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"Happy Birthday" to a mentor and friend

When Anders Gyllenhaal, the News & Observer’s then-executive editor, hired me as a columnist from Indiana 28 years ago, he instructed me to get acquainted with the region, meet its movers and shakers – and not to write anything for a month.

To me, that was Kool & the Gang, since I’d be getting paid essentially to do what I was going to be doing anyway.

Three weeks after arriving at the newspaper, those instructions led to this heart-warming scene as I strolled through the newspaper’s hallways one morning and ran into the publisher, Frank Daniels Jr.:

Me: Good morning, Frank.


As I explained the instructions given me by Gyllenhaal, the uncle of Hollywood stars Maggie and Jake, Daniels snorted “Hmmph,” and continued down the hallway to his office.

Despite that unsettling and unpromising introduction, working for Frank turned out to be a highlight of not just my career, but of my life. Twentyfive years after he sold the newspaper, he and I still occasionally get together for lunch to catch up and talk about our shared passion – newspapers.

On Sept. 7, Frank turned 90 years old, and The Saunders Report is delighted to wish him “Happy Birthday.”

As publisher, he fended off countless demands that he fire my butt. (The callers or letter-writers never actually said "butt.") He was never shy about calling me and telling me when he didn’t like a particular column, nor was he shy about telling me when I’d written one he liked.

It’s unlikely that Frank is shy about anything. Indeed, my favorite Frank story is the one told to me by Fred Crisp, who served as publisher immediately after Daniels retired. It involved one of the few times, he said, that he saw Frank speechless.

While in South Africa as part of some journalism committee, Fred said, Frank called back to Raleigh to see what was happening on the home front.

Fred: Nothing much. Saunders just wrote a column about coming out of the closet.

Silence, and then “WHAT?”

Fred laughed while explaining that the closet from which I’d emerged was metaphorical – and had to do with pork. You see, like a lot of people are, I was then – but no longer am – a closet chitlin-eater: Offer me some in public and I’d haughtily turn up my nose and decline.

Set a plate of that odoriferous delicacy in front of me behind closed doors, though – with a bottle of Texas Pete - and I’d hold my nose and go to town on them.

I’d visited a couple of restaurants that served the smelly things and talked to the cooks, who gave their secret for tamping down the smell – (lemon juice) - without losing the flavor.

I am eternally grateful to Frank for rescuing me from Indiana, from which I knew I had to escape when I heard a weatherman laughingly call 30 degrees “light topcoat weather,” and getting me back to North Carolina, where 65 degrees is light topcoat weather.

Happy 90th, Frank.