They don't make them like Jack Aulis anymore. And I, for one, think that's a crying shame.
Jack's farewell to the arcane craft of newspaper column-writing appeared on our editorial page Nov. 3. Like all of his work, it bore three of his timeless trademarks: a bone-dry wit, a dash of self-irony and just the right touch of velvet.``My purpose today is to say goodbye,' he began.
That seductively simple sentence made me feel I was listening to a favorite uncle launch into an eagerly awaited story. Jack's writing, with its pull-up-a-chair, conversational tone, has a way of doing that to a reader.
``This is the last weekly column I will write for this space,' he continued. ``I have been here now for seven and a half years and I expect I have told you everything I know and a lot more, some of it two or three times.'
Oh, yes. Such a straightforward admission is pure, unvarnished Jack Aulis. This business - indeed, this tired old world - could use a massive infusion of such candor, grace and wit.
A long, colorful career Over a lunch of clam chowder and crab cakes in a bustling restaurant in Raleigh, where he has lived since 1968, Jack reminisced about his four decades as a newspaperman.
In 1951 - six years after he lost his right arm during the vicious fighting on Iwo Jima - he went to work as a $35-a-week proofreader at the Elizabeth City Daily Advance. For the next 30 years - except for a seven-year stint in radio - he worked for the Daily Advance, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and The News and Observer in Raleigh as a reporter, editor, editorial writer and columnist, covering everything from the civil rights movement to state government to hurricanes.
``My wife and I lived in Elizabeth City for 17 years,' he says. ``I thought I was helping it move into the 20th century. Then I learned those people didn't want to move into the 20th century. Looking back' - he pauses for another Jack Aulis trademark, a rueful, rumbling chuckle - ``I'm not sure I blame them.'
In 1982 he became a free-lancer, and a year later he started writing his weekly column for the News & Record's editorial page. It was one of my favorite things in the paper for a very simple reason: Jack Aulis knew how to follow instructions.
He was told: ``Write three pages a week, double-spaced, and never be serious.' And that's just what he did.
Jack also knows how to count his blessings. In his farewell column he told of a friend who said writing a weekly newspaper column was a license to steal. ``In my defense,' Jack wrote, ``I assured him it was not a license to steal very much, so I didn't feel guilty about it.'
In the world according to Jack Aulis:
``Every silver lining has a cloud.'
Tomatoes are a very versatile fruit because ``when extremely ripe, they're sometimes thrown at politicians and other would-be entertainers.'
Greensboro vagrants are classier than Raleigh vagrants because they wear ``Jack Daniel's Field Tester' caps and they shun ``89-cent wine.'
Bird-watchers in Raleigh rarely have trouble spotting the ``Piedmont-crested slicker,' a breed of political animal that is ``apt to wear clothes that look as though they fit, and styles that are within at least a decade of being current.'
Jack Aulis's may not be the most serious world in the world. But it is, without a doubt, a strange and funny place.
The toughest question In all his years of asking tough questions - and being asked a few in return - one stands out above all the rest.
``The most difficult and interesting question I've ever been asked came from a sixth-grade boy. He asked me, 'How do you know something's going to be funny?' There's no way to answer that. I figure if I think it's funny, then somebody else will, too. But that boy wasn't very happy with my answer. I don't blame him. I'd like to have somebody tell me.'
Of his seemingly effortless, conversational style, he says: ``It's nothing I invented. I couldn't write any other way if I tried.'
Which is not to say he hasn't tried. During his 64 years he has written, but never published, four novels and an unknowable number of poems and short stories. He is the author of six published books, including four which his wife, Lois, illustrated. Two of them, ``Eagles Have Bad Breath' and ``Butterflies and Other Birds,' take light-hearted looks at some of his favorite creatures.
``Lois and I bought a bird feeder years ago - because it was on sale for 99 cents - and we've been hooked ever since,' he says. ``My theory about birds is that they're all sparrows. And if they don't come to you, don't go messing with them.'
No, they don't make them like Jack Aulis anymore. My guess is I'm not alone in thinking that's a crying shame.