Ben Beagle, already a legend as a columnist and newspaperman at The Roanoke Times, welcomed me to the staff of when I joined the paper in 1965 with a gruff: “What makes you think you have what it takes to become one of us?”
The 37-year-old fixture in the Times newsroom on Campbell Avenue peered through his horn-rimmed glasses at the 17-year-old kid who quickly proved he didn’t know anything close to what he needed to become a newspaperman.
In a review of a rock band on stage of Victory Stadium, I wrote that the ground’s overbearing amplifiers “rendered their sound beyond comprehension” and Beagle targeted that paragraph in his column with a caustic comment that said reviews of rock were always “rendering things that were unreadable (or something similar. After so many years, my memory isn’t what was said).”
“Read what you wrote,” Beagle told me. “You didn’t give the readers any information on the band or the concert. You wrote garbage.”
He was right. I tried to get cute with language. It didn’t work.
Ben Beagle was a solid reporter who joined the staff in 1954 and developed a column that combined his wit and ability to pinpoint even the most mundane things in life to examine, inform and entertain readers in Roanoke and Southwestern Virginia.
When I began writing a weekly column aimed at Times readers of my generation, he told me to remember “the column is not about you. It must be about the people.” He wrote about the people and lives of the area. He bought readers into his home with stories about his family and his wife, identified as “the greatest station wagon driver of them all.”
“He was the best-known Roanoke Times personality of the last century,” Former Times reporter Beth Macy, now a best-selling author, told reporter Ralph Berrier Jr. Sunday in his report that Beagle died at age 90 the night before after a long battle with declining health.
For me, Beagle was a mentor who took time I didn’t deserve to teach a brash young reporter and photographer to bury his ego and learn the ropes. I should have listened. I didn’t anywhere near as often as I should. I won a couple of awards from the Virginia Press Association and I thought I was hot stuff. I wasn’t even close.
Ben and another Times legend, political writer Mel “Buster” Carrico, became both harsh critics and patient teachers of a my flamboyant lifestyle and career at the Times. It took me too long to recognize their efforts and the lessons that did not sink in until long after I left the paper in 1969 after one screw up too many and found another newspaper reporting spot on The Telegraph, in Alton, Illinois in the St. Louis Metro Area.
Beagle “semi-retired” in 1992 after nearly 40 years with The Times but continued to write his thrice-weekly columns until 2010. We exchanged emails after I returned to the area in 2004 and I thanked him to trying to get me into line during my time at The Times so many years earlier.
“No thanks needed,” he said. “You survived. Keep reporting.”
“The greatest Roanoke Times columnist of them all has died,” Berrier reported on the Times website Sunday.
Yes, he was. Ben Beagle was also a mentor and a friend.