November 2, 2023

An honor to ‘polish the apple’ of my mentor


            You probably never met Edward M. Sweatt. But in the late 1970s, Eddie made multiple trips to Jesup. More than 15 years ago, my friend asked whether I would “polish his apple” when he was gone.

            Of course, I said yes.

            On Nov. 1, Eddie would have been 90.

For whatever success that I enjoy, I attribute lessons learned from Eddie and a host of other mentors.

            Here’s the preamble to our friendship:

            As a boy, my buddies and I were lucky if we had extras quarters to buy a ticket for the weekly shoot-’em-up at the Strand Theater. The Blue Coats and the Native Americans waged war most Saturdays.

And almost always—just before scalps were surrendered—a cloud of dust boiled up on a nearby hilltop. With a blaring bugle and a flapping flag, the mounted cavalry charged to save the outnumbered troops.

            On the last day of 1976, Community Newspapers Inc. (CNI) of Spartanburg purchased The Jesup Sentinel and the Wayne County Press. I partnered with CNI. Eddie, as CNI’s operations guru, inherited the task of training me to be the publisher of The Press-Sentinel.

In the early days of 1977, I was surrounded. My scalp wasn’t in jeopardy, but my sanity was. As the 28-year-old leader of a newly combined twice-a-week newspaper, I was eager but woefully unprepared.

The week before, 54 people were in hand-to-hand combat over news, advertising and market dominance. Seven days later, those fierce competitors were under the same roof. Tension was high, and I was struggling to unite the troops.

I needed to hear thundering hooves and a bugle’s blast. Instead, my reinforcement rode over the Altamaha River bridge in a gray Buick LeSabre. Trailing behind was a blue cloud of cigarette smoke. My “cavalry” was a man in a dark suit, a starched white shirt and a tie. He said in a rich, two-packs-a-day-of-Kent-enriched baritone voice, “I’m Eddie Sweatt, and I’m here to help you.”

Neither of us knew how much of an understatement that was.

That’s why on Nov. 1, 2013, I flew to Wilmington, North Carolina, on my way to Holden Beach. It was Eddie’s 80th birthday, and I needed him to know how valuable he had been to me. My mentor and his wife, Carolyn, were waiting at the Delta gate. Walking arm-in-arm to their car, we stepped back 36 years.

Eddie tossed the Kents in 1988, but his chuckle remained velveted and deep. And Carolyn’s cackle still had the markings of a South Carolina belle, which she truly is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Eddie left CNI in 1980 so that he and Carolyn could buy out his partner, CNI, in The Brunswick Beacon in Shallotte, North Carolina. In 1983 I acquired CNI’s interest in The Press-Sentinel and other South Georgia newspapers. Today Eric Denty is my Jesup partner and publisher of The Press-Sentinel.

In 1989 three friends and I bought CNI, which I now co-own with Tom Wood. But that long, convoluted saga is not the story.

The story is: “If a box turtle finds itself on top of a fence post, it can be sure that it didn’t get there by itself.” I did not get to the top of my “fence post” without the help of mentors, especially those such as Eddie Sweatt.

Much has changed since Eddie rode his Buick into Jesup. Eddie and Carolyn sold The Beacon 20 years ago.

But as vice president of CNI, Eddie traveled over five states teaching a legion of journalists the finer points of newspapering. I was one of his fortunate students.

In 1977 Eddie trained The Press-Sentinel’s accounting and business manager Lynn Rice. Forty-seven years later—thank you, Lord—Lynn remains an all-star on our team. One associate described Eddie as “kind, wicked smart, calm, patient, full of good humor and above all, wise.”

When Eddie was making those long treks to Southeast Georgia, our sons, Alan and Eric, were sleeping on Mickey Mouse sheets. Today Alan is CNI’s chairman, and Eric is on its board of directors. Alan is a past president of the Georgia Press Association. Next year Eric accepts the statewide gavel.

Our sons grew up hearing Eddie Sweatt stories. I wanted them to meet the man, the mentor, the friend who meant so much to me.

In 2019 Alan, Eric and I drove to Holden Beach to spend a couple of days with Eddie and Carolyn. Our sons will be talking about that visit for the rest of their lives.

Before leaving, we had a photo session on their deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. And when Eddie saw the pictures, he commented on how tall Alan, Eric and I were next to him. He told Carolyn, “In the future I am going to stand on a box next to those giants.”

But it was the other way around.

Alan, Eric and I were standing next to a real “giant” in our lives, Edward M. Sweatt.