04/15/09 — Author, former editor delivers Rotary's annual Belk Lecture

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Author, former editor delivers Rotary's annual Belk Lecture

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 15, 2009 1:46 PM

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Former Goldsboro News-Argus editor Gene Price speaks to local Rotarians during the Goldsboro Rotary luncheon Tuesday. Price was chosen to deliver the annual Belk Lecture.

For more than 50 years Gene Price recorded Wayne County's history for the News-Argus, first as city editor, and then later as managing editor, editor and finally editor emeritus.

For 50 years he talked to folks and told their stories, and it's from those that he compiled his first book -- "Folks Around Here."

Speaking to the Goldsboro Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon as part of the esteemed Henry Belk Lecture Series, Price explained that simply put, his book is about people.

"There are a lot of tidbits of history and people I've tried to include in this book," he said. "A lot of the stories in the book are about people I have known or would have liked to have known."

In fact, he said he has been told that without his book, the "tidbits of local history" saved in between the pages might have otherwise been lost.

Stories such as those about Frederick "Freddie" Woodard, who sold chewing gum and gave away his poems at the downtown Post Office, or how the Parkstown Christmas Parade began, or how the railroad tracks that used to run down Center Street were removed one night, or how a local boy, Booty Lewis, was the inspiration for Steve McQueen's character in "The Great Escape."

He even has stories -- often those left out of the history books -- about pivotal North Carolina figures such as Gov. Charles Aycock and Zeb Vance, who served as both senator and governor.

Other stories, like one he told the Rotary Club, include how former News-Argus reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning editor and author Gene Roberts got his start -- thanks in large measure to a single sentence, something that had great value to Price.

"I was always trying to hammer into their (young reporters) heads the importance of the short sentence," he said. "The short sentence is the best form of communication, written or spoken."

Price explained that when Roberts was introduced to him, he wasn't all that impressed with the quiet, young man.

"I almost didn't hire him," Price said. "I was not impressed with young Roberts. I said this boy does not need to be in the newspapers."

But, he continued, when the farm reporter position came open, Roberts was the only one to apply.

So Price said he sent a very short letter telling Roberts that the job was his if he wanted it.

In reply, Roberts sent back Price's letter with a note scrawled at the bottom -- "I'll take it."

"I knew then I had a live one," Price said. "So much for the young fella I thought was a little bit slow.

And so with stories such as that -- just enough to whet the appetite -- Price ended his lecture and people queued up to buy signed copies of his book.

"I enjoyed it," said Jane Rustin, director of the Wayne County Public Library. "The Belk Lecture is held during National Library Week, and it's really fitting that we have a local author this year who has done so much.

"It's good to bring it back to a local focus."

And as for his book, she said, "it's circulating very well in the library."

Even Southern Wayne High School media coordinator Sherry Smith said she was likely to buy a copy for her library -- after she bought one for herself.

"I'm getting ready to head to the beach, and I'll sit down with it then," she said.