(Charlotte) Legacy of a gun-totin' cop reporter


January 22, 2003, 07:04 PM
Legacy of a gun-totin' cop reporter

`Nothing happened on the streets ... that he didn't find out about ...'


His voice came from the bottom of a pit all the way up through the gravel, and by the time it hit your ears, it had settled into a low growl. He smoked like a chimney, had the build of a squat bulldog and the face of a washboard road. That was John York, Reporter with a capital R. Cop beat. Just the facts. Right now.

If he had a motto, it had to have been, "Don't waste my time with bull."

John David York, retired Observer reporter and columnist, died of a blood infection Jan. 20 at age 78.

He believed in the Second Amendment, the one about the "right of the people to keep and bear arms."

Said retired Observer business editor M.S. Van Hecke, "He knew more about guns than the staff did. He wrote twice as much copy than anybody else; he poured out copy but not all of it got in the paper."

Best investigative reporter

"He was probably the best investigative reporter who ever walked through this newsroom," said Mark Ethridge, former Observer managing editor, "and we're talking Pulitzer Prizes, here.""John York was an original. He was a hell of a reporter, someone who understood the robbers as well as the cops, chased fire engines better than a Dalmatian and understood the ordinary reader and citizen as well as any reporter I know," said Rich Oppel, The Observer's editor from 1978 to 1993.

"He is the opposite of what people talk about when they say the media has lost touch with the average reader," said Oppel, now editor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. "John was a character."

He didn't always get along with editors, female editors in particular. He was quick to compliment on -- and remind them that they were wearing a dress, not trousers.

Barbara Russell was admittedly "green as all get-out" when she edited John's column years ago. "He used to wear a belt buckle with a pen knife in it, and he would draw out the knife, open the blade and casually clean under his fingernails with the tip while I worked. I was always veerrrryyy careful about what I edited," she said.

John came to The Observer in 1954 and his first week's paycheck was about $85 net. Within three months, he'd been given a $5 weekly raise.

A Marine till he died

Retired Observer photographer Don Sturkey covered many chases, raids, manhunts and murders with John. "He was the quintessential police reporter and was a Marine till he died," Don said. "He had a connection with people that few reporters have. He had this rough, tough Marine exterior, but underneath was a really sweet guy."

He was, but don't tell anybody. John helped start a Marine Corps League whose members wore dress uniforms to funerals of other Marines. "He was their god," said daughter Sharon Blackwelder. "He was the old guy from World War II."

`Packed heat'

John "packed heat," Don added. "The police probably knew, but it worried some of the editors."Assistant national editor Tex O'Neill relates the early 1950s tale of John on a police bank robbery stakeout. One of the robbers ran by John. "Forgetting he was a reporter and not a policeman, (he) either tripped or pulled a gun on the guy, and then held him until police could catch up."

Mentored Patricia Cornwell

John took young reporters under his wing, including Patsy Daniels, who later became celebrated crime writer Patricia Cornwell, and Ken Clark, a retired Duke Power executive who worked as an Observer reporter in the late 1950s.

John, a Marine tail gunner in the Pacific, had a World War II surplus tank radio wired up in his car so he could keep up with police calls, Ken said. "This was years before scanners came along.

"He was about the fastest two-index-finger hunt-and-peck typist known to man. He had the full trust of every honest cop around because they knew he would be fair and accurate. Because of this trust, nothing happened on the streets of Charlotte and surrounding cities and towns that he didn't find out about quickly."

"They trusted him," said former Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, "because they knew he was one of them. His affected abruptness was a coverup for a tender heart."

"Man, I fell in love"

Proof of John's softer side came when he met Juanita Goolsby in the 1940s. "I took one look," he later said, "and man, I fell in love." They were married in 1941 and were parents of Sharon (Blackwelder) and sons Patrick, who died in 1995, and Mike. John was devastated when Juanita died in 2001.

But the gruff John York, gun-totin' hard-nosed cop reporter, is the newsroom legend that won't fade anytime soon. Good stories are hard to kill.


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