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Thankful for friends who become family

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By Jackie Torok, Managing Editor

It’s funny to me that we should have a story on our front page this week and last with a connection to my old stomping grounds of Darlington County, S.C. It’s where I lived for most of the past two decades and where I met the man who became one of the best friends I’ll ever have in my life.

It’s only right as we celebrate Thanksgiving this week for me to introduce you to Dwight Dana, who inspired the name of my weekly column.

Dwight was born and raised in Darlington, where he was an icon of the city. His mother, who was a pack rat, passed that trait onto her son. Like his father, Dwight had a gift for writing, and so he “started in the trenches of print journalism the first week of January 1973,” he once wrote.

When I was hired fresh out of college at the Morning News in Florence, S.C., Dwight was one of the first people I met and he welcomed me into the fold, although he worked for another paper at the time. He helped me gain a footing in Darlington, where he seemed to know all the residents and their stories and shared background information with me. That was essential for a reporter working there, especially when you had an accent and last name like mine. I got to know Dwight, his wife Paula and their triplet sons: Payson, Brenton and Radisson. They treated me like family.

Dwight’s the essence of a Southern gentleman, favoring bow ties and seersucker suits. He loved Darlington, its history and its people. You know that expression about someone having never met a stranger? That’s Dwight. His institutional knowledge was a gold mine, and the Morning News scored a huge coup when it hired him during my tenure. He never lorded his vast experience, both as Navy journalist and as a veteran employee of the area’s newspapers, over me, even after I became his boss.

Dwight didn’t call himself a journalist, though. He preferred ink-stained wretch. He was as old-school as you could get in our business. He hated computers. He stubbornly resisted involvement in the paper’s convergence efforts with our sister television station and website. He respected me enough to put forth the effort when I demanded it, but he complained about it the entire time. He just wanted to write the stories he wanted to write, and that was that.

Oh, those stories! He had a bottomless treasure trove of features just waiting to be written about the people in the community. Even better: His byline was unnecessary. You knew a Dwight Dana story when you read it. There was no mistaking the style, grace, passion and care he put into every piece he ever wrote. He peppered his stories with words like “adroitly” and “alacrity” and described threats as “hanging like the sword of Damocles.”

We all loved working with Dwight, but his sense of direction was nonexistent. Our photographers dreaded his photo requests because he didn’t use street names to give directions to assignments. He relied instead on landmarks: “Turn past the old Methodist church with the new steeple — you know, where they installed the restored pipe organ about 20 years ago.” Forget about following him out there; he was liable to get lost, too.

Dwight had one of the most cluttered desks in the history of newspapers. His handwriting was atrocious. He was hot-tempered and could curse, well, like a sailor. He was hard of hearing. He was a Jimmy Buffett fan and once famously taught one of our coworkers to shag. He was Episcopalian. He loved pinot grigio and the oatmeal cookies I made every Christmas. He was funny as hell, and his “teh-heh-heh” laugh was unmistakable. He was a character as colorful as any of the folks he profiled — and he brought the best out of them. When he left the office every night to go back to the house where he was born, he always said the same thing to me the same way: “Well,” he would sigh, “I’m goin’ to Orange Street.”

You would have loved Dwight. I did. He loved me right back, just as he did all his family and friends. His sons were the light of his life, and we shared his pride when they became the first triplets in Boy Scouts history to become Eagle Scouts. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for them, even when they did things that drove their old man nuts, like raid his closet of the clothes he’d had freshly pressed for church on Sunday. They provided ample fodder for his weekly columns.

When he came to work the morning of March 30, 2007, he was aggravated with one of the boys, Payson, for not checking in with him while he was home on spring break from The Citadel. By that afternoon, he started to worry and went looking for him.

A few hours later, Dwight called me at the office and choked out, “Payson’s dead.”

Payson had fallen from their antebellum-style house’s balcony earlier that morning. Dwight had found his body. Our hearts broke for the Danas, most of all for Dwight.

A week later, Dwight was back at work, doing what he loved best. Payson’s cherished English bulldog, Conroy, joined Dwight’s sizable pack of spoiled rescued dogs full-time, and his life returned to as close to normal as it could. He’d survived quadruple bypass surgery, and he survived his son’s death.

“Writing is about all I can do because it comes naturally and creatively to me. The rewards have far outweighed the disadvantages in pay,” he wrote in a column upon his 67th birthday in August 2012. “And writing is something I can still do when I retire.”

Dwight had no intention of retiring. When it finally came time for me to leave the “FloMo,” however, he was the first to say how proud he was of me and promised I’d always be a member of his family.

On Nov. 25, 2012, it was a member of my FloMo family who gave me the news. There was a fire at 212 Orange St., and Radisson had come home just as it started. Radisson called 911 — the fire station was right across the street, on the opposite corner — and then, as either of his brothers would have, he went in for his dad. Neither of them came out alive. Radisson was five days from celebrating his 28th birthday with Brenton.

Dwight would be nonplussed by my tears, but he would be tickled to know I was listening to Motown classics while writing this column. We shared a love of Archie Bell & The Drells’ 1968 hit, “Tighten Up.” Remembering how that was our jam, and how Dwight always asked about my cats and their misadventures, and how he never forgot my birthday, and his limitless capacity for kindness, and knowing how much he would have enjoyed the message in a bottle story that links my new home county with my old home county — it all makes me smile.

For that, and for so many other blessings in my life I can’t even begin to count, I’m thankful.

I hope you have as much to be grateful for as I do this year.

Jackie Torok is the managing editor of the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or editor@brunswickbeacon.com.