The day I first walked into The Evening Post newsroom in September 1976, I was introduced to a big, white-haired guy in suspenders named Jack Leland, legendary raconteur, reporter, editor and then columnist.
As a 25-year-old native New Yorker, I was eager to start my career in journalism and learn about the South. Jack sat next to me. He introduced me to everyone, from local politicians to the guy up the coast who sold the best raw oysters.
Long story short, I departed Charleston in May 1979 for a new job in Los Angeles. Jack passed away in December 1999, almost 20 years ago. Due to his guidance and kindness, I learned more than in any formal course in journalism or about the South.
He sat at his typewriter with an innate, trance-like ability to pound out a story oblivious to distraction, and then complete a crossword puzzle in no time. And Jack always let his opinion be known.
“I remember once approaching Jack with a question when he was writing on deadline and he made a high-pitched noise like a wild beast caught in a thresher,” said Dan Rubin, now a senior editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jack’s greatest gift was sharing his knowledge of the Lowcountry. He knew every stone from Charleston to his birthplace, Walnut Grove Plantation near McClellanville. He jumped at every opportunity to give his nickel tour of the city. From Gullah to kudzu, his stories were always entertaining, fully accurate or not. Some added the tag “according to legend and Jack Leland.”
One afternoon, Jack and I drove up Highway 17 to Awendaw, launched a johnboat and headed out into his beloved Bull’s Bay, hunting for stone crabs. With sunlight shimmering on the shallow water, I stood next to him holding a bucket in the oyster beds.
Jack got down on one knee and searched around for a stone crab hole. Finding his target, he grabbed it fast by the elbow so it couldn’t bite. With blood trickling down his arm from the sharp oyster shells, he whipped his catch into my bucket.With a few more, we headed back to his place for dinner.
“You know, most people spend their entire life working as hard as they can so they can retire and have time to hunt and fish and enjoy nature,” Jack told me. “I’ve been doing that all of my life.”
Jack loved life. Parties, formal dinners and oyster roasts. He was a member of The Piping and Marching Society of Lower Chalmers Street, where he avidly engaged in its annual revelries. One of my biggest thrills was attending, at Jack’s invitation, a black-tie St. Patrick’s Day dinner at Hibernian Hall.
Jack lived near me on Sullivan’s Island and volunteered to drive in and out of the city. I was introduced to Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Mayor Joe Riley and many others.
A full bottle of bourbon accompanied each place setting. At the end of the night, as Jack and I headed down the steps, he tripped and fell, picked himself up, found his old Volkswagen bug, dubbed “transportation,” and drove us home without incident.
When the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul researched his book, “A Turn in the South,” Jack was his Charleston guide. He showed the author important landmarks, described the economy of the area which was originally based on growing indigo, rice and cotton, and the complex relationship between whites and African Americans. Jack’s ancestors owned slaves.
“Slavery was wrong,” he told Naipaul. “I can’t make any brief for that. But it existed. It was used to build the agrarian economy we had.”
Jack also recounted to Naipaul a story he told me several times. He planned to leave a few thousand dollars in his will, he said, to provide drinks during the covered dish picnic that occurred at St. James Santee Church following the spring service. And that the slab marking his nearby grave would include the words “Have one on Jack.”
He told Naipaul, “I think people will remember me because of that.” I visited Jack’s grave for the first time in April. Sitting on his grave were two 1.5 liters of wine; I accepted his invitation. During the picnic with people I’d never met, his name was the best conversation starter ever. Thank you, Jack, for introducing me to new friends. Again.
Joseph Carey is a retired science writer living in Bethesda, Md., and Lima, Peru.