EDITOR’S NOTE: It is not unusual these days to come across yet another announcement of the death of a notable journalist. Those who came into the profession during the heady times of the post-WWII boom, Vietnam and Watergate are now of in that inevitable age of decline. But if the obituaries seem too many, they are almost always superb, written by writers about one of their own. We can’t, alas, share all of the tributes of those who pass, but we note them with appreciation — sometimes an irreverent smirk about a crusty character, sometimes a bow of reverence to genius and grit, often a combination of both. Some names are known better than others, but all made a difference in individual lives and the overall profession. One of those was Frank Barrows, longtime reporter and editor at the Charlotte Observer, who died this week. Storyboard contributor and friend Tommy Tomlinson wrote about Barrows on his blog, and graciously agreed to let us republish it here. We do so with gratitude to all the editors who have made us better, however quirky their method.
The last time I saw Frank Barrows, just a few weeks ago, he wanted to talk about journalism and basketball. He always wanted to talk about journalism and basketball. Sometimes he twined them together. He often told the story about how, one morning, he picked up the Charlotte Observer — the paper he did as much to make great as anyone else ever has — and he was upset, deeply troubled, because the tiny agate type that listed the previous day’s announcement of the NBA All-Defensive teams included the first and second teams but left off the third. Back then the Observer had 230,000 daily subscribers. Maybe six of those people cared about which players made the NBA All-Defensive third team. The players’ families probably didn’t care.
He cared about the biggest projects and the smallest bits of type. He cared about the paper’s most talented veterans and the most clueless rookies in the room. He cared about me in a way I could never pay back. I suspect that’s true of countless others.
He died Monday (June 10) at age 72 and so many of us are going to miss him — especially his wife, Mary Newsom, and their daughter, Maggie. But we won’t forget him. We’ll remember him like he remembered — well, something like this bit from an email he once sent me: “My alma mater, Martinsville High School, has won 13 state championships in Virginia, more than any other school. One of those came in 1961, when I was a freshman …”
He went on to detail the back-and-forth battle in the state final, how Martinsville’s star player hit the game-winning shot, how the other team’s star ended up being a pro baseball player who never could hit but learned to manage, and how I might have heard of him: Charlie Manuel, who happened to be manager of the Philadelphia Phillies when Frank sent me that email, in 2008, forty-seven years after that high-school game he remembered to the last bounce.
It was a classic Frank story. At first I wondered why he was telling it at all, and then the way he told it drew me into it, and by the end, when he came to the payoff, I was so glad I had gone on the ride.Frank grew up in Virginia, in a house that he once described to me as “somber.” He absorbed himself in sports and newspapers. He started filing game reports to the local paper in high school. When I knew him at the Observer, he was the managing editor — the no. 2 person in the newsroom. But before that, he was a brilliant sports columnist. He hung out with Dr. J at a basketball camp in the Catskills. He covered the ACC basketball tournament when it was one of the great sporting events in America. He once wrote a column saying that Dean Smith, the revered coach at North Carolina, would never win a national title because his system was too structured to give players the freedom they needed in big moments. In 1982, after Michael Jordan hit the game-winning jumper to give Smith his first national title, the first thing Smith said in his press conference was this: “I guess we proved a very bright writer from Charlotte wrong tonight.”
Even the best writers, at least most of them, struggle for the right word or the right line or the right scene. Frank’s struggles were epic. He had stopped writing before I arrived, but the stories lingered. On deadline, he would show up at his desk with a six-pack of Tab. He would sit down and put on a pair of those giant earmuffs like they wear on the tarmac at the airport. He would take a strap he had found somewhere and tie himself to his chair. Only then would he start to write. You might think that’s crazy. I used to think so, too. But over time I’ve come to admire what Frank did. He was willing to look like a fool to get the stories out of his head and onto the page. Because he knew how great those stories were.
As a writer he had long hair and open collars. He loved road trips because in hotel rooms, he could write in his underwear. But when he decided to take a job as an editor, he got a haircut and bought a suit and showed up on Monday a brand new man. And then he set about trying to build a newsroom of journalists as good as he was.Frank changed my life on a spring Saturday morning in 1997. Back then I was the music writer for the paper, but there was an opening for my dream job: local columnist. The problem was, the job had been open for a year and a half. A bunch of people inside and outside the paper had applied. A group of us who made the first cut had written sample columns. But there were budget issues, and there was some indecision, and we all figured that if they really liked any of us, they’d have chosen already. I flew out to Kansas City to interview for a job as a sportswriter there. When I got back, Frank called. He asked if I could meet him for breakfast that Saturday at Andersons.
Andersons is closed now, but back then it was where deals got done in Charlotte. You’d always see politicians and bankers and developers in there schmoozing over bacon and grits. Frank got there first — he was always there first — and after we ordered, he offered me the columnist’s job and told me what it paid. I would have taken way less. I said yes and we finished breakfast and I floated out of the building.
Just a couple of months after starting the job, I wrote about an insurance executive in Charlotte who resigned after it was discovered that he had made up whole chunks of his backstory — among other things, he said he had won a gold medal in track in the Olympics. In my column I mentioned in passing that I had finished college one course short of my degree. It was something I almost never thought about, and in fact I had since gotten my diploma. But when Frank read the column, he knew something was wrong. He went back and looked at my original application to the paper from eight years before. Back then, I had lied and put down that I had the degree. Frank killed the column. And the next day, I met with him and the two other top editors at the paper. I expected to lose my job.
Frank didn’t yell. He never yelled, at least not in my presence. But this was worse than yelling. He made it clear how disappointed he was in me. We went over every word in my application until he was satisfied the rest was true. The next day, he told me I was suspended for a month.
Here’s the thing I remember most about all that: When I came back, he acted as if I’d just gone on vacation. We talked about journalism and basketball. I had served my time. Every so often, when I wrote something he liked, he’d send over a note or maybe just a few words scribbled in the margin of the column, with the initials FCB. (I am just now realizing I’ve forgotten what the C stands for.)
I’ve thrown out a lot of the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years as a writer. But I kept every note from Frank. He gave me the best job I’ll ever have and he saved me when I almost threw it away.
After that, whenever I won an award or got a new job, the first person I told was my wife. The second person I told was my mom. The third person I told was Frank.He left the paper in 2005, not on his own terms, and for the rest of his life he held onto some anger about that. But he kept writing and editing and advising and mentoring all of us who looked up to him — including my wife, Alix Felsing, who had her own career at the paper. He threw himself into getting in shape. For years he spent nearly every morning walking miles inside SouthPark mall, until he knew by sight all the security guards and cosmetics saleswomen and the people in those little kiosks selling candles you don’t want.
But after a while his body started failing him. He got shingles, had to have gall-bladder surgery, suffered terrible back problems, ended up with diabetes, had to go on dialysis. Every time he got up from a chair I saw the pain in his eyes. But he still wanted to read, think, watch, talk.
I’m just now realizing the funny thing about Frank and time. He was always anxious about getting somewhere on time. But once you got there and sat down with him, he talked as if he got paid by the pause, and he listened as if he could stay forever. In that moment, one on one, Frank made you feel like there were the two of you and nothing else mattered.
He cared.The last time Alix saw Frank, he came by our house. I’m not sure if he had ever been there before — after he left the paper, we’d always meet for coffee or dinner somewhere. But this time, back in January, he called and asked if he could stop by.
My book was getting ready to come out — a book I never would have had the skill and guts to write if Frank had not believed in me all those years ago.
She opened the door and he handed her a bottle of Dom Perignon. He told her it was to celebrate the book — our book, because he knew how much Alix had done to make it happen, and it was hers as much as mine.
After a few minutes he said his goodbyes and walked back to his car. I probably should mention at this point that Frank didn’t drink. So at some point he went to a wine store he’d probably never been to, bought a bottle of champagne he’d never taste, and made the kind of house call he rarely made.
(Here is the weird thing. The first time I wrote this through, at 2 in the morning, I wrote this little moment as if I had been there. But when Alix woke up and read it, she reminded me that I hadn’t been there, that she had told me about it later. I can see the scene so clearly in my head. But it was a reminder that I can’t count on my memory. It was a reminder that everybody needs a good editor. And it was a reminder of Frank’s vivid presence in our lives. My apologies to everyone who read the first, incorrect version.)
The Dom Perignon is still sitting in our refrigerator. Somehow we never got around to having the proper ceremony. Now, though, we have a better reason — to toast the life of someone who meant so much to us.
We will enjoy the champagne. But it wasn’t the real gift. The gesture was the gift. The time was the gift. Frank was the gift.