A tribute to the great newspapermen of yesterday

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By Jackie Torok, Managing Editor

I never knew Robert Stanley, but I like to think he and I would’ve gotten along really well.

Stanley, who founded The Brunswick Beacon in 1962, died April 25 at the age of 81. By all accounts, he took great pride in the newspaper and understood how important it is to the community. To think I came to succeed someone like him as an editor at the Beacon is an honor I haven’t fully grasped yet.

Sometimes I think I might have missed the golden age of journalism. My romanticized version of journalists of the ‘50s and ’60 confronted those in power and those on the street face to face to get their stories, banged away on typewriters, cut and pasted the pages of the next edition together, got ink on the rolled-up sleeves of their button-down shirts, smoked in the office and maybe stashed a bottle of the good stuff away in their desks, which were piled high with various documents and notes scribbled on scratch paper.

That’s how the late, great Jim Shumaker was back in the day. He famously told our alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to cram it when it insisted he take and pass a hygiene course after his time in the service to graduate. The story goes that when Shu started teaching in the journalism school, then-UNC President Bill Friday (another truly great man) presented Shumaker with his Bachelor of Arts and a bar of soap. Shu is a member of the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame and he was my favorite professor.

Mr. Stanley thought his community needed a cohesive, comprehensive way to stay informed. So he did something about it. At age 30, he started the Beacon and dedicated the newspaper to “the continued progress of Brunswick County.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the one we ran of Mr. Stanley on the front page last week tells me he was of Shu’s ilk. I imagine that because he was from here, he was a bit more mannerly as he went about the business of producing the community newspaper — but I’m also willing to bet he knew more of the stories behind the stories than he ever published. Still, the folks who spoke about him at his funeral described him as an unfailingly friendly man, and I don’t doubt their assessment.

Shu and Mr. Stanley might have been like oil and water in terms of their personalities, but they shared a proclivity for untidy workspaces. Mr. Stanley’s son, Billy Stanley, said despite “having the messiest office in Shallotte,” his father knew where everything was. Shu did, too.

They had two more important things in common as newspapermen: They were willing to share their expertise — both became teachers — and they were bold, especially when it came to effecting change and (often) calling out cowardice.

Mr. Stanleyused his “Brunswick Stew” column to address the issues of time, most notably his work during the Jim Crow era in the South. He took great pride especially in having stood on the “right side of history during civil rights struggles in the turbulent ‘60s.”

I went back and looked at the notorious April 8, 1964, edition of the Beacon that featured front-page coverage of a failed Ku Klux Klan rally in Brunswick County. Beneath one of the photos is this caption: “Spectators brave cold and rain at the Big Show put on by the Ku Klux Klan goes on. On the faces of some perhaps a trace of mirth can be glimpsed while others, obviously, are here for real.”

That kind of coverage took guts. And according to Mr. Stanley’s widow, Barbara, it earned her husband a home visit by the disgruntled grand dragon.

I’ve endured some frightening situations in my journalism career, but nothing I’ve ever done can compare with that.

Family and friends said founding the Beacon was one of Mr. Stanley’s proudest achievements. I hope we’re continuing to make him proud even now.

Although the cluttered desks might have driven me nuts, I would have enjoyed being in that old-school club of reporters and editors, led more than capably here in North Carolina by the likes of Shu and Mr. Stanley. But I’m here now because they paved the way for me to be in it today.


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