As a man and newsman, Wilson was `good people'

September 01, 2001|By Gregory Kane

THE SUN buried one of its own Monday. Norm Wilson, the night editor at this paper for eight years, had his homegoing service at the March Funeral Home on East North Avenue.

Wilson died Aug. 21 at the age of 57 of a heart attack. His colleagues paid him tribute, as expected, at his funeral. But, standing in the back of the funeral home chapel, stood someone who was without question not a Sun employee. Most Baltimoreans, though, could recognize him immediately.

It was A. Dwight Pettit, the scourge of local prosecutors and probably the best lawyer in Baltimore, if not the country. After Wilson's funeral, Pettit talked briefly about why he was there.

"I first met Norm during the Jimmy Carter campaign in 1976," explained Pettit, who was the state co-chairman of the future president's primary campaign. "Norm covered Carter for The Evening Sun and DeWayne Wickham covered him for The Sun."

Carter was governor of Georgia then, still unknown to most of the country.

"We were trying to tell people, `Jimmy Who?'" Pettit recalled. "We [Pettit, Wilson and Wickham] developed a friendship. We had a sort of special relationship -- out of the ordinary. Not many minorities were involved in covering or running campaigns in those days."

Wilson was one of the first black reporters to work for The Sun. He was hired at the Baltimore Afro-American in 1971 and came to work for The Evening Sun a year later. In 1981, Wilson achieved another first: he wrote editorials for The Evening Sun, becoming the first African-American in Baltimore to do so for a daily.

Wickham has since become a columnist for USA Today and appears weekly on Black Entertainment Television's Lead Story, a public affairs show. But 25 years ago, Pettit says, the three would have lunch together or grab a beer after a day's worth of campaigning.

"Norm was one of the nicest persons going -- good people," Pettit said of Wilson. "He was always a straight shooter and let me know what he was writing about. I knew I would get an objective, straight-up job."

It was easy for Pettit to say what he remembered best about Wilson.

"Norm was a very funny, humorous guy," Pettit said. "He always had a joke, a laugh, even though what he was doing was on the serious side."

Pettit had just hit on what I -- and many of Wilson's colleagues -- remember most about him. Wilson became night editor the same year I was hired by The Sun. Honchos at the paper grabbed me fresh out of Baltimore's Sinai Hospital and, in a move that was no doubt the journalistic equivalent of trying to bunt a runner home from first base, tried to make some kind of a reporter out of me.

One of my early assignments was working the 3-11 evening cop shift, and bosses at The Sun had unwittingly given Wilson yet another first: He was at the head of a long list of editors I have tormented.

If Wilson minded, he didn't show it. He took everything with that marvelous and unique sense of humor Pettit remembered. Former Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez, who worked rewrite from 4 to 11, often kidded Wilson about his light skin and eyes. Wilson, Alvarez claimed, was a Puerto Rican passing as a black guy. The constant bantering, joking and laughter from 3 in the afternoon until around midnight convinced me I was working The Sun's lunatic shift.

Wilson took it all in stride. He knew the kind of guy Alvarez was: a gifted writer with a rapier wit who could make eight hours pass as though they were eight minutes. More importantly, Wilson knew who he was: not the kind of guy to let the joke about skin color rankle him.

A number of light-skinned blacks I knew were not as level-headed. I even saw one light-skinned guy, after constant ribbing about being white, come to blows with his tormentor. I knew years before coming to The Sun that joking about this color thing among African-Americans was somewhere I'd never go.

But Wilson wasn't like most folks. He'd sit there in his editor's chair, moving stories and trying to get out a paper while exchanging barbs with Alvarez and other reporters. Under the pressure of deadline editing, Wilson was the picture of calm.

"This guy," I'd tell myself frequently, "is even cooler than Robert Mitchum."

Wilson greeted me with a "What's happening, Big Daddy!" during my cop shift days. It was the triple threat of Wilson, Alvarez and former Sun reporter Michael Fletcher -- now with The Washington Post -- that bestowed the name "Big Daddy Kane" on me. I objected at first. The only "Big Daddy" worthy of the name, I'd remind them, was a guy named Lipscomb who wore number 76 and played for the Baltimore Colts.

But the name stuck. When I last saw Wilson a couple of weeks before he died, he greeted me with the familiar "What's happening, Big Daddy."

It's a name I'll wear proudly now.

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