Monday, January 15, 2007

Chuck Stone & The Tale of the Toilet Tissue

Back when we worked together at the Philadelphia Daily News, I usually could hear and smell Chuck Stone before I saw him.

The city desk, where I worked, was around the corner from a lobby. An elevator door would open with a ceremonial "ding" and I would hear the "click, click, click" of the cleats on the heels of Chuck's wingtips on the marble floor and the aroma of the distinctive Houbigant cologne he wore before he burst into the newsroom. (He later took to wearing fancy cowboy boots with his Brooks Brothers suits and sport coats, but kept the cleats and cologne.)
Charles Sumner "Chuck" Stone is a legend in his own time and may be the only journalist who knew or worked with virtually every civil rights leader of consequence.

He also is a dear friend whose parting gesture, most recently at a retirement dinner for a mutual friend, always is a big hug and the words "You know that I love you, brother."
Chuck became a Tuskegee Airman after graduating college, wrote speeches for and kept the faith, baby, with powerful U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., had a radio show with Malcolm X and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta before coming to the News, where he wrote a thrice weekly column for 19 years before going to divinity school and getting a theology degree in his late 60s while teaching journalism at the University of Delaware and later the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Whew!

Chuck also wrote several books, including a marvelous children's book, was the first head of the National Association of Black Journalists and today is as active as ever at age 82. (His son, Charlie, is even better known than his old man, having crafted and starred in the "Wassup?" Budweiser commercials and directed several pretty fine movies, including the award-winning "Drumline.")
While Chuck's columns in the News were must-reads (and we'll get to one in particular in a moment) , he was best known for negotiating the end to a hostage siege in the maximum security unit of a state penitentiary led by a triple killer, as well as for the extraordinary number of crime suspects -- 75 by my count -- who turned themselves into him rather than surrender directly to the Philadelphia Police.
Why? Because the suspects, most of them African-Americans, feared being beaten or otherwise mistreated. Having Chuck turn them over to the police, usually in his tiny office or the News conference room, helped guarantee safe passage. If Chuck wasn't available, I was his "second" and would babysit the suspect until he would arrive.

* * * * *
Chuck's reputation as a defender of the downtrodden no matter their color or station in life extended far beyond Philadelphia.

One day in 1981, he received a letter with a piece of toilet tissue that had been smuggled from H Block in Northern Ireland's dreaded Long Kesh Prison.

It had been written on in tiny, cramped printing by Ian Milne, an Irish Republican Army member, and slipped to one of the prisoner's fathers. At Milne's request, the father mailed it to Chuck near the end of Milne's 53-day hunger strike with the better known Bobby Sands and other IRA members to protest their inhumane treatment by the British. Ten men died during the hunger strike.

Now Milne was no choir boy, although he had been one in his youth. In fact, he was in Long Kesh for several political murders, which Chuck did not overlook in a column that captures his blistering disdain for anyone who would deny the most basic of rights to, yes, even a political prisoner who had shed blood for his cause.

An excerpt:
"Read Ian Milne's letter and you get another view of Northern Ireland's tragic religious-civil rights war.

"First of all, different words for the same thing.

"Milne called Long Kesh Prison by its real name. The British renamed it 'Maze Prison,' hoping to clean up a gruesome concentration camp image.

"Milne proudly signed himself as a 'Republican POW.' British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has defiantly christened him and other prisoners with a nastier epithet.

"A murder is a murder is a murder," she haughtily snarled in refusing to grant their request for P.O.W. status. King George III used to talk like her.

"Thatcher's doublespeak way with words is consistent with every problem she attacks.

"Britain is on the verge of becoming an economic basket case. Yet she insists in that attractively passionate way of hers that the waves of Dunkirk lapping at British backsides is actually a bathtub overflowing its sides."
By the way, the British finally released Milne from Long Kesh in 1992 after he did 17 years of hard time. Today he is chairperson of a district council in County Derry, Northern Ireland.

Chuck, meanwhile, is a robust 82 years old. Dennis Jackson, his biographer, noted in a conversation over the weekend that he is the embodiment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for everyone who cares about their community to become involved with it.

Said Dennis:
"I am sitting here today trying to boil down a chapter on Chuck in the Tuskegee Airmen, marveling at his long life and the energy he had living it.

"I was telling a friend that Chuck is the most admirable 'citizen' I know. No one has ever cared more for his community than Chuck. If City Council in Chapel Hill has an issue on the table that he cares about, he shows up to put in his 2 cents. If students rally for a cause, he shows up and speaks even if he disagrees with them. He still writes letters to the editor over any issue he disagrees with. He still reads his 10 newspapers a day. And, as his nephew Gene Seymour, told me, 'For my uncle, reading the newspaper is a contact sport' because he tears out stories, files them away, writes letters, calls people, etc.

"May he live on, joyfully, for another decade . . . or two."


Future Doctor said...

I just came across this post about Chuck Stone - or Prof. Stone as I knew him when I received my masters degree in journalism from UNC. If you check these comments, I would love to know how to get in touch with Chuck now that he has retired. I wanted to send him an email about how much his leadership and mentoring still means to me - he was my thesis advisor. My email is if you see this. Thanks! Katie

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Yeah this guy is amazing his writes reach many people around the world and in some places they makes the difference, sometimes we think that just write is not enough but actually is a lot.