Elizabeth Leland
Nieman Class of 1992

Elizabeth Leland, Staff Writer for The Charlotte ObserverA Charleston, S.C., native and a longtime Charlottean, Leland has written about the Carolinas way of life for more than 25 years. Charlotte Observer readers know and follow her for her deeply reported, and often deeply moving, stories about ironworkers, boat builders, war veterans, murder victims, oystermen, immigrants, riverkeepers… Her 1990s pieces about coastal Carolinians getting squeezed out by development provided a last snapshot of a swiftly changing landscape. Her investigation into the horrific slaying of Kim Thomas — a young mother, author and NOW leader — had readers rushing for their morning paper. A master of rewrite (no one does natural disaster better), Leland is a deadline poet and a ferociously good reporter, which fuels her specialty, narrative. She was writing in scene, dramatic arc and dialogue before “narrative” became a popular discipline in journalism. Her stories have won the national Ernie Pyle Award, which honors the World War II columnist, and, several times, the Thomas Wolfe Award, given for the best feature story in the state of North Carolina. Her 1990 story about Joe Hill, a mentally disabled black teenager adopted by a white N.C. family during the Great Depression, was a groundbreaker of voice and pacing; Leland developed it into a nonfiction book called A Place for Joe. Like a lot of Observer writers, Leland has much owed her creative freedom to editors who recognize the importance of longform storytelling, and who know how to support and edit it. Anyone who reads Leland can’t wait for her next story; you know it’ll be that good.


—Her Joe Hill story. A version of it can be found here. An excerpt of the original:

Mattie Leatherman walked haltingly out the front door on the arms of her grandson and a nurse, down two brick steps, past the pink geraniums and away for the rest of her life.

“Oh, Lord have mercy!” she wailed. “Oh, Lord have mercy!”

A few paces behind, Joe Hill limped silently down the steps, past the geraniums and away.

Most of their last morning on North Laurel Street, Joe Hill, 70, had sat in the parlor on a red velvet chair, hands clasped in his lap. Back and forth, his cloudy brown eyes followed the movers carrying out first his bed, then a chest, a chair, a table.

On the other side of the house, Mattie Leatherman, 89, lay in her hospital bed. She wore a dressing gown of pink, her favorite color.

“Why are all these extra people in the house?” she had demanded of the nurse.

“Why, Mrs. Leatherman, they’re helping you move.”

“We’re not going to move until Wednesday.”

“Today is Wednesday.”

Mattie Leatherman had moved into the house on Laurel Street in Lincolnton 64 years ago, married to Marvin Leatherman just two days and full of plans. She always thought she’d live there the rest of her life.

Now, she was leaving, and with her, Joe Hill. She never would have imagined it on the day he came to stay.

The Vanishing Coast, a collection of essays adapted from a series of feature stories. From “The Boatbuilders”:

Just about everyone on Harkers Island builds boats. If they’re not building boats to sell, they’re building boats to sail.

Like most people on the island, brothers Houston and Jamie Lewis do it the way their father did, and his father before him. No blueprints. Lots of sweet juniper wood. Few fancy gadgets.

In maritime circles, Harkers Island means fine boats. They are recognized up and down the East Coast, distinguished by their wooden hulls and flared bows.

“Just about everybody on the island can build one,” Houston Lewis says. “It’s born in us. Grandparents way back built them. A lot of people don’t do it full-time, but just about everybody can do it. … It just comes natural.”

And from “The Menhaden Chanteymen”:

Eleven men step single-file into the dim parish hall, all slowed by age, a few stooped from years of hauling fishing nets. They doff their caps and sit at two wooden tables. A few pleasantries. Some business. Then, without a cue, John Jones begins their Friday-evening ritual, his strong tenor filling the small room: “Oh, I’m gonna roll here.”

A chorus of ten harmonizes the refrain, synchronizing voices the way they used to synchronize pulling in the nets: “Roll here a few days longer.”

“I’m going to roll here,” Jones continues.

Roll here a few days longer.”

“Then I’m going home, boys.”

Lord, Lord, I’m going home.”

In their minds, they are back on the water, ocean waves rocking their wooden purse boats as they struggle to raise their net against the weight of a half-million pounds of menhaden, fingers clawing at the mesh, shoulder and back muscles straining, blood vessels breaking in overworked arms.

—“Who in the World Is Delmar?” about the guy in town that everybody knows, but doesn’t. Excerpt:

There was a time not so long ago when Delmar seemed to show up everywhere.

If there was a party, in walked Delmar, invited or not. He made such an impression in Charlotte in the 1980s that hot pink “HONK if you know DELMAR!” bumper stickers popped up, like Delmar, all over town. It became fashionable to say you knew him, even if you didn’t.

But how many of us really know Delmar Williams?

We remember him as the party crasher, who looks uncannily like musician Lyle Lovett (if only, he jokes, Julia Roberts had seen him first) and sounds so much like former Observer managing editor Mark Ethridge, he played an April Fool’s joke by telephoning reporters and ordering them into Ethridge’s office.

When you meet him, and there’s a good chance you will one day if you haven’t already, you may wonder about his odd mannerisms. He has the bushy hair and disheveled appearance of an absent-minded scientist. Even the way he walks is a bit off-center, back hunched, torso thrust forward, with short hurried steps.

He will come at you bursting with questions, a stranger wanting to know who you are, where you’re from and what you do. Chances are he’ll know someone you know and he’ll describe how they met and maybe tell you about some of the many other people he knows all around the world, and he’ll talk too fast and wave his arms like a conductor, which is a fitting analogy because he once played oboe for several orchestras and has heard most of the world’s major orchestras perform, and he might tell you about that, too, and he’ll go on and on and on like this sentence.

Then as suddenly as he appeared, he’ll be gone. Leaving you to wonder: What is it with this guy?

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

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