Remembering a mentor

Jul. 06, 2013 @ 05:33 PM

Stuart Dim died last month.

That name that will mean nothing to most folks reading this – with a few exceptions, like my good friend and old colleague Marion (Art, to many here) Ellis, a fellow alum of The Charlotte Observer in the 1970s.

But Stuart Dim’s influence permeates my journalism ethos and my view of life.

As too often happens, I’d been too little in touch with Stuart in recent years: An occasional phone call, random email exchanges often launched by some oddity that caught his eye or mine and we knew the other would enjoy. Caromed greetings relayed through mutual friends after a visit.

I am sure I told him, more than once, how much working with him in the late 1970s meant to me, at a pivot point in my career that would a few years later launch me on what’s been a rewarding quarter-century as editor in State College, Pa; Owensboro, Ky; and here.

But I probably never told him adequately what an important mentor he was.

More than three decades after I worked with Stuart, lessons from him, large and small, resonate.

I can never live up to his indefatigable work ethic.  Nights and weekends regularly found him in the newsroom – always with a non-stop sense of humor and optimism taking the edge off of his demanding editing style.

He didn’t just appreciate good story-telling – he embraced it and demanded it. He was a relentless seeker of the telling incident, the colorful detail that would lift a story out of the ordinary story.

He was a fan of lean writing, a warrior against excess words and redundancy. To this day, I think of him when I strike an unnecessary “of the” from copy.

He was a serious investigative-reporting advocate.  He loved breaking stories of governmental misfeasance.

But he embraced, long before it became the norm in newspapers, the idea that a great newspaper should cover the broad spectrum of life in a community with zeal and enthusiasm. After his tenure as managing editor at The Observer, he was my boss in the features section, where I was the deputy editor.

He broadened my view of what could be fun as well as important, taking me well outside my experience as a city-side reporter and editor. 

He had a knack for knowing when a story deserved some length to develop and explore a topic – and when it needed to be short and to the point. “We could do World War II in cutlines,” he’d buoyantly pronounce as we wrestled with too little space.

Stuart could demand and work long hours, but he could happily take a two-hour break for a lunchtime run, followed by home-made soup compliments of his wife, Joan, before heading back into the office.

His passion for running rubbed off on me. When I decided I needed to take up running, Stuart told me what shoes to buy – and was a frequent running partner.

He cofounded, with then-sports-editor Dale Bye, the Observer Marathon. He, and it, were the reasons I ran my only five marathons.

He was unfazed by adversity. Heading out to run in a downpour, he’d invoke his favorite refrain – “the human body is waterproof.”

As he struggled in recent years with bout after bout with cancer, he exuded the same cheerful optimism and perseverance.

I’m a better person and a better journalist for Stuart’s imparting that optimism, and so much else, when I was privileged to work with him.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can contact him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.