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Brad McElhinny: Voices from 100 years of the Charleston Daily Mail

The Charleston Daily Mail is celebrating its 100th year of steady publication (the early years were herky-jerky), and I’m proud to be a part of it.

We marked the big occasion last week with a front page profile of Gov. Walter Eli Clark, who bought the newspaper at auction in 1914. Was the term “man crush” around back then? Because I have one on him.

He spent time as a Washington correspondent for some of America’s biggest newspapers, prospected for gold, became the first territorial governor of Alaska and then came to West Virginia to run his own newspaper until he was into his 80s.

One of the first editorials he wrote for The Charleston Mail declared the publication would be “a Republican newspaper —mighty positively so — but not a factional opponent.”

“It will be a political or personal organ of no individual, not even the owner,” he wrote.

Instead, Clark assured readers his newspaper “will serve no interests except the interests of the whole people.”

A worthy goal indeed.

When Clark died in 1950, his obituary was written admiringly by Jack Maurice: “If one word can suffice to characterize him it is ‘integrity’ -- both personal in his life and publicly in his conduct of a newspaper.”

His newspaper carried on, with people no less committed.

Some of them I have known. Others I have only heard of. And still more I have read of.

I have a little booklet of newsroom tales called “Daily Mail Memories.” It was compiled and passed out for a 1998 retiree picnic, which I was fortunate enough to have attended (although I was, and still am, many years from retirement).

The stories of reporters, photographers and editors form an oral history of the life of the paper. Some excerpts:

George Holbrook, copy editor: “My memories of 47 years with the Daily Mail always go back to the days I was assistant to the sports editor, Dick Hudson. We operated a two-man sports department in the days when we had six daily issues plus a Sunday paper. On Saturdays, my regular hours were from 6:30 a.m. until about 1 a.m. Sunday morning. We had 40-some columns to fill. Consider the fact that two people were supposed to do everything, including outside game activities, in that 19-hour period.”

Dick Hudson, sports editor: “Who could resist a full-time job at $15 a week and be allowed to spend about 60 hours a week on the job. We had the Saturday and Sunday editions to work on every Saturday, which meant a work day from 7 a.m. to about 1 a.m. Overtime? What’s that?”

Earl Benton, photographer: “In 1942, Charleston Daily Mail Managing Editor Grady Damron sure looked the part of a newspaper editor, sitting at his desk in the middle of the newsroom.

“He could always be remembered for his Friday paydays. The two-man accounting department on the first floor would deliver the staff’s paychecks in the morning, but no one on the staff dared to ask for the checks until Mr. Damron would take his ruler and rap the lampshade at his desk — and this was usually late in the afternoon.”

Julianne Kemp, Life editor: “The best day of all was the one I didn’t do any work at all because of the fantastic party the staff threw on my 50th anniversary. 50 flowers, 50 balloons, 50 of this, 50 of that — a wonderful, imaginative, crazy day I’ll remember for the next 50 years. OK, for a long time.”

David Greenfield, editor and publisher: “I had many a near-career-death experience at the world’s best small afternoon newspaper. I also met many wonderful people, many strange people, wrote news stories that should have been briefs, columns that should have been edited and feature stories that never should have been allowed to escape from the recesses of Bob Kelly’s brain. I loved every minute of it. Everyone who has ever worked there has a favorite story and a clutch of fond memories. That’s what makes it such a great place.”

Finally, from me: “Happy 100th, Charleston Daily Mail.”

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