Every newspaper writer remembers his first editor. Mine was named Joe Dabney. He was managing editor of this newspaper, then called The Daily Times, where I landed my first newsroom job. I was a flunky.
I learned a lot from Joe, and I had a lot to learn. I was 15 years old, naive, and green as a spring onion. I wrote my first feature story about a local guy competing in a soap box derby. It wasn’t a prize-winner by any means, but Joe gave it good play on the front page. Some of the type had been “pied,” an old newspaper term in hot-type printing that meant it had been jumbled up. Maybe this was my initiation into the newspaper fraternity.
Joe encouraged me at times. He liked some of the quotes I sprinkled into my stories. He laughed a couple of times. He loved the written word, even, surprisingly, some of my words.
Before coming to my hometown, Joe had graduated from Berry College in Rome, worked at a couple of daily newspapers and served in the Korean War, writing news and commentary in China and Japan in the United States’ efforts in PsyWar, or psychological warfare.
Following the Gainesville job and editing at two other newspapers, he ended up at Lockheed-Georgia Co., where he worked for 24 years as a public relations executive.
Joe was a gregarious, energetic guy who wasn’t satisfied to spend his holidays, weekends and vacations just sitting around. He loved Southern Appalachia and its people, and he was looking for book ideas. He found his first one in Dawsonville, where he and his wife, Susanne, toured Fred Goswick’s moonshine museum. Joe ended up writing three books on moonshining, pretty good for a teetotaling Baptist.
Joe also wrote a book titled “HERK: Hero of the Skies,” about the C-130 airplane that Lockheed built. And then, after retiring from Lockheed, he turned out two cookbooks. His first one was called “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking.” It wasn’t one of those cookbooks whose photos are more appetizing than the dishes themselves. He used black-and-white, Instamatic-style photos and flavored the recipes with stories about people of the mountains.
That 500-page book, thanks to Joe’s comfortable, folksy writing style, won the 1998 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. Joe, a South Carolina native who grew up on Appalachian food but didn’t know diddly about cooking it, accepted the award in front of 1,600 gammed-up chefs and food professionals in New York City. He practically galloped to the stage, he said, “like running down to the creek to go swimming.”
On Nov. 19, I interviewed Joe at his Atlanta home for a story that I hope will be included in a book to be published through The Foxfire Fund Inc. of Rabun County. I emailed the story to him, and he offered a few more details he had forgotten to tell me. He said he liked the story.
Emails from him continued to come. And then they stopped abruptly. I found out why after Christmas.
Joseph Earl Dabney died on Dec. 26. He would have been 87 on Jan. 29. The family will receive friends at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, with a memorial service to follow at 11, at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Joe was an active member.
For 30 years off and on, Joe had been writing a novel he titled “Cherokee Valley So Wild.” Publication was in the works, but now its completion is uncertain. I hope someone will see the book through publication. Joe would have liked that.
Joe Dabney was a good man. He was a family man who was happy sitting in a porch rocker or on the steps of a mountain home, talking to the locals about moonshine or food or Jesus or whatever. He was a people person. He was an encourager.
But now he’s gone. And I never told him thanks for encouraging a greenhorn when he needed it most.
Phil Hudgins is a newspaper veteran and a Gainesville resident.