Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Our Man for All Seasons

The suggested toast was Stoli — mixed with milk of magnesia.

We chose not to imbibe of that particular concoction,  but loudly toasted the man we called “The D.”

Derick January Daniels would have been 87 years young on Dec. 5.  He was the most unforgettable person in our lives.

Lois and I had separately come totally under his spell when we met at the Detroit Free Press more than half a century ago.  Everything positive that happened in our careers from that point on — and there was a lot, for each of us, including Pulitzer Prize journalism — we owe to him.

“There is about him a certain magic,” an uncle once said about The D. The uncle and Derick were part of a clan of giants in journalism and in Democratic party politics.  The Daniels family owned and operated the Raleigh News and Observer, one of the great newspapers of the South.  Two members of the clan were also members of presidential cabinets.  

Derick J, Daniels
c. 1966, Detroit
My personal favorite was Derick’s great grandfather, Josephus Daniels, who was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson, and later served as Ambassador to Mexico under FDR.  As a jazz aficionado, I appreciate that the music, which originated in New Orleans, spread throughout the country largely because Josephus directed in 1917 that no prostitution would be permitted within a five-mile radius of naval installations. The directive effectively shut down Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans where most of the best of the jazz musicians found employment.  The musicians rode the rails and the riverboats to new gigs in Kansas City, Chicago, Memphis, New York and  elsewhere.  The Jazz Age was born.

Despite the great journalistic traditions of the family paper, Derick, a journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina, chose never to work for the News and Observer.  He made his own legend, first as a reporter for other papers in the South, then as an editor.

Pete Willett, a wire service editor and executive and something of a legend in his own right, introduced me to Derick when The D was beginning to shape a prize-winning staff at the Detroit Free Press in the early 1960s.  What a wonderful era in which to be young, to be newspapering, and to be doing it for Derick January Daniels!  I soon learned what Derick’s longtime friend and colleague, Mort Persky, learned when they first met years before on a paper in South Carolina: “He could inspire you to do things you never knew you could do.”

One day at lunch, The D mentioned an article that had also caught my eye, about a feature called Watchem that a Houston paper had introduced.  It involved recording telephone calls from readers and using them as fodder for published public service items.  I told Derick I thought it was a good idea that could be made great if . . . 

. . .a few months later Action Line appeared for the first time, on page one of the Free Press.  Kurt Luedtke, the only person I know of who owns both a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar (for the screenplay of “Out of Africa”), joined the team from the outset; Lois and others came on board for the launch.  The column became the talk of Detroit, Free Press circulation rose by more than 35,000 daily, and journalists came from around the U.S., from Europe, from Latin America, to observe and ask questions.  

Derick became a figure of importance not just in our professional lives, but in our personal lives, as well.  He seemed to have an extra-sensory perception of when certain friends needed him.  Once, in a dark period for me, he turned up in New York asking me to join him for paella at a restaurant in which he had just invested; I was rejuvenated.  On another occasion when my spirits were lagging, he invited us to join him and his party aboard the yacht Fantastique for a Mediterranean cruise out of the Port of Cannes. When the captain ran the yacht aground and we had to be rescued at sea, Derick snapped his fingers and said, “We will find another yacht as fine as this one, or we will rent a villa.  The party will go on!”

And it did.  It always did when The D was in charge.

Derick became a senior executive of Knight Newspapers, then of Knight-Ridder, then president and chief operating officer of Playboy Enterprises. His flamboyance, charm and gold lame jumpsuits put him in the gossip columns.

But to me he was and will always be the chain-smoking editor with one blue eye and one brown, exuding magic, inspiring me to do things I never knew I could do, yet at once the guy who wanted his own epitaph to be: “I wish I were half the man my dogs think I am.”


  1. So many stories. In all of them Derick was either the great editor or the great lover -- sometimes both. In one I remember, pandemonium broke out in the Free Press newsroom shortly after noon on Nov. 22, 1963, when a flash came over the wires that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. "Where's Derick?" everyone was asking. I was the only one who knew. Earlier in the day Derick had asked to borrow the key to my apartment; without explaining, I knew it was for a lunchtime liaison. Quietly I went to a corner phone and dialed my home number. On the fourth ring he picked up. "Put your pants on, Derick. The president's been shot." Twenty minutes later he was in the office, running the show.

  2. Running the show as only he could. Ex-editors who had semi-retired to academia gravitated to the paper and reported for duty while Derick cleared the decks and rushed an ace reporter to catch the next flight to Dallas.