John Nicholas Popham III 91910-1999)
By John Egerton
Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp. 21-22
The newspapers in Chattanooga and New York took particular note of the death, on December 12, of John N. Popham. In the days since, all who knew and loved and delighted in this extraordinary man must have wondered how he would have reacted to so much ink.
I see him sitting under a bright light, his reading glasses snug against his temples, copy pencil at the ready. He is muttering under his breath-and, every few minutes, aloud, just for emphasis:
“Oh, my Gawd, will you look at this! Poor reporting, sloppy editing, too long, too long-and poor news judgment, too, a complete waste of space. All this fuss over some newspaperman who died. What about the real story, out in the streets, the schools, the half-deserted little towns? What about the single mother who can’t make ends meet, the little guy fighting for his life against the giants. . . .”
He tips back the narrow brim of his hat. There is a flicker of mirth in his watery blue eyes, and a hint of suppressed humor in his richly accented Tidewater Virginia voice:
“As long as they were at it, though, they could have made a few more calls. For instance, there was that fellow down in Jackson back in the fifties who tipped off the governor that I was in jail, so he would spring me. And that head waiter in New Orleans who gave me great quotes from a dinner meeting of bigwigs in the back room of his restaurant. So many good people–but you’ve got to search them out, you’ve got to meet them on their own turf, you’ve got to be patient and listen. Nobody gets the time to do that kind of reporting today. . . .”
Johnny Popham belonged to a time all but unknown now to anyone under forty. It was the pre-television, golden age of newspapers, when fierce competition drove the medium, and almost every publisher, left and right, considered the press to be more of a high calling and a sacred public trust than a for-profit enterprise. As a reporter and an editor, Popham held similar views-including the notion that newspapers are essential to the attainment of freedom and justice in a democratic society.
It is fittingly ironic that this garrulous and engaging man, never at a loss for words, should be silenced by death, only to have countless others whose lives he touched come rushing forth to fill the void with words of praise and humor and appreciation, as if by doing so, they might somehow coax him back for one more grand story.
The newspapers told well the essential details of his life: Popham the descendant of European pilgrims to America, the Virginia gentleman from the house of Popham, the cub reporter in Brooklyn, the intrepid U.S. Marine in his father’s image, the United Nations correspondent, the first New York Times Southern correspondent, the beloved husband and father, the dutiful but not uncritical Catholic, the legendary managing editor of the Chattanooga Times.
That was the formal John N. Popham of The Times. Far more complex was the man behind the name, variously and lovingly known as Johnny Popham, Honest John, Sir John, Saint Nicholas, or just plain Pop.
From 1947 to 1958, he crisscrossed the South in a succession of hard-ridden Buick sedans, driving over 50,000 miles a year to report breaking news and to write “think pieces” for his New York editors. He covered the first postwar stirrings of the civil rights revolution, and at every stop he took note of the men and women, black and white, who seemed to grasp the significance of social change.
He quickly became the primary link between Southern and “outside” journalists, and between members of the press and a wide range of leaders in the fields of education, politics and religion. He had a knack for making acquaintance across all the usual lines of division, and greeted his
friends of all ages and both genders as “sweetheart” or “dawlin’.”
From 1958 until his retirement in 1977, Popham ran the news side of the paper in Chattanooga, somehow finding time along the way to hone his oratorical skills and to lend personal support to such sectional alliances as the Southern Education Reporting Service, the Southern Regional Education Board, and the Southern Regional Council. Every SRC director since George Mitchell in the 1940s has had ample reason to appreciate him. Popham was inducted into the Council’s select circle of Life Fellows in 1983.
Just a year before that, he had graduated from the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, capping a five-year, thrice-weekly commute from Chattanooga in the restless wake of his “retirement.”
Seeing things before others saw them was one of Pop’s special gifts. Some years after his permanent return to the region of his birth, he remarked to a friend, “I’ve learned you have to leave the South to see it. If you stay here, you think it’s this way everywhere.” It was a lesson he never forgot, and freely passed on to colleagues and protégés and perfect strangers alike in typically Pophamian postulations.
“It takes time and experience to gain perspective. A good journalist is supposed to fill in the empty spaces of history. The real stories are hidden away in the hearts of ordinary people. What are they really like? How do they look, talk, behave? Who do they know? Where do they turn for answers? Who are their voices of sanity? So you keep looking for those little nuggets of wisdom–and if you’re patient enough, the stories will begin to bloom. You just can’t see them or smell them until they bloom.”
The demise of the free-standing Chattanooga Times was painful for Popham to observe. He continued to go in to the newspaper on a daily basis, holding forth at a table in the library and writing an occasional column, until January 1999, when the Arkansas-based media company that had previously acquired the Chattanooga Free Press bought the Times from its parent company based in New York. Out-of-town ownership and merger of the two bitter rivals into a single morning daily stunned and saddened Pop. He was still grieving the loss when he died.
At his request, his wife Frances, daughter Hilary, and son John N. Popham IV arranged a military funeral for him–flag-draped casket, marine color guard, rifle salute, taps, the full measure. But inside the closed coffin, they had him dressed in more familiar attire: red sport coat with a pocket handkerchief, striped shirt with a white collar, bright yellow tie, charcoal pants, his old cordovans, and one of his hats–the felt one with the stingy brim.
Dressed and ready, as if still listening for the voices of sanity and wisdom in a cacophonous world of moneychangers, imagemakers, and special pleaders. His was one of the sane and the sage voices, one of the few. In Chattanooga and across the South, wherever Pop shined his light, it’s a little darker now.
So long, Sweetheart. Semper fi.
John Egerton has been writing about the South for more than a generation. He wrote Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South.