- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

The sports editor of the old Washington Times-Herald had some friendly advice for the young woman working as the paper’s Inquiring Photographer in the early 1950s.

“You’re a smart, attractive person,” he said. “Why are you wasting your time with that junior senator from Massachusetts? He’ll never go anywhere.”

The young woman was Jacqueline Bouvier and the junior senator, of course, was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The sports editor was Charlie Barbour, and he told that story for decades - always laughing at himself louder than any listener did.

Barbour, who died June 25 at Inova Loudoun Hospital at 89 after a short illness, was not well-known to most readers because he was an “inside” man at the Times-Herald and assistant sports editor at the Washington Star until his retirement in 1977.

Among local journalists, however, he was recognized as one of the most competent people around. He seemed to know all there was to know about putting out a daily newspaper. And often he knew more about local sports, coaches and players than his reporters did.

One of the coaches was Arnold “Red” Auerbach, who grew up in the District about the same time as Barbour and was master of hoops at Theodore Roosevelt High School when Charlie was covering preps.

Carl Sell, a longtime co-worker at the Star, remembers that Barbour liked to wear white shirts to work when they were hard to obtain during World War II.

“So Charlie called Red, who was stationed at the Navy Yard, and Red bought him a bunch of shirts at the PX,” Sell said. “Had them delivered to the Times-Herald, too.”

Barbour was an old-fashioned newspaperman in the finest sense of the phrase at a time when there was no competition from the Internet and little from radio or TV. He demanded that his writers get the news quickly and accurately, and he had no patience with those who couldn’t. Excuses didn’t matter to him - only results.

I was pretty sure I knew it all when I came to the Star in 1964 after working at several smaller papers. My biggest talent, if that’s the word, often lay in one-liners and wisecracks. In any case, Sell set me straight as soon as I ventured into the sports department of the Star building at 225 Virginia Ave. SE.

“Just keep your mouth shut and you’ll learn a lot from Charlie,” said Sell, who helped direct an army of correspondents covering high school sports.

I did, on both counts. Barbour, sports editor Bill Peeler and other veterans helped turn me into a decent newsman instead of a kid playing at the profession.

Only once, if memory serves, did Charlie get mad at me - and although he had lost an eye in the Battle of the Bulge, he could glare very effectively with the other one. When George Washington University dismissed a fellow named Jim Camp as football coach in 1966, I wrote this devastatingly clever lead: “There’s high camp and low camp, and yesterday at GW there was no Camp.”

Barbour managed to hide his admiration.

“Get over here, Heller!” he commanded, flinging my copy in my face with remarkable accuracy. “What’s this garbage? Take this [expletive deleted] story and give me a piece the readers can understand.”

Barbour kept his private life extremely private, as far as his associates were concerned. For much of his tenure at the Star, he was a night editor who came to work around 1 a.m. and left around 9 after editing and putting together the inside pages of the afternoon paper’s sports section. Fortunately, he retired four years before the Star folded in 1981. Dealing with that would have been most painful for a man who devoted his career to the pursuit and practice of good journalism.

This has been a terrible year for those of us who loved the Star and newspapers in general. Recently, we lost two other noted local journalists: Mary Lou Forbes, who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Star in 1959 and later ran the Commentary section of The Washington Times, and Dick Slay, a standout golf writer at the Star who ended his career as a member of the copy desk at The Times.

Now Charlie Barbour is gone, too. During his near half-century in the business, he was a genuine superstar at a time when getting it right was as important as getting it fast.

Charlie, R.I.P.

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