By Charles Overby
Orley Hood would have loved this event here at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame—a sold-out arena, a gathering of Mississippi journalists, leaders and friends. And lots of talk about good journalism and newspapers.
Rick Cleveland has given me the assignment of leadoff hitter. I know my job. I am going to get Orley to first base and then let the sluggers behind me bring him home.
Orley represented everything that was good about journalism in Mississippi.
The most satisfying and invigorating job I ever had was being executive editor of the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News. When I took that job in 1982, both papers were on their way to being very good. They had good writers and photographers.
I discovered quickly that the crown jewel of the Jackson newspapers was the sports department. Between the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, I recall there were about 28 writers and editors in the sports departments.
One job at the newspapers stood above all the others: columnist. We had a stable of columnists who were gifted writers: Orley, Rick Cleveland, Raad Cawthon and Joe Rogers, just to name four.
The best job is without a doubt sports columnist. The second best job is sports editor. Orley was both. Read more.
Can you imagine getting to go to the best sporting events, talking with the best and most interesting players, offering your insights through the written word and then getting paid for it?
Orley never let that go to his head. Part of his magic was his ability to write for the average reader. When Orley went to a game, he was seeing it for me and every other reader.
Some writers use their craft to call attention to themselves. Orley never did. Yet when you read Orley’s work, you came away admiring Orley all the more.
He made it seem effortless—and sometimes it was. I know he sometimes knocked off a column in 30 minutes so he could go play golf with Rick. But I also know he spent many hours on some columns, reporting as well as writing about subjects people cared about.
When Rick called me last week about Orley, we reminisced about those times, and I told him I thought our columnists were the journalistic equivalent of Murderers Row. So as we look back on those glory days at the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News, we are faced with one looming question—was Orley Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig?
Like Ruth and Gehrig, Orley’s reputation lives on.
Orley never carried himself as a star player at the newspaper. He was kind and helpful to the youngest and most inexperienced reporters.
He saw himself as part of a team.
As we think back on those times, I want to say a special word of tribute to someone who reflected the character and quality of the newspaper through her weekly columns. Bettye Jolly, who died last week, was Epicurious, the restaurant critic for the Sunday newspaper.
Bettye was like Orley: knowledgeable and authoritative, widely read, greatly respected.
We have also lost in the last year or so two others who contributed so much to the excellence of the Jackson newspapers:
–Ken Andrews, the gentle publisher who made the money for the paper while we spent it. He let all of us in the newsroom do our thing without interference.
-Lee Cearnel, the city editor who was so good at overseeing special projects and investigative pieces.
And we never come together as a newspaper family that I don’t think of my longtime friend John Johnson, the creative genius who made the papers better every day.
Orley liked and cared about the entire newspaper—not just sports. As the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News were reporting on events that led to education reform in Mississippi under Governor Winter, Orley followed it as closely as anybody.
He offered encouragement to me and the writers on a regular basis. It wasn’t his story, but it was his state, so he cared deeply about education reform.
When the Jackson Daily News passed on, Orley moved to the Clarion-Ledger as features columnist and features editor. He enlivened the paper with his broad interests and creative instincts.
It is the ultimate tribute to Orley that people still remember years later specific columns that he wrote. I had dinner last night with Dr. Will Norton, dean of the Meek School of Journalism at Ole Miss. Without any prompting from me, he began quoting lines from a column that Orley wrote decades ago.
Orley’s words and columns will be remembered for years to come—if people can find them. For fans of Orley and for young aspiring writers, Rick Cleveland and I want to do what we can to make Orley’s columns available to the public. The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics are going to collaborate on a project to preserve and promote Orley’s best writing.
We’ll work out the details, and you’ll hear more in the future.
For sure, Orley’s legacy as a wonderful person and a great journalist lives on. He leaves to all of us a legacy of words and smiles and love.
Thank you, Orley, and God bless you.