Tony Norman: Pennsylvania has lost two fine journalists for good

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I knew this was going to be a tough week when word circulated that former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Charles Sumner "Chuck" Stone, 89, had died in an assisted living facility in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Pretty much everyone in Philly during my formative years -- including those who were functionally illiterate -- read Chuck Stone, and sometimes only Chuck Stone. Bow-tied, bespectacled and immensely poised, Mr. Stone was the columnist who even hard-core sports fans read before turning the page to find out how badly the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies or Flyers had let them down.

I was still digesting that bit of news when a friend sent an email I had been dreading for weeks: Our friend, former Post-Gazette political reporter and editor Alfonso X. Donalson -- known to the corrupt and the incorruptible in local politics and media as "Al Don" -- had died that morning. He was 80.

I was on call to write Al Don's obituary, an honor and duty I hoped would never be necessary. I last visited him on Sunday and held up my end of the conversation by teasing him with the only question that mattered as the minutes of his life ticked away: "Where's my money, Al?"

He smiled as I insisted he pay me some undefined sum before he shuffled from this mortal coil with his wallet intact. It was the same question we'd asked each other almost daily since around the time I began working at the PG in 1988 until he retired in 1999. It was the question Al Don put to every colleague sooner or later.

Because Al Don had suffered a series of strokes, he wasn't in a position to provide his usual surly retort rich in double negativity -- "I ain't got no money" -- so I provided it for him. It was a pitiful act of mimicry that never failed to make him smile that smile he'd wielded to sly perfection in newsrooms for decades.

Like Chuck Stone, Al Don made quite a name for himself with his hard-hitting reporting and unwillingness to defer to those in power. He was also an inveterate joker and wise guy, always quick with a quip and ribald story. He was plugged into what was happening on Grant Street like few other journalists in town, which accounted for his lack of respect for many of them.

Contrary to the image he liked to project at work, Al Don also was a cultured man who enjoyed symphonies, opera, gospel music and singing in a music ministry with Ruth, his wife of 53 years. Like the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, Al Don was known to tell a salty tale or two (or 20), but he was never mean-spirited, only harmlessly puerile.

As the first journalists in their families, Al Don and Chuck Stone navigated the indignities of Jim Crow without succumbing to bitterness or cynicism. They both came to journalism with hard-fought credentials as strong-willed but intelligent black men who had served in the military in some capacity. They weren't afraid of anything. They kicked open the doors of this profession for folks like me who would follow decades later.

Mr. Stone served as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and had an extensive career at the nation's most famous black newspapers -- though not the Pittsburgh Courier -- before he joined the Philly Daily News as a columnist and editor from 1972 to 1991.

He's also one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Mr. Stone was so feared by Philly's corrupt political bosses that he never had to wait long for his calls to be returned. What followed was always a sputtering pol trying in vain to negotiate more favorable coverage from the most skeptical, but experienced, columnist in the state.

For decades, dozens of wanted criminals and fugitives agreed to turn themselves over to the cops only after Mr. Stone agreed to accompany them to booking and listen to their side of the story. In 1981, he helped negotiate the release of six guards taken hostage during a prison riot.

He wasn't just a columnist. For a time, Chuck Stone was the most trusted man in Philadelphia. Had it not been a step down in influence, he could've run for mayor and won easily.

When the National Society of Newspaper Columnists had its annual convention in Pittsburgh in 2002, we invited Chuck Stone to receive the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award. He was gracious and incredibly modest given his accomplishments. I had the pleasure of introducing him in a brief speech. It was one of the thrills of my life.

If I were a political cartoonist, I really would do something hackneyed like depict these two men huddled in some corner of paradise trading jokes just out of earshot of the powers-that-be. They will be missed terribly.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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