It puzzled people making their first visits to the third floor newsroom at 215 S. McDowell St. in Raleigh. How was it, they’d wonder, that everyone from reporters to technicians to part-timers working summers out of college would, on seeing the 6’3” fellow with the loud bass voice who obviously was the big boss, call out to him: “Hey Frank, how you doing?”
If he knew their names, he’d call back to them, if not, he’d say, “Hey Pa’dner.” Sometimes their familiarity took a comic turn, as when one young reporter’s girlfriend saw Frank Daniels Jr. walking through the News & Observer newsroom in a Lyndon Johnson-style Stetson hat, and called out, “Hey Frank! Where’s your horse?”
Though the term, “News & Observer family” was perhaps overused a little, and by the 1990s the organization was a diverse big business, Frank Daniels Jr. always believed it was a family and loved his role as the man at the head of the table. In the days following his death at 90 this week, thousands of words of praise, and yes, some of criticism, will pour forth reckoning his influence on North Carolina politics and social policy in his virtually lifelong role in the family business.
But as one who worked closely with him for a decade, and remained in close contact for 25 years thereafter, I’ll offer a bit of a more personal view.
Frank was indeed a fellow who was aware of his position in the community, his prominence, and it might be said that Frank Daniels Jr. enjoyed every second of being … Frank Daniels Jr. But his fun came not so much in just being a big shot, but in being a contrarian.
If, on taking over the paper from his father, Frank Sr., and his uncle Jonathan, he had pulled the editorial positions to the center, away from the liberal, progressive and solidly Democratic tradition, he could have led a very calm life at his clubs or during visits to Figure Eight Island and an exciting life meeting royalty and presidents and heading the boards of various charitable causes. Frank did all those things, but not a day passed during his tenure as publisher of The News & Observer that he didn’t hear from business people and even his close social friends that the newspaper’s editorial page was radical and leftist and just wrong.
On occasions too numerous to reckon, advertisers would threaten to pull their business, and demand the firing of reporters and columnists who’d offended and embarrassed them. For those who had higher profile jobs because of doing columns — the great, incomparable Dennis Rogers for one – the threats were common, but no easier to take. But Frank Jr., as he was known everywhere in the building, always responded by first going to the writer or editor who was taking the broadsides and say, “Now don’t worry about this. It’s just part of the business, and I’ll handle it.” And he did. When a writer or editor made a mistake of fact, he knew their bosses would talk to them, so he saw no need to say anything except, “Oh, hell, I’ve made bigger mistakes than that.”
I’d sometimes go to his office and hear him talking to an employee who was having a family crisis, and he’d be offering fatherly advice: “Now I know it’s hard when you have issues with your parents, but you’ve just go to carry on, give ‘em a break, and it’ll pass, trust me.” This happened virtually every day. He enjoyed that part of his job, because it really did mean that for him, the place was a family still.
Yes, he was blustery, and he liked to cuss, and he’d get in, shall we say, loud arguments in particular with people who wrote opinion pieces with which he disagreed — but which he tolerated in the spirit of the newspaper’s liberal tradition. The fusses usually ended with lunch. For all the lasting impressions of that big personality and the voice and the mischief in starting arguments and the like, he was in the end a very good guy. He cherished his family and friends, and he loved that newspaper of his, which will remain his in the memories of so many.
Jim Jenkins retired in 2018 after 31 years an an editor, editorial writer and columnist for The News & Observer.