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Former Telegraph columnist Bill Boyd dies at 74

Bill Boyd, the newspaper columnist whose everyman nature and homespun humor endeared him to readers and made him a household name in these parts for four decades, died Tuesday of cancer. He was 74.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Snow’s Memorial Chapel on Cherry Street, with visitation afterward.

The dark-haired, native Oklahoman came to The Telegraph in 1973 after a 20-year career in the Marine Corps, and within years, in midlife, he became a fixture locally. “Mr. Telegraph,” some called him, an adopted son of the Deep South.

In an interview this past November, he recalled his early days at the paper covering the far-flung reaches of Middle Georgia and how he thrived on reporting as a rookie in his late 30s. His first job here also made use of his photography skills.

“Every day I woke up and there wasn’t something with my name on it, either a photograph or a story on the front page of that paper, I felt like I’d wasted a day of my life,” Boyd said.

He began writing his column in 1977 and by some counts turned out as many as 3,500 before he retired in 1998. He became a diviner of all things down home. From the nomadic and legendary goat man, Charles “Ches” McCartney, to presidential brother Billy Carter, Boyd chronicled the region’s characters and, in the process, became one himself.

“I got on to the people stories early,” Boyd, who had been in failing health for several months, said in November. “Some of the more jaded souls in the newsroom said, ‘You can’t make a living doing that.’’’

William James Boyd made more than a living at it. He made friends and inroads with readers during what was a golden age for newspapers. He launched a one-man, grass-roots crusade that The Telegraph still benefits from today.

“He probably was far less known to people in the newsroom and far more well known to people in the community,” said Barbara Stinson, a former managing editor who edited 2,500 or so of Boyd’s columns.

“He truly liked people. I mean, he was one of, I think, 18 children and he just ... could talk to anybody and get them to tell him stories. He took the time to talk to people. He didn’t use $10 words. He didn’t use fancy words. He didn’t have a college education so he didn’t have to pretend to write fancy. He just wrote what he heard and what he saw. ... And it wasn’t just Macon. It was Soperton or Montezuma or Gray. He didn’t exclude anybody from being a part of the newspaper.”

Boyd’s farewell column as a full-timer at the paper was published in June 1998. It reads like the last love letter of an epic romance. It began: “Bye-bye, love. Don’t you dare cry. We’ve had many good times together, so let’s not put on a sad face. Not now. We knew it would end someday, didn’t we? Today is that someday.”

His first article for the paper, in December 1973, a straight news item with a Callaway Gardens dateline, was about a speech given by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. It was a run-of-the-mill speech, and yet the fledgling reporter Boyd used his storyteller’s touch to spice the opening line of the otherwise standard-issue, 14-sentence dispatch.

“Gov. Jimmy Carter arrived here Thursday in a small Chevrolet Nova at 50 miles per hour to tell a conference on land use to ‘keep it local,’ ’’ Boyd wrote.

Five years later, still on the news beat as state editor, he wasn’t above reporting a four-paragraph brief from Hazlehurst under the headline “Robbers Sting Beekeeper.”

“Most thieves simply grab their booty and run. Not so with a thief in Jeff Davis County,” Boyd wrote. “Someone with a special interest ripped off 38 beehives from the farm of beekeeper Leroy Shumans.”

The back roads from Deepstep to Uvalda, from Andersonville to Vidalia suited Boyd and his sharecropper childhood. He once dubbed himself “the Oklahoma version of an unpolished urban cowboy.”

“He fit in well because of his country upbringing and the fact that he wasn’t as formally educated as some people. He didn’t spout his politics or anything. He just wrote from the heart about people,” Stinson said.

“Even though early on he wrote about crimes and controversy, he spent the majority of his career and is far better known for the fact of writing about Joe and Susie and Tom and anybody in your community.”

Stinson called the columnist “a Telegraph writer for his generation, those hard-working, often hardscrabble folks who grew up mostly on farms in the rural South, people with a strong work ethic who found ways to better themselves and their families outside of formal educations, people who looked at their newspaper as a good friend they invited into their homes every day.”

Former Telegraph Executive Editor Cecil Bentley, a Macon native who followed in Boyd’s footsteps as the paper’s state editor in the late 1970s, recalls Boyd’s knack for cultivating sources across the region.

“I thought I knew Middle Georgia,” Bentley said. “He taught me the value of knowing all the clerks in all the courthouses, getting to know the real people there because they’re the ones who stay and the elected folks come and go. ... Bill had the respect of people in high office and political power, but he knew the salt-of-the-earth people who never were gonna be in the paper, but they related to Bill. ... In a minimal amount of time, Bill could get somebody’s story.”

Bentley says Boyd’s coming to the newspapering game later in life afforded him a perspective on how the world worked, and that insight lent him a leg up as he waded into small-town Georgia.

“By the time he started reporting, I think he had a lot more sense of what life was about. People were willing to tell Bill their story. ... That’s just an intangible skill that has more to do with your personality and how your mama raised you than what you learned in school. Just a good bedside manner,” Bentley said.

“A lot of (reporters) who can just do the who-what-when-where stuff can’t really tell a tale like Bill can do, and that’s what would pull people into The Telegraph to read just about every word he wrote.”

75-and-Over Birthday Club

Boyd said last fall that, try as he might, once he became a columnist he saw no way to avoid writing about his family. So his wife, Marvalene, and his children, in essence, became characters in his columns.

The 75-and-Over Birthday Club party he hosted annually was, for him, as heartfelt as public-relations shindigs go. Think Willard Scott’s birthday tributes minus the Smucker’s and the television audience.

“He had that old-folks birthday party,” Bentley recalled. “Man, I went to those things, and he was the biggest rock star The Telegraph had. You just had to peel the women off him. It was funny to see it.”

Boyd seemed to revel in the joys of growing old.

“It’s easier to smile when you get old,” Boyd said in November. “You’ve been there, you’ve done that and you understand a whole lot more about life and people and everyday living. ... You take the ugly with the pretty and enjoy the scene when you can.”

He said he still recalled his mother’s voice, how he cherished memories of her singing.

“From this valley they say you are going,” he sang, breaking into a rendition of the folk tune “Red River Valley,” his voice barely above a whisper. “We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile. But remember the Red River Valley and the girl who has loved you so true.”

Bill Weaver, The Telegraph’s metro editor in the 1980s and ’90s, said as skilled as Boyd was as a columnist, “he was really better in person.”

“He had a great sense of humor, and he made the telling of just about every story or every joke kind of a theatrical treat,” Weaver said. “I guess maybe there was a little bit of entertainer in him. He enjoyed making people laugh.”

In his news-reporting days, Boyd sometimes sent flowers to secretary tipsters, once even drawing the ire of a jealous husband. Soon after he was hired, he was given a box of business cards. He doled them all out, more than 500 of them, in a matter of days. When he requested more, his editors were amazed. No one ran out of business cards that quickly. But Boyd had. He’d slipped them under doors, in the windows of police cars, and in the process began building a cadre of contacts that would, in the future, pay untold dividends in the form of information and genuine friendship.

“He talked about always going to the post office and talking to people at the post office because they heard everything going on around town,” Weaver said.

Boyd, he said, tapped into the networks that journalists sometimes overlook. In his later years at the paper, in the 1990s, he often kept to himself when he was in the office. He didn’t often mingle with the next generation of staffers or hold forth before them, though he did often show up with homemade cakes or doughnuts from Mennonite country in tow, bounty from his near-and-dear Macon County connections. For reporters and editors, his baked-goods hauls became a newsroom treat even after he retired when, from time to time, he still wrote human-interest features.

“Boyd’s coming in with a cake,” an editor would say. “Y’all come on.”

In the mid-to-late ’90s, he wrote his columns tucked away in a wing of the newsroom next door to the sports department. Then he’d hit the road to find more column fodder. He seemed to have long since realized the news-gathering adage that real-people stories had to be tracked down, courted even, that they didn’t walk in off the street.

A sign taped to one of his file cabinets captured his shoe-leather approach: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men and women with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence alone is omnipotent.”

Boyd said he may have given as many as 4,000 speeches over the years. He could tell jokes and make it seem like he had been there to report them. What made many of his tales more enthralling wasn’t just the way he told them. It was that they were true.

“He was ours, and he was sort of our common man. Even though he was an uncommon man, he was the kind of a guy who spoke for the common man,” Weaver said. “I think the good columnists out there do a good bit of that in their own way. ... He was somebody who cared about the people who weren’t usually in the news.”

In concluding his final column nearly a dozen years ago, Boyd signed off the way he probably wouldn’t mind seeing his obituary end: “No tears, please. ... We’ll still get a glimpse of one another now and then. And when we do, I want to see a smile. You still have a place in my heart.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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