It was a ragtag group that put out the first issue of the Independent in April 1983. Our average age was 26. We owned a couple sticks of furniture, a broken-down typesetting machine and two of those newfangled desktop computers. We printed 10,000 newspapers, but we didn't have any news racks to put them in. We had no clout, no reputation, little wisdom or experience or money.
What we did have was vaulting ambition, brash progressive politics, a willingness to work like the devil and one more thing: a group of distinguished people whom we somehow convinced to appear in our masthead as members of our editorial advisory board. Fourteen were listed in that first issue: our mentor, Elizabeth Tornquist; writers and journalists Harry Amana, Mimi Conway, Lindsey Gruson, Candace Flynt and Jock Lauterer; Texas Observer founder Ronnie Dugger; photographer Eugene Smith; activists Si Kahn, Valeria Lee and Mab Segrest; intellectuals James David Barber and Nell Painter; and—at the end of the list—our one really famous name, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker.
Wicker grew up in Hamlet, N.C., attended UNC and became the Washington correspondent for the Winston-Salem Journal before going to the Times. He loved his home state and despised Sen. Jesse Helms, so when Katherine Fulton, our editor, and I met with him in New York to pitch him on the idea of our yet unpublished North Carolina newspaper, he bit. The most powerful columnist in American journalism willingly gave over his good name to a couple of youngsters with nothing to offer but a dream.
Tom Wicker urged us on, and he told us one good story before we left. He had been in North Carolina recently to interview Gov. Jim Hunt. The two of them sat alone at a table in the Governor's Mansion talking, when dinner arrived. Wicker, a man of large appetites, was famished and excited by the feast set before him. He picked up his utensils, eyes trained on his plate and, salivating, prepared to dig in. His knife and fork descended, touched the meat, when from across the table he heard the governor's deep voice: "Let us pray." Retelling the story to us, Wicker roared.
Through the years, Wicker wrote us occasional notes of encouragement. On one trip to North Carolina, he did a fundraiser for the Independent. We charged $25 for the chance to spend a couple hours with him.
Tom Wicker died last week at age 85. I remember his generosity with gratitude and wonder. In 1983, when Katherine and I walked out of the Times with the promise of his name on our masthead, we figured we might really be able to publish a newspaper after all.
Steve Schewel is president of Carolina Independent Publications, which owns the Independent Weekly.