At 8:30 a.m. today, Dick Williams presided over his last half-hour as “Georgia Gang” host and referee, putting to bed a journalism career that has spanned more than a half-century, most of it in Atlanta.
My guess is that Williams himself was still in bed on this spring-forward Sunday. The program had been recorded in a WAGA-TV studio on Friday morning.
Occasions like these require expressions of gratitude, and my turn has come.
Some 40 years ago, there was The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. Both newspapers shared the same owner and the same building, but on different floors, at 72 Marietta St. in downtown Atlanta.
Two different staffs put out both papers.
Financially, it was a robust time for newspapers, so robust that a third wholly independent staff was hired to put out a new chain of local weekly tabloids dubbed the “Extra.”
I was 23 years old when I was hired as editor of the Clayton County Extra, probably because I was raised on the south side of Atlanta, off Old National Highway, and knew the territory. But bean counters got involved, and horizons were trimmed.
The Clayton County Extra was declared toast before a staff was assembled, and I became editor of the North Fulton Extra, a stranger in what was probably the wealthiest niche of newspaper readers in metro Atlanta.
Our office was a former drug store, a fact that explained the combination safe built into the floor. We never cracked it. But our quarters’ most endearing feature was a florescent lighting system that constantly erupted into flames. Fire extinguishers outnumbered the staff.
This was a small worry for which there was no time. The first edition was due out on Sept. 6, 1979.
Did I tell you that this was a robust time for newspapers, and that Sandy Springs and Roswell had more wealthy readers per square foot than anywhere in metro Atlanta?
Tabloids in other areas — Cobb and DeKalb counties, and intown Atlanta — had 32, 36 and 40 pages. (Tabloids come in sets of four.) Every Thursday, the North Fulton edition came in at 64, 72 pages and more. I’d have to dig out the originals, but I think we topped out at well over 100 pages one week.
We were overwhelmed, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Exhaustion was closing in.
So we called in the cavalry. Instead, we got the Pope.
No, that’s not right. At the time, Dick Williams was the business editor of The Atlanta Journal, and thus was only a pontiff-in-waiting. But within weeks, he would be executive city editor of that newspaper.
City editor is a title that’s rapidly becoming a memory, like the horse shoe-shaped tables that once hosted copy editors and their prince, the editor known as the slot. The city editor held the reins of the most powerful horses of the newspaper: Local reporters, state reporters, political reporters, even religion reporters. (This was a time when religion wasn’t a subset of politics.)
The city editor commanded the largest portion of a newspaper’s army, and was thus considered infallible. Like the Pope. His domain, the city desk, was a community’s final arbiter. Before Google and smart phones, if you were drunk at a bar and had $5 riding on the 20th president of the United States, you called the city desk. (The answer: James Garfield.)
Williams quickly brought order to a North Fulton office run by a young man not two years out of UGA, who still wasn’t even sure he was in the right profession. Political commentator Tom Houck helpfully pointed out, in a rival publication, that the newspaper had chosen to invest in an editor who only a few years earlier had been the buggy boy at Richway No. 3 in College Park.
So my doubts weren’t solely private ones, nor were they limited to managing a staff. Part of my job was to turn a weekly column. Days after arriving, Williams scanned the one I had drafted for that week. He waited longer than necessary, I thought, but then looked up.
“Anyone who can write like that is going to be fine,” he said.
His was a small kindness, but one that arrived like a sip of water to a parched throat. Which is why I remember it.
We have taken similar paths. Both of us escaped management, or had that escape thrust upon us, which allowed us to get back to what we did best, which was — and remains — writing.
Given the times we’re in, it’s a pleasure to congratulate a journalist who can leave on his own terms.
Congratulations, Dick. And thanks for that sip of water.
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