Monday, April 30, 2012

Bob Bentley, journalist

Camp Connell, Ca -- Bob Bentley was buried yesterday back in his Southern hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina.

He changed my life for the better, and I will not forget what he did for me and many others.
He wrote his own obituary, found at  Bob's obit . It was typical of Bob not to leave any detail to chance.

We met almost 50 years ago when we were both with the Miami Herald. Bob was a copy editor and a youthful manager, and I was reporter assigned to the area around Cape Canaveral.

I left the Herald the next year, and one year later he showed up to take over as editor of the Today Newspaper near Cape Canaveral where I worked. It is now called Florida Today,  and at the time was test bed for what became the nation's largest newspaper. He was 29 years old, unknown outside of his South Carolina hometown and Florida East Coast newspapers.

Astronaut Alan Shepard left a microscopic copy of that newspaper's report on Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon, something Bob was extremely proud of.

Before he was done he helped build up six successful newspapers from Florida to California by applying his great judgment, innovative skills and by working incredibly long hours. He was apolitical, but suffered fools from both parties poorly when they ignored the needs of the common people.

He knew how to hire the best and the brightest young journalists, and keep them excited about each new day.

He lured top young professionals to Florida by promising them sunny beaches, cold beers and good times, plus a chance to work with a group of colorful characters out to make the world a better place.

Novelist Randy Wayne White was hired by Bentley while White was working as a lineman climbing poles for the utility company. At least six other staff members he hired during his Florida days have published novels or successful non-fiction books. Several of us went on, after a few years under Bob's mentoring, to become editors of daily newspapers.

Foreign Correspondent Susan Taylor Martin was his county government reporter whom Bob defended quite successfully against a religious zealot who happened to be a Florida elected official.

Photographer/artist Bob Ferguson was an early hire, and a life-long friend.
Ferguson had this to say in a sad e-mail to friends: "I am going to miss his baritone voice, pencil editing of correspondence and writing, his love of gossip, his devotion to sports and the Game Cocks in particular. His love of South Carolina and grits, scars on the belly to prove it, and his passion for his friends. His love and appreciation of women, and his commitment to his wife Susan and his kids, Robby and Reid. All of us will miss you, Bob Bentley!"

Graduates of his newsrooms still fill key slots at newspapers from the New York Times to Los Angeles, from Columbia, South Carolina, to Bakersfield, Ca.

 One of our colleagues from those days now blogs (pro-guns and anti-Obama) from his Oklahoma mini-farm. He remembers Bob this way: "The sheer joy and camaraderie of newspapering was never quite the same for any of our crew before Bob arrived and after he moved on. "We work hard and we play hard," Bob was fond of saying, and indeed we did. Bob Bentley was a brilliantly imaginative innovator, a personnel genius, a gifted writer, a genuinely unforgettable character and one of my dearest friends."

Under Bob's editorship our pro-gun zealot worked quite happily alongside a young pot-smoking hippie from Kansas who never, as far as we could tell, cut his hair, and a tough liberal New York City veteran newswoman whom he talked into coming South to make a difference. He brought us all together.

 He was often a  bachelor in his younger years, and with basketball-player build, tall good looks,  Southern charm, curly hair and big smile he was always popular with everyone except the politicians his newspapers helped keep honest.

His obituary says this:

"He was editor of six daily newspapers, a news executive on two others.

"Bentley was a national pioneer in the logical, consistent positioning of the news. From obituary writer for The State as a student at USC, Bentley rose to copy editor and then joined the Miami Herald for seven years in management. Innovations made during his first editorship at Florida Today were later used in creation of Gannett’s USA Today."

Bob asked me to open a state capitol bureau for Gannett Newspapers, and never once interfered or tried to do anything except to make our jobs covering politics easier. And fun. His sense of humor showed up once when he was co-hosting a reception of the state's political elite, plus several publishers and his boss the CEO of Gannett. When Bob arrived in an expensive new white suit, he looked up and saw the CEO was wearing the same suit. Without a word, Bob disappeared and was back at the reception within 15 minutes in a different suit. He laughed about it later: "My Momma didn't raise a fool."  

We spent many nights together in the 1970s, after the newspaper was rolling off the presses, singing around the piano after a late-night supper at a local hangout.
We parted as colleagues when Bob went to El Paso to be the editor there, I filled his slot, and then he later moved on through Atlanta, New Jersey and the Washington Post. He came to California for a while, and the returned home to South Carolina where he was editor of the same newspaper he had delivered on his bike as a boy.

He never quite commenting, writing, caring or editing.

He probably has his blue pencil in hand right now, deleting too many commas or searching for my split infinitives.

God rest your soul, my friend. You will not be forgotten.

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