Facebook bears sad news — the death of James Merriweather, a veteran newspaperman with whom I shared newsroom seats, laughs and not a few beers. He was 64. I hope no one minds the perhaps irreverent photo chosen from many on Facebook to illustrate James. It captures his personality and his glow in the healthy days before a 17-year battle with congestive heart failure, including a transplant.
He was a somewhat foreboding figure behind an upright Underwood when I entered the Arkansas Gazette newsroom in 1973. It turned out that what might appear to be a scowl melted readily and often into a big grin. He was the only black reporter on the staff, a lack in journalism not much improved in the 43 years since. By the time the Arkansas Gazette closed in 1991, he was chief of the important Capitol coverage and a columnist.
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James was born and reared in Clinton, a rare black family in those parts. He was bused to school in Conway every day. I treasure the photo he posted on Facebook of youth baseball days (below). He moved easily in a world that often didn’t include many people who shared his skin tone, but he never forgot for a second who he was. He was a football letterman at UCA and, with schooling in journalism there, embarked on his newspaper career.
When the Gazette folded and we converted the Arkansas Times to a weekly in 1992, he was the first person I called about joining us in our slightly quixotic plan to keep a liberal print news alternative alive against the now monopoly conservative daily newspaper. He couldn’t afford to leave the Gannett Corp., last owners of the Gazette, and moved to that company’s Wilmington, Del., paper, where he was state Capitol correspondent for the News Journal until retirement. He wrote quickly and cleanly with little need for editing. He had Jim Bailey’s facility for recounting events clearly and simply, making something hard look easy. I can confess (and his Facebook posts illustrate) that we were kindred political spirits — with a notable exception of his firm belief in the value of strong corporal punishment to set kids right.
At the Gazette in the 1970s and 1980s, James was known as “Mace.” It was his chosen four-letter name, a requirement of the first newsroom computer system that retired the Underwoods. It seemed right.
PS — A friend from Clinton noted that Clinton stopped sending its handful of black children to black schools in Conway in time for James to be a Clinton High graduate.