Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Kays Gary moment

(FYI: I'll have a bonus post or two on the S.C. primaries today on the Primary Source blog... a little something on yard signs and maybe an early take on the pre-debate prep at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.)

On Wednesday I stopped in the fishing village of Little River, S.C., to talk to folks about the South Carolina primaries. I got out of my car and walked down to the docks and an older guy waved me over. His name is Tommy Long and he's the unofficial mayor of Little River (there's a little more about that in my column today).

I told Tommy that I work for the Charlotte newspaper and his eyes lit up. "I know a man from the Charlotte newspaper!" he said. "You ever hear of Kays Gary?"

Have I ever.

So many people in Charlotte are newcomers that most of you probably haven't heard of Kays. He was simply the best columnist in the history of the Charlotte Observer.

Kays wrote columns for the Observer from 1956 until he retired in 1986. Along the way he quit three times but he couldn't stay away -- he even wrote occasional columns from his place on the coast for years after he retired. He was so popular and so generous that people literally lined up in front of his desk every morning to talk to him. He died in 1997, leaving a connection with readers that none of us who have done the job since him could match.

The best compliment I get is "You remind me of Kays Gary." The comment that stings the most is "You'll never be as good as Kays Gary."

It turned out that Kays had come to Little River some 50 years ago to do a story and ran into Tommy Long. Tommy never forgot.

I wish I could link to a bunch of Kays' columns but there's not much on the Web. Last year, though, we reprinted his column on Dorothy Counts, the girl who helped integrate the Charlotte schools in 1957. It's his best-known column and an amazing piece of deadline poetry. Check it out.

Because of the Web I guess you could say all newspapers are global now -- who knows, you might be reading this in Beijing. But in print we (and most other large newspapers) have cut back our reach. I'm sure this makes business sense. But it used to be nice to know that you could find an Observer box in every mountain holler and every outpost on the Outer Banks. And over the years, Kays traveled to just about all those places chasing down stories.

Which is all a way of saying I wasn't surprised that a random guy in a tiny fishing village on the S.C. coast would say he used to know Kays Gary.


Anonymous said...

Tommy, I served with Kays Gary. I knew Kays Gary. Kays Gary was a friend of mine. Tommy, you sir are no Kays Gary.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tommy, really enjoyed the Kays Gary article. My father worked with him at the Observer, and I read him as a young man. My mother, now 87, tells me stories about the old days, and she mentions Kays a lot. I think you follow in the tradition quite well.

Anonymous said...

That regurgitated Lloyd Bentsen's 1988 debate insult of Dan Quayle is below the belt and unfair to you as one of the finer wordsmiths I have ever known. I never had the opportunity to read any of Kays Gary work but I am sure it was much in line with the same craftmanship practised by The Commercial Appeal's Lydell Sims who became their local newspaper legend. I have read your columns for many years and with 40 years of laboring in the same field I can truly and honestly give you a sincere tip o' the hat for your excellence. Whoever wrote that barb obviously would not wear the title "sir" very well.
TJ Stocker

Anonymous said...

Tommy, You are the best writer at the Observer! You write a little different than Kays but a different style doesn't mean you do not write as well as Mr. Gary...Wasn't Kays the one who 'discovered' Long Sam ( a beautiful girl in cut-of jeans walking in the woods?
Edy B...Mint hill

Anonymous said...

Tommy, what a delight to find this post, even though a week after you posted it! You need never feel yourself lacking as a writer. I can say that with more authority than my own astute sensibilities. I can say that because my dad used to say what a fine writer you are. Tommy, this is Debbie Gary Alicen talking--Kays' daughter.

You're right about there not being much of Dad's stuff available online. I'm thinking of remedying that, if I can get the Observer's permission to post a bunch of Papa's columns on a website. Can you tell me whom to contact? I'm at a bit of a remove up here in Vermont.

BTW, I found your post because I was looking for something online to link to a reference to Dad in a post of mine, so you're now cross-linked on and

Anonymous said...

Tommy, I always knew you would be one of the great writers of our time. Great work! I know Mrs. Hunt, Fugate and Parks would be proud too.

Anonymous said...

Kays Gary used to live next door to me in Westerly Hills when I was in jr. high/high school. He was the best neighbor I have ever had. I used to go over and cut his grass for him, without letting him know it was me. He wrote about that one time, and somewhere, I have that article. It was more about my daddy, Chester Helms, and his life as a quadraplegic husband, father, and advocate for the disabled. Debbie - I loved your father like a grandpa. My daddy died in April of 1997 and there is no loss like a girl's daddy. We both had two wonderful daddies.
Tommy - I have to admit, you are way too liberal for me a lot of the time, but even that brings Kays Gary to my mind. I wonder what he would say about some things that are going on today. I miss him too.

Anonymous said...

Tommy I am glad you are not Kays Gary because if you were we would not have Tommy Tomlinson! You also make the world a richer place because you sing the songs you have been given, as Kays did. There is no better epitaph.
Thanks for stirring my memories. As a child I loved to read the end of Kays' columns where he plugged someone's free puppies or kittens "for a conscience-sized donation to Holy Angels Nursury." Wish someone still did that.
Although I never met Kays Gary I always felt close to him, as I do to you - a good columnist has an unseen extended family.
Thank you for writing your heart.

Ken said...

I read Kays Gary when I was growing up and was in adulation. I worked with him at The Observer, and for a time was in charge of "editing" his column -- something I never did. I just let them roll. The only person who could edit Kays and actually make Kays happy was Doug Robercheck. Kays had hig regard for his ability. I have read Tommy since he was a reporter in the Rock Hill bureau. He is every bit as good as Kays. Kays was a creature of his place and accurately reflected his times. Tommy is like that. He is different, because these are different times. But he every bit as good at capturing them as Kays. I am blessed to have known and read them both.

Anonymous said...

I've just caught up on the comments here, and there ya go, Tommy--overwhelming recognition of your own magnificent voice. I'm touched, everyone, by your recollections of Dad, too. Ah, Kim--1997 was a tough year for us, yes? That was great of you to mow Dad's lawn. He was the least mechanically inclined human being I've ever encountered. The only machine he ever worked well with was a typewriter, and you can believe he didn't ever learn to type the "right" way--just the way that worked for him. He was no good with lawn mowers. Thanks for the memories, everyone.

Anonymous said...

How nice to remember...but then how could I forget. It was Kays who responded to our quest for bicycles for foster kids; it was Kays who recognized the humor in our home...after all our kids were blancing gerbil bones on stove, while I was stirring pots with a commons spoon, and a social worker was present. It was Kays who mentioned my red haired child. Oh how I loved Kays. Oh how I love Tommy, and any good journalism. I may have some of those great pieces in a box somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry the first comment sets such a negative tone, because Tommy, I always think of you as being a really good columnist, like Kays Gary. I grew up reading Kays Gary's column, and was impressed that anyone at the Observer would attempt a column after he retired, how could you follow an act like that? But Tommy, I enjoy reading your columns every bit as much as I did Kays. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, and Debbie, as you can see, some of us in Charlotte still miss your Dad!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Tommy and the nudge from your memories of Dad, I now have clearance to put a bunch of Dad's columns on a website. I'll let Tommy know the URL, and post it here as well, when I get some uploaded.

xlpharmacy reviews said...

The beginning of the tale reminded me a lot of my father, he just love to talk to people about anything, if he goes to a town that he dont know, he always goes to any cafe, pub or what ever and talk to people.

Sandi McBride said...

I discovered your blog while looking for a certain Kays Gary article. In this world of high technology it was not so hard to do. It was the Dorothy Counts column. I read his column as a child when we were at our grandparents for the summer. He was my inspiration. While I only have a little column in the Cheraw Chronicle, I always say I want to write like Kays Gary. So far no one has told me that I do. You are a fine writer Mr Tomlinson and Kays Gary would be proud if someone said you write like him.
Sandi McBride

Unknown said...

Kays Gary wrote an article about me when I was 12 years old. I thought the article was written in 1987. " Bright Entrepreneur raking it in ewit Yard work". My name is Rontigus Bright

Unknown said...

I found my article. November 16, 1987. The Charlotte Observer. Columnist Kays Gary