A. C. Snow: “A newspaper columnist who delighted readers with country wisdom wrapped in elegant prose”

From a story on newsobserver.com by Josh Shaffer headlined “Columnist A. C. Snow dies after 70 years at NC newspapers and ‘a love affair with words'”:

A.C. Snow, the longtime News & Observer columnist who delighted readers with country wisdom wrapped in elegant prose for 70 years, died Friday in Raleigh.

He was 97, and had written his farewell column only two years before. Well into his 90s, he would grace the old McDowell Street newsroom in his canary yellow blazer, keeping a post in his old office on a corridor that by then had mostly been abandoned.

“As long as I can remember,” Snow once wrote, “I’ve had a love affair with words and their wondrous power when strung together, verbally or in print. As an inept public speaker, I found my voice in writing, recording the ongoing dramas, large and small, being played out on the stage of life around me.”

‘HE WAS DAMNED GOOD’

Snow began his career in the era of Linotype and finished in the time of Twitter.

His Triangle years began as reporter and then editor of The Raleigh Times, the city’s former afternoon newspaper, where he and the scrappy staff lived to scoop the competing morning News & Observer, owned by the same company. Having routinely outdone his rivals down the hall, he eventually joined them.

Frank Daniels Jr., whose family owned both, often considered Snow the only reason anyone bought either publication, and Snow loved Daniels for leaving his copy largely untouched.

“I just thought he was damned good,” Daniels said Friday. “I didn’t try to control what he wrote. I might have had a suggestion …”

Long before Snow retired, Raleigh’s mayor granted him the key to the city, which he used to crack walnuts — shunning official praise.

But he drew such a following, especially in his later decades as a Sunday N&O columnist, that he once checked his email from readers while on an Alaskan cruise, nearly missing the boat while holed up in a small-town library.

“I think he just knew how to observe life and the irregularities of life and the beauty of life and the pains of life,” said his daughter, Katharine Snow Smith, also a journalist. “And he knew how to write about them so beautifully that people could be moved by it. But he also knew how to say things in such a simple way that everyone could relate to it.”

‘EVERY PERSON I MEET HAS A STORY INSIDE’

Born in rural Surry County, a child of the Depression, Snow described his family using chickens as currency, and his weekly allowance consisting of whatever he could trade for an egg.

He nursed a boyhood dream of one day owning a grocery store so that once he grew up, he could have all the candy he wanted. But after his stint in World War II, he returned home figuring he’d spend life as a lawyer.

His mother cured that by telling him most lawyers had as much chance of entering paradise as a camel passing through a needle’s eye. And though he politely corrected her Biblical wisdom — it’s rich men, not lawyers — he followed it into newspapers.

“Well, I’ve come to think that every person I meet has a story inside,” he told the N&O in 2020. “Newspaper reporters are always looking for a story. And as you know, we all know, it may not be ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but there’s drama. And pathos. Grief. It’s an incredible profession.”

His career began at the Burlington Times-News in the early 1950s when his professor at UNC-Chapel Hill offered this frank recommendation: “He’s ugly as sin, but he’s a pretty good writer.”

His defining years followed at the Raleigh Times, where he made a point of asking post office clerks about interesting mail and police sergeants about unusual items that had been stolen.

Late in life, he called his mind a storehouse of odds and ends, jammed with the contents of a thousand notebooks and more bylines than his remaining strands of white hair.

WATCHING AS RALEIGH CHANGED

He chronicled spelling bees, in which he delighted. He witnessed executions, which he found haunting, mostly because so many people took comfort or delight in them, even betting on how long the condemned would take to die.

In any story, he summoned his most muscular phrases.

For this 1959 prison break, in which the escapees used a gun carved from soap and lowered themselves through a window with bed sheets: “Desperation and devil-may-care courage … and a sheer life-or-death gamble.”

And from this lighter column in 2019: “Have you visited the Raleigh Farmers’ Market lately? Don’t pass up the experience of viewing and buying what farmers have brought forth from the land and their labor under the summer sun.”

He watched Raleigh turn from a small, segregated capital to a city with a skyline and more people than Cleveland or New Orleans.

His wife, Nancy, taught at Broughton High School and had one of Raleigh’s first integrated classrooms while Snow chronicled many of Raleigh’s most important moments, particularly on race relations.

“One morning during the era of segregation,” he recalled late in life, “soon after the ‘Colored’ and ‘White’ water fountains had been removed from the courthouse lawn on Fayetteville Street, I was having coffee at the pharmacy next door. A Black woman entered and timidly approached the soda fountain where she inquired, ‘Do you serve Colored?’ The employee’s reply of ‘Colored what?’ warmed my heart. I realized that perhaps we were finally turning the corner in race relations, at least in Raleigh.”

Snow’s columns also caught the trauma of his own life, which he shared along with Raleigh’s. The most memorable, and painful, of these came after his daughter Melinda’s death in 1996.

“So many people knew me,” Snow told the N&O. “I tried not to be bitter because she was killed by a drunk driver.”

As a member of the N.C. Media & Journalism Hall of Fame, Snow stands among the luminaries of the state’s news gatherers.

But more than that, he cherished the small thanks from readers, especially the man in Oregon who sent a postcard to say he reads Snow daily in the bathroom.

Or this gem, which Snow celebrated in his farewell column, evidence of a newspaper life come full circle: “I see you have a new photo at the top of your column,” a reader wrote. “I used to come downtown and see you drinking coffee with your friends at the Professional Pharmacy. You were ugly as hell then, and you’re ugly as hell now.”

Josh Shaffer is a general assignment reporter on the watch for “talkers,” which are stories you might discuss around a water cooler. He has worked for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.

 

 

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