It’s hard to believe that Thursday, March 27, marks my 47th anniversary of being employed by Morris Communications Co., starting as a police beat reporter for the Savannah (Ga.) Evening Press.
Morris Communications then was known as Southeastern Newspapers Inc. with only six newspapers in the Augusta-based chain: the Evening Press, Savannah Morning News, Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, Athens Daily News, Augusta Herald and The Augusta Chronicle.
“I enjoyed meeting you when you were here Saturday, and I certainly look forward to having you join us as a member of the Press staff,” wrote Managing Editor Thomas F. Coffey Jr. on March 14, 1967.
“As stated in our conversation, the salary will be $90 a week to start. … I will expect you here on Monday, March 27, at 7 a.m. Please report to Wally Davis, my city editor whom you met.”
And over the next six months before I was drafted into the Army, I covered the most gruesome side of Savannah’s low life on the police beat, including shooting moonshiners, grisly murders, illegal gamblers and countless fires.
But in that period, I also met some incredible people, including Coffey himself, a colorful newspaper journalist who became a copy boy when he graduated from Savannah High School in 1940. He served in the Army in World War II as a combat infantryman and was wounded in the Philippines. He became editor of both the Morning News and Evening Press and also assistant city manager for the Savannah municipal government.
And then there was Mills B. Lane Jr., the president of the Citizens and Southern National Bank in Atlanta, who owned a tourist ship called the Cruz del Sur docked in Savannah. Mills was spending $500,000 to renovate the ship. I did a feature story about the ship, which had been built in Spain and used for some swashbuckling movie. Lane wrote me a nice thank you letter and sent me a large photo of the huge ship with its sails raised at sea.
And on the police beat I met a city fireman who played guitar in the Dixie Show Boys country band that featured a young singer named LaWanda Lindsey.
Lindsey, who became a good friend of mine, was the daughter of N.H. “Lefty” Lindsey, who fronted the Dixie Show Boys band and was manager of Savannah country music radio station WEAS-AM.
She would become a hit recording artist for Chart and Capitol records and a protégé of country superstar Buck Owens and appear often on the Hee Haw syndicated TV series.
That summer of 1967 I also met Grand Ole Opry comedienne Minnie Pearl, who had bought her first costume in Aiken. She was appearing at the old Savannah City Auditorium with star Sonny James.
I did a story about her, and we became lifelong friends. The next time I would see James in person was at Minnie’s funeral attended by 4,000 people.
When I got sent to Vietnam for 365 days, Minnie got a subscription to Music City News magazine sent to me there and also sent me letters and an autographed photo. Other soldiers in my barracks had photos of sexy movie actress Raquel Welch in their metal lockers. Mine had an autographed photo of Minnie Pearl.
It was because of the popularity of my feature story about her and out lasting friendship that I started my Ramblin’ Rhodes weekly country music column when I was released from the Army and returned to my old police beat job. It made its debut in the Saturday afternoon edition of the Evening Press on Oct. 31, 1970. Who would have guessed that it now has lasted more than 43 years?
I didn’t meet him in Savannah, but I certainly came to know about the infamous antiques dealer Jim Williams, who had a mansion on Bull Street not far from the city’s fire and police stations that I covered.
He would become world famous from the book Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil. The movie made from that book showed Williams being exonerated by a jury in a Savannah courtroom of murdering his young gay lover. But the truth is that happened with a jury in Augusta when his appeals trial was moved to Richmond County.
One of my best friends was a funny Chatham County patrolman named Joe Usry. Two of his brothers, Frank and Larry, were Savannah city policemen. I ended up writing a story about the three brothers and their public service.
Although the Evening Press job began my career with Morris Communications, my first paying journalistic experiences were earlier, spending two summers as a copy boy for the Atlanta Journal and another summer as one of the Journal’s two interns.
A copy boy then was basically a glorified, paid slave who would take edited, paper-typed stories of reporters, roll them up and stick them in pneumatic plastic tubes heading for the composing room. We also would run errands for reporters, ranging from getting them lunch to taking manila envelopes and such to area businesses.
That led me on two occasions to being with Stephens Mitchell, an Atlanta lawyer who was the brother of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. He had his secretary give me a copy of the official media booklet that had been given to reporters when his sister’s monumental novel was released.
It also led me those summers to standing next to comedian Bob Hope at a book signing, interviewing singer Otis Redding a year before his death, being at a media conference for The Beatles and standing three feet from the Fab Four in the Atlanta Braves locker room, getting coffee backstage for Sonny & Cher, eating supper at a table across from Georgia state Sen.Jimmy Carter, who was talking about running for governor, and to spending several days with Archbishop Iakavos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.
In my high school teen years I had come to know the Journal’s editorial cartoonist Lou “Eric” Erickson, and he kindly wrote a letter of recommendation for me on March 13, 1964, which led to my becoming an Atlanta Newspapers Inc. card-carrying employee that summer 50 years ago.
“Don Rhodes is a nuisance,” Erickson wrote. “He bothers reporters, editors, editorial cartoonists; anyone who has anything to do with newspapers.
“He has a scrapbook of journalism containing everything from columns he has written for weekly newspapers to pictures he has taken of (The Atlanta Constitution publisher) Ralph McGill in front of his fireplace.
“He is curious, ambitious and devoted to the idea that being a newspaper man is a worthy profession. To that end he is working his way through the School of Journalism, Athens, and is making excellent grades.”
Erickson went on to say that my recommendation was the first endorsement he had written for anyone.
He added, “But when I meet a guy who thinks newspapering as a profession is worthwhile for reasons beside a by-line and money I’ll endorse him. Don is that kind of a person. And a newspaper should give him his opportunity to become a newspaper man.”
Well, the Atlanta Journal did give me my first opportunity to work daily in a major city newsroom. Three afternoon newspapers I reported for no longer exist: Atlanta Journal, Savannah Evening Press and Augusta Herald, and that’s sad. But I’ll never forget the experiences they gave me and the thousands of stories I got to write for their readers.
And 50 years later, I’m still trying to be a good newspaper man.
CLINTON GREGORY COMING BACK: Country and bluegrass artist Clinton Gregory is coming back to the Hephzibah Opry at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 29. Admission is free and a love offering will be requested.
The show in Hephzibah will be at 4391 Saxon Drive. Call (706) 755-4584.
Fiddle player Gregory has performed on the Grand Ole Opry more than 30 times and has had 11 charted country music singles.