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Retired newspaper publisher Ramon Yarborough dies at age 90

Former colleagues remember him for his caring ways for employees and the community


Ramon L. Yarborough, retired publisher of The Fayetteville Observer and Fayetteville Publishing Co., died Sunday evening.

He was 90.

Mr. Yarborough died peacefully at his Fayetteville home.

“He had lived a great life,” daughter Virginia Colantuono said Monday.

“It is a sad day,” said nephew Charles Broadwell, who succeeded his uncle as publisher. “But he lived an incredible life. We are sad, but just to have lived the life he did is what we remember.”

Funeral services have not been announced.

Mr. Yarborough joined Fayetteville Publishing in 1965 and retired in 2000. He played the lead role in establishing The Fayetteville Times, a morning newspaper that was launched on July 2, 1973. Fayetteville Publishing’s afternoon newspaper, The Fayetteville Observer, is the oldest newspaper in the state.

“I was not nervous, because I knew we had a very capable staff,” Mr. Yarborough told CityView recently in remembering the 50th anniversary of the morning newspaper. “If we had any doubts about this project, we would not have proceeded. I was very excited to see history in the making.”

He later oversaw the consolidation of both newspapers as The Fayetteville Observer-Times.

Mr. Broadwell said his uncle was proud to publish the newspaper for the community.

“His pride and legacy were just the mission of the newspaper,” Mr. Broadwell said. 

Mr. Yarborough served on the boards of civic entities, including Cumberland Community Foundation, Methodist University, the North Carolina Community College Foundation, the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, and the North Carolina Press Association.

“Just wonderful people,” longtime neighbor and friend Eleanor Barker would remember Mr. Yarborough and his wife, Virginia Lilly Yarborough, who died at age 86 on Dec. 5, 2021. “I loved them both and knew them well. They did so much good for Fayetteville and all of the charities. I met Ramon when I first came to Fayetteville. He was a very caring person. He always was interested in what you were doing. Just very caring.”

‘I am heartbroken’

Word of Mr. Yarborough’s passing spread quickly throughout the community Monday, with many past Fayetteville Publishing Co. employees remembering his caring ways about their careers as well as for their families.

“One of the finest men I have ever known or ever will know,” said John Holmes, who was human resources director for Fayetteville Publishing from 1977 to 2005. “I can say he was the best boss ever. I had an easy job, because I knew he was always going to do the right thing when it came to the employees, regardless of the cost. The stories of his kindness and generosity in big things and small is legendary and the reason his employees not only loved him but absolutely revered him. For over 30 years, every employee — and we had almost 500 — got a birthday card with a handwritten message. And each spring, employees with children graduating high school got a personal gift. He was quite simply the best.

“I am heartbroken. Ramon was such a big part of my life and my hero,” Holmes said. 

Retired Observer photographer Cindy Burnham was among those who remembered Mr. Yarborough’s kindness.

“Ramon was one of the nicest people I ever met,” Ms. Burnham said. “He was so kind to so many people. I knew Ramon for 38 years. Like I said, the kindest person I ever met. In all my time at the newspaper, I never heard anybody say anything bad about him. He was just a Southern gentleman. I’m glad I can say I worked with someone who was such a class act. He was the definition of a Southern gentleman, and it was Ramon Yarborough.”

Johnny Horne, who began working as a photographer at the Observer in 1972 and was an original member of the Times staff, remembered that even after Mr. Yarborough retired, he would correspond with newspaper employees.

“He was always asking about me and my family, even after he retired,” Mr. Horne said. “I would get emails from him asking, ‘How are you doing?’ He just cared about people. I remember someone once saying it never occurred to Ramon that you wouldn’t do the best job you could for the newspaper. People said that about him all around the building. He was a great businessman. When we started the Times, he was all in with that. But he didn’t care about being the face of the newspaper. He preferred to work in the background and let other people take the credit. It’s just sad to hear this news, and I’m just grateful for the connection I had with him.”

More than a number

You were not a number at the newspaper offices when they were on Hay Street and later on Whitfield Street.

You were somebody.

And Ramon Yarborough knew your name. He knew your spouse. He knew your children. He knew your parents. Most of all, Ramon Yarborough knew you.

“I always called him Mr. Yarborough,” said Earl Vaughan Jr., a longtime high school sports journalist with the Observer. “He was a special person in my family. My dad, Rev. Earl Vaughan Sr., worked with him in the business office at Yarborough Motor Co. on Russell Street.

“When I graduated high school in 1972, I was looking for a career and considered being a reporter. Dad called Mr. Yarborough, and it resulted in a six-week internship in The Fayetteville Observer sports department that summer that blossomed into a career that lasted to my retirement in 2016. 

“I owe my career to him,” Mr. Vaughan said about Mr. Yarborough.

Others would remember, too.

“How fortunate I was to wind up my newspaper career as managing editor of The Fayetteville Observer from 1976 until my retirement in 1989,” said Bob Wilson, who began at the Observer as a sports reporter in 1958. “He was a publisher who cared not only for his key employees but all of his employees. What a great publisher.”

“I can’t think of a more consummate professional and gentleman than Mr. Yarborough,” said Jeffery Womble, who was a writer for the newspaper for 22 years before moving to Fayetteville State University. “Of the hundreds of employees at Fayetteville Publishing Co., I don’t think there was a single person he didn’t know by name. Everyone who worked at the company received a birthday card from him on his or her birthday. When I graduated from college 37 years ago, he gave me a silver and leather letter opener. I still have it, and I cherish it to this very day, simply because he thought enough of me to give me a gift. That speaks volumes of the caliber of person that he was."

Penny Muse Abernathy was an original member of the Times staff, serving as an editorial assistant under the late Roy Parker Jr. 

“Ramon not only invested in a new daily paper at a time when many other dailies were vanishing, he also encouraged the journalists of The Fayetteville Times to create something bold and different,” said Mrs. Abernathy, who later worked for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and as Knight chair of journalism and digital media economics at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “He was a lifelong advocate for those of us fortunate enough to work on the Times and just a wonderful human being.”

Yarborough also had statewide impact, including his work with the N.C. Press Association, according to Teri Saylor, a former executive director. 

“If you asked me to describe Ramon Yarborough in one word, ‘debonair’ springs to mind,” Saylor said. “Over the years that I managed the North Carolina Press Association, Ramon and I became good friends as well as professional colleagues. He bought a Mini Cooper when they first came out and frequently drove it to Raleigh to visit me in my office. I enjoyed traveling to Fayetteville to visit him, too.

“Ramon had a fabulous sense of humor, and I never got tired of hearing stories about his adventures traveling the world and his views about the newspaper industry,” Saylor continued. “The Fayetteville Observer has the distinction of being the oldest newspaper in North Carolina, a fact Ramon never took lightly. He was a passionate supporter of the NCPA’s Newspapers in Education program and donated generously to the North Carolina Press Foundation.

“Ramon was a deeply caring man,” Saylor said. “He loved newspapers, the city of Fayetteville, his family, and the world at large. He leaves a great legacy and many delightful memories.”

'A remarkable man’

Tony Chavonne began his career working on the circulation loading docks of Fayetteville Publishing before ascending to become general manager from 1979 to 2004. He later would serve four terms as mayor before purchasing CityView magazine and creating a digital news publication.

“Mr. Yarborough always shared his personal philosophy with me of, ‘Service to humanity is the price we pay for life,’” Mr. Chavonne said. “He believed it and he lived it. He was so humble, always describing himself as a ‘son-in-law publisher.’ But if you look back at the significant business decisions he made — starting with The Fayetteville Times, building the Whitfield Street building, combining two daily newspapers and purchasing a state-of-the-art newspaper press — you see clearly how impactful he was and the strength of his leadership.

“His fingerprints are on display today through all the organizations and projects he supported, from Methodist University, the Cumberland Community Foundation, and countless other organizations where he showed his love and commitment to this community. 

“Through it all, his genuine love and commitment to the employees showed through to everyone that knew him,” Mr. Chavonne said. “From writing personal birthday cards, knowing your family members’ names, the generous sharing of company profits with employees over the years, and really caring for each and every one of us, he was simply the best. He was genuinely loved by every person who ever stepped through the doors at 458 Whitfield St. I can honestly say that I am a better man, a better husband and father, and a better person for having the blessed opportunity to work so closely with him for so many years. Our community lost a humble servant and a remarkable hero today.”

Mr. Yarborough was married to the late Virginia Lilly Yarborough, who was the daughter the late Richard M. Lilly, former president of Fayetteville Publishing Co., and the late Ashton W. Lilly, the company’s former board chairwoman.

Mr. Yarborough is survived by a daughter, Virginia Y. Colantuono; two sons, Ramon Yarborough Jr. and Sammy Rankin; and four grandchildren.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.


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