July 21, 2021

Fifty years later, ink is still in my veins

 “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

           —Allen Saunders, Reader’s Digest, January 1957

           Our 1969 wedding vows didn’t include “We will never live in each other’s hometowns.” But we agreed that Jesup and Camilla were out. I guess we missed Allen Saunders’ advice in Reader’s Digest.

            I had my eyes on law school, and Pam’s were on UGA grad school. One phone call flipped our newlywed plans upside down. Within two weeks, I had unrented my college-days mobile home, sold our near-the-campus townhouse and piled our meager collection of used furniture into that New Moon. In one cardboard box was Commercial Credit’s coupon book, reminding us of the $61.83 monthly payment.

In my Dodge Coronet and her Chevy Malibu, we trailed our 480-square-foot home down Highway 15 South. To where? Jesup, of course. 

            Elliott Brack’s pants-on-fire brand of small-town journalism kindled a spark. I could see opportunity. And Superintendent James Bacon hired Pam—over the phone—to teach first grade at Orange Street Elementary. 

Pam’s first check bought a metal utility building. The next invested in a dryer. The third delivered a GE color TV. Congratulating ourselves, we said, “We don’t need another thing.”

            Fifty summers ago, I walked into the Wayne County Press. Elliott (EEB) and his partner, Dr. Lanier Harrell, were planning to buy the century-old competitor, The Jesup Sentinel. I was to be a partner, but that plan fizzled, too. The Rhoden family balked.

            The second summer in Jesup, EEB and Doc agreed to sell a one-third interest in their upstart newspaper. Banker Carey Brannen loaned me $3,000 for the down payment. Doc warned, “This is a long-term investment. You won’t be getting your money back anytime soon.”

            A half-century later, Doc and I still laugh about that.

            In 1976 W.B. (Bill) Rhoden decided to sell. I joined Community Newspapers Inc. (CNI) in the purchase of both papers to form The Press-Sentinel. CNI’s founder, N.J. Babb, and I continued buying newspapers in South Georgia. 

In 1983 I became the sole owner of my hometown newspaper and several others. (Today publisher Eric Denty is my Jesup partner.) Six years later, in 1989, three friends and I acquired Spartanburg-based CNI and four dozen of its newspapers in Georgia and the Carolinas.

            That disrupted our plans, again.

            Pam and I planned to always be in Jesup. Our three children—Alan, Emily and Eric—imagined they would graduate from Wayne County High School. But with my new travel requirements, I could see missing ball games, dance recitals and quality family time. 

For a year, we prayed about moving. Our children picked Athens, where they had visited dozens of times—Bulldog games and UGA events. Emily summarized, “We’ll have the best of both worlds, our old friends and our new friends.”

That was 1990.

Today Tom Wood and I own CNI. Combined, we have more than 105 years of newspaper experience. It’s a perfect partnership. We’ve never ended a day with a dispute. On July 8 Tom and I announced that we were stepping aside as the company’s co-chief executive officers (CEO). We’ll remain as co-owners.

As did Emily and Eric, Alan got ink into his veins through his fingertips by inserting sections of The Press-Sentinel. He is the new chairman of CNI’s board. Mark Major, former vice president and chief financial officer, is now president and co-CEO with Alan. With complementary skill sets, I view them as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. During my boyhood they were the powerhouse duo of the New York Yankees.

On July 29 I will be inducted into the Georgia Press Association’s (GPA) Golden Club, recognizing 50 years in the business. (Doc, you were right.) I’ll take this honor over GPA’s Hall of Fame. You must be dead for that distinction.

I have no plans to die or quit, yet.

Besides, Allen Saunders, I’m too curious to see what happens next.