A newspaper columnist of a legend

By Bill Kirby Jr.

There was a curiosity within him about people and their lives. “Everybody has a story,” he often would say in a long and distinguished newspaper career. His was a receptive ear when it came to the stories they had to tell, and he had away of his own in putting them at ease. You might find him leaning back in his chair giving a listen to what they had to say and scribbling a note here and there. Or standing along a downtown street, where an interview for a column in the next morning’s paper was more like a conversation. He was Larry Cheek. If your name made his column, you were somebody in this town. “Larry Cheek was a columnist, and very talented,” Tom English Jr., former managing editor of The Fayetteville Times, reminded us on a recent autumn afternoon, when newspaper colleagues of days gone by gathered to reminisce about the life and newspaper times of this columnist extraordinaire. “He was a blessing and admired by thousands of readers. “Larry Cheek arrived in this historic town weeks before Fayetteville Publishing Co., launched a morning newspaper on July 2,1973, amid an energy crisis and the early revelations of a Watergate scandal that eventually would send a U.S. president from the White House in disgrace. His journalism credentials included newspaper stints with The Roanoke Times, the Chapel Hill News, an investigative reporter with the Greensboro Record and as a Washington correspondent with Landmark Newspapers before finding his columnist desk in a makeshift newsroom along Hay Street, where the old oak tree stillstands. He was 37 and surrounded by younger editors and even younger reporters such as Luke West, Harry Abernathy, John Pittman, Bill Scarborough, Jack Time, Dennis Patterson, Dennis Rogers, Perry Jenifer, Brian Stokes, Eve Oakley, Nancy Szokan, Anne Ebeling, Kitty Leach, Dot Sparrow, Add Penfield Jr., Tommy Horton and Penny Muse – all dedicated to building careers of their own. And not to forget Ken Cooke, a veteran photojournalist to complement Larry Cheek’s written words along with young photojournalists Johnny Horne and Steve Aldridge. Larry was a great asset for making The Fayetteville Times successful.” says Ramon Yarborough, retired publisher of the morning and afternoon newspapers. “He had a large following that enjoyed his insight and humor.”

‘Hey, Honey, You Gotta Read Larry Cheek’

They wrote their stories. They made their deadlines. But there was only one Larry Cheek, and Cheek would become the face and the voice of a newspaper, and he was there every morning at your breakfast table over coffee and toast. “Larry was so happy to be part of a brand-new, damn-good newspaper in Fayetteville, “wife Suzan Cheek says. “Opportunities arose for him to leave. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he didn’t want to leave the people and place he had come to love. “It was a mutual bond between writer, reader and a community.   “Hey, Honey, you gotta read Larry Cheek, “became a familiar refrain around a breakfast table in almost every household in this community and the Cape Fear region. You found Cheek’s photograph and his name in diners, barber shops, beauty salons and the courthouse; his words and his stories 18.6 picas wide and right there along the right leg of the newspaper almost everyday of the week. He could amble down Hay Street and find a column on a down-and-out homeless person. He found a fascination with the Hay Street night life on a military payday. Or a kid selling lemonade for a charitable cause. He could tell you about the Market House history; the locks and dams at the Cape Fear River; the storm that ravaged a town the night before; the mother and children who lost their home in a fire. He could write with empathy about a woman struggling with a diagnosis of breast cancer. He could put you alongside a father and mother grieving the loss of a child and help you find a lost pet, too; or returning to an Italian restaurant after a tragedy like nothing Fayetteville ever could have imagined. He told us, too, about everything from his colonoscopies to parting ways with an automobile he adored to the day he had the mole removed from his nose. And about Charlie, the cat he loved for sure. He was a storyteller. He was a journalist of the written word. There was only one Larry Cheek

A Return to The Dairy Farm

“Well, Billy, think I’m going to retire,” he told me in 2000, and that’s just what Cheek did after 27 years with The Fayetteville Times, The Fayetteville Observer-Times and The Fayetteville Observer. Retirement, wife Suzan Cheek remembers, was an emotional moment. “He never wrote afterward,” she says. Cheek returned to Orange County and the 200-acre dairy farm, where he grew up with two brothers and a sister and the purebred Ayrshires and not far from his beloved University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He loved sharing life with Suzan, chipping golf balls to the flagstick in the backyard and spending time on his riding mower by the weeping willow. He kept up with friends to include Dr. Richard Shereff, Susan Shereff, Joanne Copeland, Beegee Caviness, Beverly Stewart, Bob Ray, Lynn and Karl Legatski and Carol and Joe Quigg, that hero of the 1957 NCAA National Championship basketball team from UNC that Larry Cheek wrote about in Kansas City, when sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel campus newspaper. William Lawrence “Larry” Cheek died Sept. 30, 2021.He was 85.A portrait of Cheek looked over us as old newspaper colleagues Johnny Horne, Cindy Burnham, Seth Effron, Tom Lassiter, Susan Ladd, and Tom English Jr. gathered on Oct. 24 at his home to remember Cheek. “He was a presence,” Susan Ladd, once a features writer at The Times, would say. “He was the elder statesman – one who will live in my heart forever.” Tom Lassiter, another features writer, reminded us of Cheek as one “comfortable in his own skin” and with uncompromising integrity. Cindy Burnham, another longtime photojournalist, remembered Cheek as a journalist with an intuition about a story. “He could find a story on anybody and anything,” says Burnham, now a freelance photojournalist. “And that was his magic. Larry Cheek was just a great mentor. Everybody had a story, and I learned that from Larry Cheek. “Diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in the past two years took a toll. But Cheek was resolute. “He never lost his kindness or his sense of humor,” Suzan Cheek would tell us. “Or his grace.”

Epilogue

I can close my eyes and see yesteryear, and our Larry Cheek. His desk and Royal typewriter in that old make-shift newsroom on Hay Street. His desk along the newspaper office on Whitfield Street, replete with cardboard cup of cold coffee and half empty by his computer terminal, scattered mail from readers and a stack of old newspapers. “On English Jr. was the nuts and bolts of The Fayetteville Times,” I said. “But Larry Cheek was the face and the voice of the newspaper. And if your name was under his picture and in Larry Cheek’s column, you were somebody in our community. We all will always be a part of Larry Cheek, and Larry Cheek always will be a part of us.” Tom English Jr. looked into all our old newspaper faces of the best of our “Times” together once upon a time. “Larry Cheek was a columnist, and very talented,” the old managing editor would say. “He was a blessing and admired by thousands of readers. I stand here today to thank Larry Cheek for being among us.”