full of facts, historic anecdotes and amusing tales. He interrupts his own funny stories with his own laughter. He’s the grandson of a preacher and the son of a newspaperman. He knows about telling the Good News and the bad. He drew on all that to shape opinions – thousands of them over the years.
As a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jenkins started in newspapers by driving to Raleigh every evening to work on the N&O’s copy desk. He went on to work at the Fayetteville Observer and then became a feature writer and columnist for the Greensboro News & Record. In 1986, he was invited to joined the N&O as an editorial writer. Apparently, he liked it.
Jenkins is a very fast writer. He can finish an editorial before most editorial writers complete three strokes of their chin.
“I got that directly from my father. He could type 150 words a minute,” he says, referring to Jay Jenkins, who wrote and edited at the N&O before going to work for UNC President Bill Friday. “I don’t know that it’s a gift. It’s just something I could do.”
Maybe not a gift to him, but his fast, accurate writing was a gift to his editors who needed to fill 365 editorial pages a year. You didn’t have to edit him much except to prune his overuse of one of his favorite words, “ridiculous,” and to remind him that extending a “doff of the hat” to someone is a phrase not much used since the fedora was first in fashion.
In addition to being a writer, Jenkins is a musician – a guitar player – and a good one. His writing always had a little southern musical lilt to it, a quality that kept even his toughest opinions from sounding too harsh.
Now Jenkins, 65, is happy to declare himself of the opinion that he has no opinion.
He admits: “I’m looking forward to someone asking me something and I can say, ‘You know, I don’t have an opinion on that.’ ”
But he always was glad that the N&O had an opinion. He says, “I like it when a newspaper stands for something. I’ve been proud of that. It says who we are.”
Jenkins always sought to tell readers how he saw it, but he’d admit when he saw it wrong. He says “As my father told me, we’re not right all the time.”
But there was one thing he got right all the time. “I never had to write anything I disagreed with. [Former N&O publisher] Frank Daniels had that as a policy,” he says. “I never had to go against my values. Not many people who get through 45 years of working who can say that.”
No, not many. That’s right, too.
There are a lot of ways to end a short account of a long career, but when the honoree is a writer, it’s only polite to give him the last word. In his final N&O column, Jenkins had this to say about those who will continue on in the work he gave his working life to. It’s true of him, too.
“Finally, a word about the news and editorial people I know best. They’re typically idealistic, not necessarily liberal or conservative, united in a belief that what they do can make a difference for good, committed to getting things right, and worried about the same things all of their readers are worried about – kids in college, aging parents, grandchildren, mortgages. The critics who speak of ‘media elites’ are wrong, just wrong. There’s nothing elite about it. Just hard work by righteous people.”
Amen, Jenkins, amen.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org