Farewell, Florence: Career Journalist Retiring
Describing a Legend
Florence Gilkeson’s associates struggle for superlatives to describe the veteran newswoman who retires this week.
“Wonderful professionally, wonderful personally. We’ve worked together for 27 years. We’ve even spent the night together, waiting for results. Florence was always so kind and gracious; that gets the same results without being a bulldog. Florence made sure she had things correct, double-checked them. She had the added gift of experience and history of North Carolina elections. This background helped the reader understand them.”
— Glenda Clendenin, director of the Board of Elections for Moore County
“Florence is loved by people not for what she says, but for what she doesn’t say. Politics are theater, but she didn’t go for the theater part. She stayed above the fray. She never unnecessarily attacked anyone. Florence has a way with words; but I truly believe that her personal views did not enter into her thought processes while reporting. I believe the IQ of The Pilot will go down 10 percent when she leaves.”
— John Owen, former chairman of the
Moore County Republican Party, now chairman
of Moore County Airport Authority
“I think of Florence as the original Steel Magnolia. She’s a groundbreaking journalist. Most people who have accomplished what she has would wear it on their chest like a varsity letter. Not Flo. She carries herself with uncommon grace and humility.
“Florence was one of the first female graduates from Chapel Hill; she entered journalism when it was a men’s-only fraternity. Her achievements require determination and admirable strength of character. Our community was lucky to have such a fine journalist. Her colleagues were even more fortunate to work alongside her all these years.”
— David Woronoff, Pilot publisher
“I think of Florence as someone who was thorough in researching information and honest in reporting. There were no surprises in her articles. Being raised on a family farm had a big influence on her writing style. I always enjoyed discussing her farm background and the values it instilled. I tell people Florence was my public relations person.”
— Charles Hammond, retired
Cooperative Extension director
“Florence is dedicated to Faith Presbyterian Church (in Laurinburg, where her husband Howard Gilkeson was pastor). Florence and Howard were very close. She respected his time as a minister and she supported him without getting involved in controversies. Preachers go through a lot of turmoil; Florence was steady, right there with Howard. There were times when the church needed extra money. I’d call and Florence would say ‘Oh sure,’ and donate.”
— Jane Callahan, of Laurinburg,
friend for 50 years
“Florence knows and respects the English language. On deadline days I know her proofs are going to be clean, really clean. And her columns! Her travels, her childhood kittycat who hopped up on her mother’s luncheon table and licked the china … I jump for joy when I read these. She doesn’t realize how much she teaches by example: smart, respectful, objective, funny and creative. I will miss her.”
— Mary Novitsky, Pilot proofreader
“I went to set up the Aberdeen office with new computers and showed Florence how to put a password on anything. ‘That way only you can read what you wrote.’ Florence answered in the little-girl voice she used when explaining something she thought obvious to the unenlightened: ‘John, when I put it in the newspaper, everyone can read it.’”
— John Chappell, Pilot reporter
and longtime friend
“Florence reported many things of interest to farmers; she would always call for our take on regulations. She was perceptive about points we were going to make and fair in her presentation whether she agreed with you or not.”
— Billy Carter, former chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund
“Florence always supported our initiatives. She stands with the League and was instrumental in passing redistricting for fair representation in our voting precincts.”
— Jo Nicholas, president of the Moore County
and N.C. League of Women Voters
“If I do a spell check on (another person’s) column there will be 15-20 questionable words. Typically, in a Florence story there will be zero. She is very good with language and is amazingly productive. She is steeped in old-school journalism traditions of objectivity and accuracy, but she’s more digitally conscious than some younger people on the staff.”
— Steve Bouser, Pilot editor
“Our relationship goes back 12 years to the land use committee. She covered me and my committee as we worked on animal ordinances; she got the word out, kept my job easier.
“I’ve never seen Florence in a bad mood. She always has something positive to say, never put anyone down.
“Florence wrote as close to the truth as she saw it. Nobody influenced what she wrote. She saw the good and bad in everybody but was reluctant to write the bad. That’s rare in reporting today. Certainly would be better if more reporters were like Florence.
“Also, she is a great person of faith. She doesn’t have to tell you. She wears it.”
— Jimmy Melton,
vice chairman Moore County Board of Commissioners
Editor's Note: The Pilot will host a farewell reception for Florence Gilkeson from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 30. The event will be held in the Pilot's press room, 145 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Southern Pines. The public is invited.
By Deborah Salomon
On paper, her voice is clear as a carillon. In person, she speaks with that languid East Carolina drawl.
Either way, for 30 years Pilot reporter Florence Gilkeson has made county government sound reasonable, logical, understandable — which it sometimes isn’t. Then she explained why in sentences bordering on perfection. Rather than sink a story with statistics, she used them to float a point.
“Florence is of the old school,” says Pilot Editor Steve Bouser. “She hardly ever makes a mistake.”
Want to read Gilkeson's take on her career, click here.
Gilkeson fleshed out the minutes of Moore County Board of Commissioners’ meetings with background and nuance. She knows nearly all the top names in Moore County and nearly everything about them — confirmed by a nod and a Cheshire cat grin.
Besides covering Moore County, Gilkeson was the force behind thousands of editorials, opinion pieces, features and general news stories. But accolades mystify her.
“I’m not mean enough to be a reporter,” she says. “I would have won awards if I had been.”
Now, in a few days, The Pilot’s grande dame will sign off the beat she has covered since legendary editor/publisher/ N.C. Poet Laureate Sam Ragan hired her in 1978.
A true North Carolinian, born in a farmhouse and educated at state universities, Gilkeson has traveled extensively, but always came home.
“Tobacco Road, in Beaufort County — I grew up, on a tobacco farm,” Gilkeson begins. “I didn’t realize it then, but we were poor.”
Most rural families were in Depression-era 1933.
The farm, in the family for generations, occupied a parcel of land granted by the British monarch to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. Little Florence, an only child, helped out as a “hander”: Farmhands plucked the leaves off the stalks. In the barn, she explained, they handed them to the hander, who handed them to the woman, who tied leaves to sticks.
Mindless labor did not keep the child from wandering the fields, observing nature, getting bitten by chiggers — and reading. Besides Nancy Drew, she gobbled up her schoolteacher mother’s editions of “Les Miserables” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
“That’s strong stuff for a 9-year-old,” Gilkeson says.
More than reading, she liked to write. Santa brought her a rubber stamp set, which became her toy printing press.
“I loved to put words together,” she says.
That led to editing the school paper and yearbook. When the newspaper in Washington, N.C., called the school looking for a temporary proofreader, Gilkeson jumped on it.
She felt comfortable in that bustling newsroom, but the job she applied for next went to a boy.
“I wanted to write news,” she insisted.
Instead, Gilkeson was hired part time to assist the society editor, at $8.50 a week.
‘Fell in Love’
Gilkeson attended Appalachian State University, transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Charles Kuralt was a classmate), and graduated in 1954 with a journalism degree, which she parlayed into a job as news editor at The Laurinburg Exchange, a twice-weekly community newspaper.
There, she covered board and council meetings, elections and courts — not weddings and luncheons. The young newshound had no a car, but in Laurinburg most stories were within walking distance.
Surprisingly, she found the meetings more interesting and challenging than deadly dull. Once, during an election, Gilkeson became the catalyst.
“I was 22 years old with a ponytail,” she says. “All these sheriff’s deputies were milling around. They said, ‘Honey, we’re too busy politicking. We don’t have time to talk to you.’”
Incensed, Gilkeson marched back to the office and related the story to her editor, who instructed her to write exactly what had happened.
Then he called the perpetrators: “This is going into the Laurinburg Exchange tomorrow if you don’t promise to treat my reporter with respect,” he told them.
Before equal opportunity, there was blackmail.
Since then, Gilkeson has never acceded to gender discrimination, overt or otherwise.
Gilkeson reported news in Laurinburg until the Exchange was sold.
Instead of moving up to a bigger market early in her career, Gilkeson says she “fell in love.”
Gilkeson married Howard Gilkeson, a Presbyterian minister, in 1957.
“I wasn’t all that religious, but he didn’t seem to mind,” she says.
Her sense of social injustice was honed through Howard’s ministry, where she discovered pockets of illiterate, underserved mill workers.
The Gilkesons did not have children, enabling Florence to pursue a career full time. Her first major story was a Ku Klux Klan rally in Maxton in 1958, intended to root Native Americans out of Robeson County. The event, with its potential for violence, attracted national attention.
“Howard went with me, to protect his bride,” Gilkeson says. But the rally was more for the press than a cause, with the Native Americans routing the Klan.
“I never saw a robe or a hood, just lots of Indians with guns,” she recalls.
Gilkeson quit the Exchange in 1978, in a huff with the publisher.
Again, it was a logical time to fulfill her dream of covering the legislature for The News & Observer of Raleigh. “But I just couldn’t leave my husband, my church and my cat.”
Instead, she shuffled papers at Scotland County Health Department until Sam Ragan called.
“He heard I was available,” she says. “He needed a writer right away, because his only full-time reporter had quit.”
Gilkeson submitted a writing sample, winner of her only North Carolina Press Association award at the time: the obituary for “Spaghetti,” an Italian carnival worker murdered in 1908. The community took up a collection to bury him, but the funeral director insisted on finding the man’s relatives, which never happened. So Spaghetti lay embalmed in a glass coffin, a veritable village Lenin, in the mortuary garage until the Italian-American Association of New York got wind and arranged for burial.
The submission was moot.
“Sam would have hired me regardless,” Gilkeson says. “He needed somebody badly.”
Those were invigorating days on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Sam ran the newspaper out of his hip pocket, which could be frustrating,” Gilkeson says. “There was no set policy, or if there was, he adjusted it.”
She recalls Ragan standing outside the ladies’ room, yelling at her to hurry out and cover a story.
“But he was benevolent, a wonderful mentor,” she says. “I learned everything from him, to be aggressive covering the news and have some patience. I am a product of Sam Ragan.”
Gilkeson started by covering the Southern Pines Town Council and switched to the Moore County Board of Commissioners.
“I did anything Sam told me to do,” including being his tech genie, she says. Ragan didn’t do computers. Gilkeson printed out stories for Ragan to edit, then entered the corrections herself.
Gilkeson identified an old-boy network and circumvented it, earning respect from all factions.
“Moore County was different from anywhere I had been,” Gilkeson says. “People were better educated, more articulate and affluent.”
After Ragan died in 1996, Gilkeson and office manager Kathy Lawrence literally ran The Pilot until David Woronoff came on board as publisher. Being the go-to person could be frustrating, she says, particularly dealing with a demanding public.
“People thought that because I sound like an old Southern lady, I’d be a pushover,” she says. “They were surprised to learn I can be firm.”
Gilkeson thought about retiring in the late 1990s, but changes were under way. She stayed on after the paper was sold to its present owners, moved to the Aberdeen office and then to the Carthage bureau, more convenient for covering county business, including agriculture, a special interest derived from her farm childhood.
Gilkeson felt a bit isolated in Carthage. “But there were advantages,” she says, “like not being under the scrutiny of an editor. I could do things my way.”
Since Gilkeson had never moved from Laurinburg (even after Howard died in 1990), she now drove 100 miles daily, arriving home near midnight when meetings ran late.
“Living in another county gives you an outsider’s perspective,” Gilkeson says. “When you don’t have any stake (as in tax rates and school issues), it’s easier to be unbiased. Moore County has given me a means to make a living for 30-odd years, but Laurinburg is my home.”
As The Pilot evolved to meet contemporary needs, so did Gilkeson’s job. The Carthage office closed in 2009, bringing her back to Pennsylvania Avenue, where she admits some difficulty adjusting to the noisier environment. At one time, she offered to leave.
“I was retirement age and could manage financially,” she says. “If they had to reduce personnel, I said drop me first rather than have somebody else lose a job.”
Eventually, Gilkeson settled on part-time reporting. However, poor acoustics in the room where county commissioners meet, coupled with hearing loss, eased the decision to retire.
Gilkeson’s experiences and the lessons they taught would fill a Country Bookshop best-seller.
Asked to pick her most memorable stories, she didn’t include Moore County machinations on her list. Instead, she vividly recalls seeing a school building on fire at night and calling school authorities. As most interesting, Gilkeson picked an investigative piece on firing weapons onto private property.
“People were hunting deer with dogs,” she says. “Dogs don’t know what is private property and the hunters follow them.”
A frightened mother complained about the use of firearms on her land.
“I was appalled that nobody stood up for that woman,” Gilkeson says. “I learned that some hunters are not responsible people, and that (landowners) are intimidated by hunters.”
Her learning curve also included dealing with irate complainants.
“Experience taught me to let them talk until they ran out of things to say — let them blast me to pieces, then thank them for calling,” she says. “You can’t argue or reason with these people.”
‘Tells It Like It Is’
Aside from her devotion to hard news, Gilkeson has a lighter, wittier side. She advocated for animals by working with the Moore County Citizens’ Pet Responsibility Committee to revamp the Animal Control Ordinance.
Nature trips out West satisfied the farm girl’s continuing interest in vegetation and wildlife, although at home “I have a brown thumb.” Eyes twinkling, Gilkeson relates a trek through Europe with Howard and two elderly aunts who had trouble maintaining the pace. Because of this, “We missed Scotland altogether.”
She visited the Holy Land twice. “Now I call it the un-Holy Land.”
Gilkeson shakes her head over a feature story she wrote about raising goats for the Mexican population. “We went up there on a really cold January day,” she says. “Glenn (Sides) took the picture when the goat farmers were bundled up in long sleeves. That looked strange when the story ran in July.”
A flair for satire surfaces as she opens with:
“Good news emerged from a smelly subject … when county commissioners learned that the estimated cost of the sewage extension has been reduced by almost $4 million.”
In a first-person column about selling her “beloved old house — the only home I have ever owned,” Gilkeson tempers emotion with real estate practicality.
Book reviews come easy to the omnivorous reader. Her quirky take on “The Frozen Rabbi”:
“Imagine the consternation of teenage Bernie Karp when he … discovers the perfectly preserved body of Rabbi Eliezer … still clad in 19th century garb reposing beside the family’s supply of rump roasts and Butterball turkeys . As a goy, I found it difficult to follow the Yiddish jargon … and missed some really rich humor.”
Like Butterballs aren’t kosher.
Gilkeson brought people skills to the role of minister’s wife. Jane Callahan, lifelong Laurinburg resident, has known the Gilkesons since Howard performed the Callahans’ wedding in 1959.
“She taught us to laugh and enjoy the Bible lessons at adult Sunday school classes,” Callahan says.
Callahan recalls when Howard served three churches and Florence came with him to each service.
“But Florence’s forte with the newspaper puts her in a different arena altogether,” she says. “She just tells it like it is.”
‘Just Going Home’
Well, what is “it” now? Gilkeson hasn’t decided. Perhaps political involvement since, she says, “there are still some Democrats in Scotland County.” She keeps up with news on PBS, not CNN or Fox, and bemoans the disappearance of The News & Observer from Laurinburg.
“I don’t sew, I don’t garden, I’m not a homebody,” Gilkeson says. She cooks in spurts and always has a book going, most recently, a memoir by Condoleezza Rice.
Church is a constant, a surrogate for this kind Southern lady without children or grandchildren.
Perhaps the Moore County scribe will find an outlet for her views on national affairs. Gillkeson has known senators, congressmen and five governors. She covered John Edwards’ announcement for the U.S. Senate.
“I’m disappointed in him,” she says. “I met him and thought he was a really nice person.”
On the upcoming election, “We’ll muddle through regardless of who’s elected. Obama inherited an impossible economic situation. There’s no way he could have corrected it (in one term). This was clear to me before his election.”
Nobody uses the word replacement when speaking of future Moore County coverage. Bouser is not ready to announce Gilkeson’s successor. But count on this: The next time wet cement is spread on the sidewalk in front of 145 W. Pennsylvania Ave., somebody will draw a star with Florence Gilkeson’s name underneath.
“Oh, don’t make such a fuss,” Gilkeson shrugs. “I’m just going home.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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