Chuck Stone, a major force in and out of the newsroom, dies at 89
WALKING along a Philadelphia street with Chuck Stone could be a time-consuming activity. "You couldn't walk down the street with Chuck without people wanting to talk to him," said Zack Stalberg, former editor of the Daily News. "People were desperate to talk to him, to touch the hem of his garment."
A slight exaggeration perhaps, but Chuck Stone, the influential Daily News columnist, protector of young black men caught in the toils of the law, a man known for defusing desperate criminal situations and ultimately a highly regarded journalism teacher, was easily recognizable in his sartorial Brooks Brothers splendor with his brush haircut and ever-present bow tie.
"He was far and away the most influential journalist in Philadelphia," said Stalberg, who was Chuck's boss at the Daily News and is now executive director of the Committee of Seventy government-watchdog group. "He was a towering figure in Philadelphia."
Charles Sumner Stone Jr., a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, special assistant to U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, co-founder and first president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, died yesterday at age 89 in Wynwood of Chapel Hill, an assisted-living home in Chapel Hill, N.C.
He was a columnist and senior editor at the Daily News from 1972 to 1991, when he entered academia.
Chuck always wanted to be sure he looked his best in public. Take the time two armed men held up the Girard Bank at Bala and City avenues on Oct. 12, 1983.
Trapped inside the bank by cops and FBI agents, the robbers had one request:
Get Chuck Stone.
"The FBI called me at about 9 in the morning," Stalberg recalled. "I called Chuck at home and told him about it. He said he wasn't coming out until he was properly dressed." Chuck donned a conservative gray suit, blue oxford shirt and blue bow tie with white polka dots. And he pulled a Daily News cap on his head. "If I was going to get killed," he joked to Daily News reporter Michael Sokolove, "I was going to get killed looking my best."
The situation ended peacefully, although there were a couple of nervous situations before the man with the shotgun, who was holding a hostage, threw up his hands. Chuck's wife at the time, the late Louise Davis Stone, a onetime Daily News editorial writer, commented, "I would say that the most dangerous thing Chuck usually does is put salt and Tabasco sauce on just about everything he eats."
A situation more dangerous than Tabasco sauce developed at Graterford prison in November 1981, when desperado Jo Jo Bowen, a convicted multiple-killer, led four other inmates in an aborted escape attempt. They had a cache of arms and took six hostages.
When trapped in a kitchen, they had one demand:
Get Chuck Stone.
Chuck — who later said he'd almost suffered a nervous breakdown — met with the prisoners and was given a list of their demands for better prison conditions. After negotiating for two days, Chuck secured the release of the hostages, unharmed.
At the news conference afterward, Chuck was wearing his Daily News cap. It turned out that the convicts were well-armed. Confiscated after the siege were a double-barrel sawed-off shotgun, a single-barrel shotgun, a .38-caliber pistol and a .22-caliber pistol.
In all, 73 men and two women surrendered to Chuck Stone in the Daily News newsroom, where they were turned over to the police. All of them said they were afraid of being beaten by the cops, and all were black.
The first happened in October 1977 and the last on Jan. 18, 1991, just before Chuck wrote his last column for the Daily News and went to North Carolina to become the Walter Spearman Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He had taught at the University of Delaware for several years while at the Daily News, and had other academic forays.
In his sagacious columns for the paper, Chuck had a reputation for often using obscure words and terms. Richard Aregood, Pulitzer Prize-winning former Daily News editorial writer, cited the word "retromingent," used by Chuck to attack a politician. It means "backward urinating," although you won't find it in the dictionary.
Aregood said that when he encountered this word in a Chuck column, "it was love at first sight."
Chuck also was famous for his powerful cologne, Pour Homme. Aregood insists that Joe Blake, a former Daily News writer, was jogging on East River Drive when Chuck went by in his convertible. Blake swears he knew it was Chuck because he could smell the cologne, Aregood said.
Novelist and screenwriter Pete Dexter, a former Daily News columnist, said Chuck was a naturally happy person "who never took what he had for granted."
"Chuck was one of those guys who was glad to be there," Dexter said. "He wasn't in competition with anybody. He did what he did. You had to like him. Not many people would have done what he did at Graterford. That spoke to me."
Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray said that when she was on the copy desk and had to edit Chuck's columns, she sometimes had to call him in the middle of the night with questions.
"It was strange enough that he'd manage to sound fully awake, but stranger still that when the questions sometimes led to spirited debates, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself.
"He was one of the people who first made me feel at home at the Daily News, probably because he was so confident in himself that he had no problem making even those of us with several decades less experience feel as if our opinions counted."
Daily News political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson said she inheri ted Chuck's office after he left for North Carolina and could still smell his cologne.
When Signe's daughter, Claire Landau, was looking for colleges to attend, Chuck took her around the University of North Carolina.
"I'll never forget driving around UNC in the back of his convertible, and his house full of watermelons," said Claire, who wound up at Barnard. "I was with her," Signe said. "Chuck had a broad-brimmed hat with an Indian headband around it. Made you happy to be alive tooling around the campus with him."
"He was one of a kind," said former Daily News writer Maria Gallagher. "If he liked you, he loved you. If he didn't like you, he'd write about you."
Former Daily News sportswriter Bill Fleischman, now a freelancer who writes about auto racing, said he shared an office with Chuck at the University of Delaware when Fleischman taught a once-a-week journalism course.
"He was always so nice to me," Fleischman said. "His students just worshipped him. He was one of the most dynamic people I ever met."
Longtime Inquirer columnist Acel Moore, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a co-founder of the NABJ, said Chuck was "a major player in Philadelphia journalism. People respected him. He will be remembered."
Tara Finnegan Coates, onetime Chuck Stone student said, "If you had him as a professor at Delaware or North Carolina, you met a man who was larger than life, generous with his time and wisdom, and one smooth cat."
Chuck himself once told how he felt about the Daily News: "Working at the Daily News was the journalistic equivalent of driving with the top down. Things came at you faster, noises were louder. The wind whipped.
"Other newspapers were driving defensively, and you were running red lights and taking corners on two wheels."
Chuck was born in St. Louis to Charles Sumner Stone and the former Madalene Chafin. He was raised in Hartford, Conn., where he graduated from Hartford High School in 1942. In 1943, he began flight training as a navigator in Tuskegee, Ala., as a member of the first black military fliers.
He told an interviewer about the harrowing experience of training student pilots. "They always sent me up to fly with the hard-to-learn students," he said.
After the war, he attended Wesleyan College, majoring in political science and economics in 1948. In 1951, he earned a master's degree in sociology at the University of Chicago. He attended the University of Connecticut Law School for one year, 1954-55.
Chuck became an overseas representative for Cooperative for American Relief to Everywhere (CARE) in India, Egypt and Gaza.
Upon his return to the U.S., he joined the New York Age as a reporter and became its editor.
From 1960 to 1963, he was editor and White House correspondent for the Washington Afro-American. He was briefly editor-in-chief of the Chicago Daily Defender in 1963, but was fired in 1964 for attacking Mayor Richard Daley.
After that, Chuck took on one of his most challenging jobs when he became administrative assistant to controversial U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. After a stormy political career, Powell was defeated in the primary in June 1970 by Charles B. Rangel.
Stone, without a job, started a writing career. He edited a collection of Powell's sermons at the Abysinnian Baptist Church in Harlem titled Keep the Faith Baby. Other books followed, including Black Political Power in America, and a novel, King Strut, about a fictional character based on Adam Clayton Powell's life. He also wrote a children's book, Squizzy, the Black Squirrel.
Before joining the Daily News, he was director of minority affairs for the Educational Testing Service, investigating why minority students scored worse than whites in the SATs. Chuck was inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame in August 2004. He received numerous other awards and was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
He was divorced from his wife of 50 years, Louise, who died of lung cancer in March 2011. He is survived by two daughters, Krishna and Allegra Stone, and a son, Charles Stone III, an actor and director and creator of the Bud weiser Beer "Whassup!" television commercial.