Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Journalist at Twilight

A superb journalist and teacher of journalism, Wayne Edgar King, lies seriously ill today — perhaps dying — at his beloved farm in North Carolina.

King wrote rigorously-reported and enchantingly-phrased prose for the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times.  He covered civil rights in the south in the '70s and was perhaps the first journalist to profile an obscure Georgia governor and peanut farmer in terms of a possible presidency.  Like all of his longer form journalism, King’s New York Times Magazine profile of James Earl Carter was sprinkled with wry wit and profound observations tossed off with writerly nonchalance.

After leaving  The Times, Wayne taught journalism in the English department at Wake Forest University.  Early in his tenure, the university found itself without an instructor for a freshman class on the Bill of Rights.  It had served as stocking-stuffer of sorts, a credit for a handful of young students still not certain what their major would be.  Nobody on the faculty seemed to want to teach this academic stepchild, so Wayne volunteered.  Ere long there were queues down the hallway and out the door for the class, and Mr. King’s reputation as sage and wit spread throughout the campus. He became an expert not just on the Bill of Rights, but on the Supreme Court, as well, capable of delivering spontaneous analyses of important decisions that were highly seasoned with an often acerbic and usually deadpan wit.

For decades he battled multiple sclerosis, fending off its ravages with strong medicine, stronger will and relentless humor and grace.  He survived a stroke in 2014 and after some time in a rehabilitation center he returned home to the farm where once he found peace and happiness by simply driving around in a tractor.  Wayne loved driving.   When he wrote the “Our Towns” column for The Times, it required him to spend many hours driving in suburban and exurban New York.  It also provided a perfect showcase for his drolllery.

When the owner of a New Jersey deli defied an obscure state law to provide cheaper milk to his customers, Wayne rfecognized his kind of story.  Milk was a price-controlled substance and the deli owner knew it but thought the law was wrong. Wayne wrote:

“There is no criminal penalty for Mr. Gabriele's renegade conduct - selling milk on the cheap. If there were, he could be accused of trying to break into prison.“

For a piece on the suburban town that was testing the first versions of caller ID, Wayne found and interviewed one of its first and most avid users, a Roman Catholic priest who had twice been fooled by fraudulent late-night calls to give last rites to perfectly healthy people.

Wayne ferreted out an obscure program that rescued impoverished and embattled urban teenagers, helping them to become educated and find meaningful life pursuits.  He described one of the kids: “Small, pale and frail-looking, she holds up her arms in a Rocky-like gesture of triumph, smiles her little-girl smile and the little room where she is talking suddenly seems very big and sunny.”

I was privileged to edit thousands of the words Wayne King wrote for the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times.  Not that they needed much editing.  Occasionally, however, a bit of shepherding was required to get the original words into print.

Wayne was on the scene when a motorcycle gang took over a suburban Detroit town and terrorized many of its citizens.  In his first-person account, King wrote about walking among the bikers to ask why they were doing this.  One of the men handed him a goatskin vessel and commanded him “have a drink.”  Wayne sipped, gagged and gasped, “What IS that stuff?”  “Piss,” the biker said. I told Wayne the word might not pass muster with the copy desk and guardians of good taste.  “If they object,” Wayne replied, “Tell them what he really said.”  “What was that?” I asked.  “Panther piss,” he said. And that's what appeared in the paper.
He wrote an anecdote lede for a story on the Great Chili Cook-Off in Texas that was scheduled to appear on Page One of the Sunday Times.  It contained the phrase, “Son of a Bitch Stew,” a real and popular name for a particularly fiery kind of chili that is popular in Texas.  “Not on Page One!” the good taste patrol ruled.  I had to appeal all the way to the papacy, the office of Abe Rosenthal himself, but “Son of a Bitch Stew” did appear in print in the Old Gray Lady.  

Wayne Edgar King suffered a severe bout of pneumonia recently.  “His health is failing,” his wife, Paula Duggan King, wrote the other day to a former colleague.  “He is weary now . . . he doesn't speak much these days, “

But of course he is not silent.  His words still live in the archives of the Free Press and Times. You could look it up.


Mr. King died at his home on Feb. 17.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these words, as eloquent as Wayne himself.

    Sadly some of us have reached the age where friends and colleagues' declines and deaths seem to come more often.