Angels singing for Chuck Stone

Posted: April 08, 2014

I NEVER had the privilege of meeting Chuck Stone, but neither did I break bread with Michelangelo, Kipling or Debussy. Which is another way of saying you don't need to cross mortal paths with someone to perceive the depth of his eventual immortality.

I started reading the Daily News in the sixth grade, and that precocity made me a fan of Mr. Stone at precisely the moment he started writing for the paper. At the time, I didn't understand a lot of what he'd be saying, and I was deeply disinterested in anything that had to do with race, but I liked his picture (bow tie, crew cut) and I liked the way he spoke directly to me.

As I grew up and expanded my reading choices, it became apparent that not every journalist was as interested in cultivating his audience as Chuck. A lot of the more famous ones, who racked up the prizes that journalists like to give one another to prove they exist, seemed to pontificate in a vacuum, uncaring of the unseen, unknown eyes that would drink in the "wisdom."

Not him.

Chuck Stone was so attuned to his readers (at a paper that is exceptionally good at reaching out) that the readers trusted him more than their own family members, and most certainly more than the municipal monolith. Over his decades-long career in Philadelphia, at least 75 people, sought by the law, surrendered to Chuck Stone, certain that they would be shepherded at least part of the way with care through the system.

That says something fundamental about the man: That he could so inspire strangers that they would entrust their bodies to him.

In an age when the Internet was still a dream and people actually wrote letters, Chuck Stone would honor his readers by taking the time to respond to them by phone, typewriter or, in what became a regular happening, in this newspaper. This man was one of the first who would build whole columns around the comments (sometimes glowing, usually homicidal) of his "fans."

And the way he entitled those occasional love letters to the Philadelphia readership - "And the Angels Sing" - was both tongue-in-cheek and genuine for a man who believed that he existed because they did.

Those were the columns I loved the best, because they were organic and filled with energy. Seeing that the words a writer birthed in his solitary cubicle were read, considered and returned to him (and how!) was proof positive to me that journalism was so clearly not a one-way street.

There are many people who knew Chuck Stone personally, who worked beside him, saw him excavate the truth from a morass of lies or provide trenchant commentary on things that people would rather not have ruminated on. He wasn't shy about dealing with race, at a time when PC had not yet invaded and corroded public discourse. In a city like Philadelphia, where the racial fault lines are both deep and yet subtle, that was not an easy thing to do.

I had a taste of that myself when I dipped my toe into the murky waters of DeSean Jackson and the whole "gang" saga late last week. My inbox filled with visceral, angry emails from people who felt "betrayed" that I'd disappointed my base (a base which apparently believes a person can't stray too far from the reservation without being slapped back a few yards).

I can only imagine what Chuck Stone had to deal with for decades.

A city like Philadelphia is generally very protective of its voices. It is like all the great metropolises that may be annoyed by the ones who speak loudly and inconveniently, but who are secretly glad of heart to know that the rabble rousers exist in their midst. New York had Breslin. Chicago had Royko. Boston had Barnicle.

Philly has had many great ones, but Chuck Stone is, at the very least, on the top rung of the notable ladder.

And now, the angels have a real reason to sing.

Christine Flowers is a lawyer.


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