The storyteller: After a career of stories, Gene Price looks to add a new chapter to his
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 8, 2010 1:50 AM
Price and his wife, Gloria, make their way through the family garden. Price said Gloria has been his rock since the day they met, and that without her support, he might not have had the strength to endure his recent cancer battle.
Former News-Argus editor Gene Price, from a familiar seat in the corner office he retired out of, talks about a career in journalism that lasted more than a half-century.
For Gene Price, the temptation was familiar -- an opportunity to play storyteller from the comfort of a corner office located in the newsroom he commanded for decades.
And like so many times before, he succumbed to it, and the memories started playing.
First he went back to the day he intercepted a bank robber on an old country road.
"When you have a bank robbery, everybody runs to the bank. Well, that's the last place you're going to find the robber," he said. "It was just one of those things where I knew my county and kind of asked myself, 'Price, if you just robbed that bank, where would you go?'"
Then, moments later, his mind drifted to a scene along Center Street.
"One day, I was walking down the railroad tracks to work and there was a huge explosion," Price said. "I could tell it was in Goldsboro in the downtown area, so I started running."
Then his thoughts turned again -- and he found himself along the Neuse River.
"We were looking and we found these clothes on the side of the bank," he said. "I said, 'My God, these kids (who had gone missing) have gone swimming.' So we looked in the water with a flashlight and saw these bodies. The kids had drowned. I think I became physically sick."
It would be easy to define Price in simple terms -- a seasoned journalist, an editor who held officials accountable.
But he is more than that, at heart, where it matters most.
He is the keeper of stories -- his own and those of others who have shared with him over the years.
He has been a part of keeping Wayne County's memories -- and its conscience -- for generations.
It started with a little boy's hope for snow.
"When I was about 8 or 9, I put out my first newspaper. It was a one-pager," he said. "I think it was on lined notebook paper, and I remember, my major story -- and I think it was based more on wishful thinking than on any meteorological intelligence on my part -- the headline was 'It might snow tonight.'"
Then, years later, Price accepted his first job in a newsroom in Elizabeth City -- a publication founded by W.O. Saunders, "the greatest newspaper man in his day," he said.
"He was way, way, ahead of his time," Price said. "He was for, unabashedly for, desegregation, abortion -- and this was back in the '20s. He was a great advocate for civil rights, but he was controversial as hell."
And while Saunders had died long before Price joined the Independent staff, the example he set would serve Price well when he finally became an editor.
"I was impressed by how progressive he was and just how much courage it took to take the positions he took back in those days," he said.
But the knowledge he gained from reading Saunders' old editorials was only a piece of the education Price would receive in Elizabeth City.
"I did everything. I was the only reporter we had, so I would write stories, read proofs," he said. "And in those days, you set the proofs in the linotype machine and then, many times, I would run the old flatbed press. I would climb up on that big old thing.
"The old press would come around and I would have to flip that big sheet of paper and slide it forward and the roll would catch it as the pages went under it. That printed four pages. Then, after you printed the 5,000, you would have to put the other four pages in there. We were always delighted to have 16 pages, so we would have to do it all over again. Then you had to put them through the folder. It was interesting, but just a great experience."
At the same time, Price also served as the sports editor of his high school newspaper.
"I just wanted to write," he said.
And he wanted to be like his favorite uncle, Woodrow -- a man he calls "one of the two best political reporters the state had at the time, probably at any time."
"He was a good reporter," Price said. "And he was a good writer."
But more importantly, Woodrow was a good man.
"He always provided for me at Christmas," Price said. "I still have a Boy Scout hatchet he gave me one year."
Price's next assignment came after he graduated high school -- all because he didn't have the money to attend college.
"The deal was, I would become (ECU's) first sports publicity man, and in turn, they would give me my tuition and my meal books. It was a great deal," he said.
And on the side, he worked for the Greenville Daily Reflector -- the place where he would have his next big break.
The reporter slated to cover one of Rep. Herbert Bonner's speeches had started drinking a little too early in the day, Price recalled with a laugh.
"So I got the assignment," he said. "I must have made (Bonner) sound pretty good because the next thing I knew, he was over at the paper and he wanted me to go to Washington with him as his press secretary."
Price accepted and during his time in Washington, took classes at George Washington University while keeping Bonner up to date on the events of the time.
But the experience was short-lived, as he was ultimately drafted and sent to Europe with other members of the Army's 28th Infantry Division.
He wouldn't return to North Carolina until 1952, when he accepted the city editor position at the Goldsboro News-Argus and made his way "home" with the woman he has loved since the day their eyes met.
"We liked it. When we came down Ash Street, there was a pasture on one side and woods on the other," Price said. "Gloria said, 'This is where we need to make our home and raise our children.'
"It was a good opportunity for me. Goldsboro is a great town. The people up in the Elizabeth City area and along most of the coastal areas in those days were pretty clannish. It took some time before you really were accepted. In Goldsboro, there was no caste system. The wealthy people and the poor people were all pretty good buddies."
But the small town dynamic made things difficult when Price became editor.
"It's difficult because in a community this size, everybody's your friend. You're going to meet them up and down the street every day. If you're with the New York Times or even the News and Observer, you don't have that problem. A lot of times, the people you would be getting on, you don't know them. But around here, they're friends," he said. "But the reason you approach it is because it is a responsibility. You have greater responsibility to the community than you do to any individual."
Back in that corner office, Price continued to reflect on the half-century he spent in the building that houses it.
But since his retirement, he has had more important things to think about.
Like his recent battle with cancer.
"When the doctors said it, Gloria kind of gasped and I said, 'You know, things happen when you're in your 80s. Something's going to happen.' I told her, 'Thank God it's not lockjaw,'" he said with a smile. "There are things that are worse -- debilitating strokes, Alzheimer's -- and the cancer, if it ends up being a very painful end, they can take care of the pain."
And the fact that his family -- particularly, the woman he says has been his rock through it all -- will remain by his side, no matter what challenges he faces.
It is Gloria, he says, who has made his life complete.
"She just loves people and has such a great heart," he said. "I always say she has put up with me, but it's so much more than that. Thank God she loves me, and I sometimes wonder, 'Why? How?' I couldn't have stayed in this business or any business without her there beside me."
But even facing a new challenge and speaking now from retirement, that same little boy who predicted snow remains in the heart of the 81-year-old. And he will always be there. Once a newsman, always a newsman, Price says.
"To this day, when I see things that are happening that really need somebody to go charging in there, I miss it," he said. "I say, 'I wish I was there.' It's a matter of having one hell of a curiosity and wanting to tell everybody what you know.
"If there was a big boom outside right now, I'd probably jump up to at least take a look."
He has a new role now to add to his resume, cancer survivor.
But the battle he faces now still reminds him of the lessons learned in a newsroom, with only minutes to tell a story and to do it justice.
It is why he will continue to tell his stories -- and those of the people who have helped shape his life.
"I think the cancer thing, it reminds me of the fact that none of us are here forever and it reminds me that I'm in my 80s," he said. "I said, 'Price, if you're going to do anything else, get on with it.' I have always had to have a deadline. That's why this business was so good for me, because, by God, you have a deadline."