Local

Robert Pierce's farewell column from July 1, 1990

I NEVER got over the fact that they paid me for working here. I never let on, but I'd have done it for nothing if I could have afforded it.

When I emerged from Springfield High School, green but eager, I never dreamed I'd take a long trip through journalistic South Caroliniana. John A. Montgomery, then managing editor of The State, even offered to pay me $25 a week when he stuck me on a desk in the musty old building at 1220 Main and launched me on an exciting journey. I traveled a fun road spiced with learning and camaraderie and helped record wrenching changes in our world and state.

On the trip, I've held eight jobs, six as some kind of editor. I've run through five publishers, two wives, nine general managers, three editors and hundreds of journalistic colleagues. Senior Editor Bill Rone and I always called ourselves the "civil service." That meant: The big shots came and went, but we lasted forever, or so it seemed.

At any rate, I found The State a far cry from Springfield, where my father, who died when I was 4, published a country weekly and where my English teacher steered me into journalism. I also made a stop at the University of South Carolina at a time when you couldn't even see the pope or the President on television, much less on campus. But you could get a hotel room for 10 bucks, and football was merely a sport.

Some noble and eccentric figures have trudged in and out of the doors of the four homes of The State in which I worked. The first was the jam-packed, sweltering old edifice at 1220 Main near where a Lieutenant Governor killed our first editor and where we had to annex part of an old building next door to find space. Perhaps appropriately, that area, once a house of ill repute, was occupied by the sports department.

A bank now sits where the old building once stood. Gone are the Linotypes, the typewriters, the teletypes, the green eyeshades and the smudgy copy paper we wrote our stories on. Also among the vanished are the journalistic characters of yesterday.

Where are people like Bob Talbert, who could devour three steaks and guzzle 16 beers in one sitting? Bob became a nationally known columnist for The Detroit Free Press years after Rone, then assistant sports editor, plucked him from Sears' bargain basement.

Or what about Al Lanier, the Associated Press writer who could dictate from notes a breaking big story by telephone and capture it crisply and comprehensively? He was a hell-raiser who thrived on covering all-night filibusters in the Legislature.

Rare today are reporters like Jack Truluck, who was an editor at Gaffney and an assistant managing editor at The State before he returned to The State for the third time after deciding reporting was his bag. He was a laid-back investigative reporter -- a Columbo respected both by lawman and lawbreaker -- who scooped up scads of prizes he really never cared about.

And there was Montgomery, a managing editor who could and would do any job in the newsroom, sometimes two or three of them at a time -- and do them well and quietly. He had a hide of asbestos and patiently endured the whims of his editor, the tantrums of his reporters and the irrationality of his readers. He treated fools and geniuses alike.

All of them helped inspire me to good deeds on the journalistic road. But the goofs still haunt me. When hell broke out in Korea, I failed to distinguish between a skirmish and a war and placed the story under a small, one-column headline. One Sunday, I forgot to lay out Editor Sam Latimer's column on Page One and got cussed out the next morning. I printed some of Talbert's "cornball" columns against my better judgment and often found readers liked them the most. No wonder some reporters considered editors' desks "the killing fields" and that Jack Truluck insisted, "An editor is a reporter without brains."

Probably, my worst mistake was getting mixed up with a bunch of reporters who invented a fictional community many years ago and wrote about it in an "items" column called "Seen Here And There." The town of Shaftsbury was deliberately located in western Berkeley County because the area is so big and remote nobody could deny Shaftsbury existed. Shaftsbury's imaginary cast included Dunbar Cletus, the town industrialist; Choppy Norton, a free-lance writer; Frank Linto; Sid Gonad, Sam Messky; and the Rev. Coates Truesdale, pastor of the Green River Free Will Baptist Church.

Two things ended the career of Shaftsbury abruptly. It was discovered there really was a Rev. Mr. Truesdale and, when Dunbar Cletus Jr. scored 56 points in a basketball game, a Clemson scout descended on the sports department. Such horseplay is and should be grounds for firing. But. . .

My several trips to court weren't as much fun. I was sued at least a dozen times, hauled before a grand jury once and threatened with jail for not revealing the names of former inmates who blew the whistle on a mess at the county jail, and convicted of contempt of court on another occasion for printing the name of a teenager who killed three other kids. (The contempt verdict was later reversed by the state Supreme Court.) But that was par for a high-profile business that's exposed to risks.

Off the journalistic playing fields, I've also had a few spectacular accomplishments -- serving as grand marshal in my hometown's Frog Jump parade; finishing in the finals in a song-writing contest to salute Columbia; selling a crummy painting I did for $10; and serving as president of the Friday Morning Chess Club.

My journalistic thrills almost inevitably stemmed from team efforts involving historic moments. There was the extra we published after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated; the banner headline we composed in the wee hours when man landed on the moon; the exhaustive coverage we provided of a tragic landslide at the site of the post office in what is now Sidney Park.

As you might guess by now, my career in the news-editorial department of The State is ending, and I have deliberately avoided using my last column to extoll the sacred calling of journalism, rant about the preciousness of the First Amendment or lament how things have gone to hell over the years.

My message is one of thanks to those who helped make the journey exciting. I am ever grateful to Montgomery for beginning it and to former Publisher Ben R. Morris for continuing it. The screen is far too small to thank the legions of other colleagues. I must acknowledge Rone for unmixing metaphors, undangling modifiers and harmonizing subjects and verbs. And my immediate colleagues -- Robert Ariail, Barbara Armstrong/Stalnaker, Norma Autrey, Katherine King and Kent Krell -- were ever patient.

I'll be moving full-time into a historical research project I began several years ago for The State. I will not fade into the sunset. I'm much too young, and too many things are undone. In the years ahead, I'll have more time to write, indulge my avocational fancies and just play.

As I leave, I impart no great wisdom. My only message is: It's been a fun ride. Thanks to everybody who's been part of the trip. And thanks particularly for paying me for taking it.

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