Luke DeCock

To read Caulton Tudor was a pleasure. To know him, a privilege.

News & Observer columnist Caulton Tudor works court side during the ACC basketball tournament in Atlanta, Ga. on March 10, 2010.
News & Observer columnist Caulton Tudor works court side during the ACC basketball tournament in Atlanta, Ga. on March 10, 2010. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Generations of readers came to know Caulton Tudor through his words, and how lucky they were. For five decades, he was the voice and conscience of the ACC, long before it became the megalith it is today. To whatever degree the ACC ever had a soul, Tudor spoke to it. Tudor spoke for it.

And yet to know Tudor, to sit beside the man, to work alongside him, how lucky we were. The force of his personality eclipsed his body of work, and that says nothing about his work and everything about who he was.

He could sit there, legs folded over one another to expose sockless – always sockless – ankles, skinny arms poking out from a golf shirt, a coiffure resembling a whirlwind of steel wool atop his head, and toss off the kind of one-liners you’d give up an appendage to write yourself. If he had a cigarette in one hand and a glass of something in the other, in a bar or hospitality room somewhere, so much the better.

Conversation was as much his metier as his column in the Raleigh Times or The News & Observer. The things he’d write were terrific. The things he’d say, you’d carry with you forever.

So while we lost Tudor on Wednesday, and it has been four years since he last appeared in The N&O, those of us who were lucky enough to work alongside him or travel with him – and that group includes not just his N&O coworkers but just about everyone who passed through the North Carolina sports media over the past 50 years – will still be telling Tudor stories for years, just as we did when he was alive.

He became almost as big a figure as the people he wrote about, smuggling cigarettes to Dean Smith and swapping barbs with Jim Valvano. In the ACC, and in the world of college basketball especially, what Tudor wrote mattered. Everyone talked to him. They enjoyed it. During the ill-fated N.C. State basketball coaching search that led to the misguided hiring of Sidney Lowe, Tudor was gathering info from so many people it seemed like he had a better idea of what was going on than the principals. (The way things turned out, maybe he did.) Parachuting into the 2002 NHL playoffs with the Hurricanes, he was even given his own hockey-style nickname: “Tootsy.” (He loved it.)

And yet there was nothing big time about Tudor. The fulcrum of his humor was rarely ridicule of a person and often the absurdity of a given situation. He was from tiny Angier in Harnett County and had the accent to prove it, albeit with a high-pitched, antic way of speaking that was uniquely his own. “Hey babe,” he’d squeak, and you never knew what was coming next, but it was probably going to be pretty good.

If you liked to talk about sports, and especially about writing about sports, and especially about all the benefits and baggage that come with that very peculiar calling, there was always room at his table, whether you wrote for a college paper or a national magazine. You couldn’t brush up against Tudor in a press box or hospitality room somewhere without walking away with a story, an anecdote, a quip you couldn’t wait to tell someone else.

Even when Tudor was still working and around, writers (and TV people and PR people and sports-information directors and coaches and athletic directors and bowl reps) would collect Tudor stories like baseball cards, trading and collecting them. On a day like this, just about everyone can cling to some kind of Tudor story as consolation. Those of us who were lucky enough to work alongside him, and especially to travel with him, became connoisseurs, true aficionados of the genre.

This business used to breed characters like him, although Tudor was a true original. It’s a more corporate newspaper world now, focused on clicks and Tweeting and instant gratification. Tudor was a throwback to a time when there was time to craft words, to marshal them out of chaos and into order like cars boarding a ferry. He bridged the gap between the writers who covered the founding of the ACC and those who covered its expansion from nine to 12 to 15 teams. He was among the last to have a foot in both worlds.

Twenty-five years from now, no one will probably remember much of what he wrote, and maybe not even most of the people he wrote about. That’s inevitable. Time passes quickly. But as long as there are still press boxes in North Carolina and people who work in them, those people will still be talking about Caulton Tudor. The stories will be shared second- and third- and fourth-hand, passed down like fables from one generation to another, met with a laugh or a wry smile but without the joy that came from hearing it directly from him.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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