A trailblazing and 'proudly and self-consciously black' columnist
TWO YOUTHS had escaped from a detention center in Warminster after a bloody confrontation that left a counselor seriously injured. A short time later, one of them showed up at the Daily News.
In what seemed like a weekly ritual, fugitives who hoped to make it into custody in one piece were making the Daily News their first stop. If their features somehow got rearranged on the way to prison, a Daily News photo would be evidence of what had happened to them.
It was always the Daily News because that's where Chuck Stone worked. In the 19 years that he wrote one of the most influential columns ever penned in this city, Chuck Stone had been an intermediary between the police and at least 75 fugitives. This was remarkable, because exposing police brutality had been a staple of Chuck's columns. Cops thought he was guilty of police abuse.
But he also had been eloquent in his celebration of good police work. He was the originator of the newspaper's George Fencl Award, named for a police inspector who exemplified the firm but fair police work he advocated.
The fugitive in the Warminster incident was too late. Chuck Stone had moved on. The Daily News still snapped the kid's picture and made sure he was taken into custody without incident or injury.
It was my first week as a metro columnist, and when I was offered the chance to go in Chuck's place, I declined. I knew that the Daily News would still be a safe haven where fugitives could surrender without fear of abuse. But that day, I was following the best advice that Chuck ever gave me.
"Just be yourself," he had told me, just before I took over what I had come to think of as his space in the paper.
It was great advice. There was never going to be a next Chuck Stone. They don't make them like that anymore. They never did.
They weren't being formed in the crucible that Tom Brokaw calls the greatest generation. America's top journalism programs weren't producing journalists like him back in the day or even now.
Chuck Stone was a product of his own design. He had been accepted to Harvard but chose to major in English at Wesleyan, where he graduated with honors before earning a master's degree in sociology at the University of Chicago. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history, especially those chapters expunged from the sanitized versions we were spoon-fed in public school.
He didn't study journalism. Objectivity was a polite convention that he didn't have time for. He was a cause crusader, because that's what his people needed. He served as editor and White House correspondent for the Afro American and editor of the Chicago Daily Defender, the two most influential black-owned newspapers in America. He was proudly and self-consciously black, which gave those of us who followed the confidence to be what we were and to cultivate our own distinctive voices.
He was fully formed when he came to the Daily News in 1972. The Daily News, to its credit, knew what it was getting and gave him free rein. Frank Rizzo was a favorite target. But like a surrounded battalion, he could fire in any direction and hit the enemy. He skewered as many blacks as whites.
His bad side was a dark place. You didn't want to be there. His column often was a weapon of war, perhaps too often. He could be a bully, and there were times when even a reverent acolyte like me questioned his fairness.
But I could never question his commitment to the people of this city, especially those he viewed as victims of the corruption and incompetence that too often characterize its political leadership to this day.
Last time I talked to him was almost five years ago, in an airport in Tampa. He was wearing the Chuck Stone uniform: blue blazer and silk bow tie. His signature buzz cut had turned smoke gray but his smooth, bronze skin was still unblemished. At 85, he looked 25 years younger.
I was just two years from the end of my career. But he was still trying to encourage me.
He will be missed by the students who learned the best traditions of journalism from a master, by so-called leaders who felt the sting of his wrath and by a columnist who followed from far enough back to avoid getting lost in his shadow.
Elmer Smith is a retired Daily News columnist.