Farewell to a Friend

Ron TaylorWell, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
I’m just sitting here thinkin’
With my mind a million miles away

Putting down a hard blues riff, Bob Dylan had his vocal chops working. On “Lonesome Day Blues,” the performance by Dylan and his band is so strong that the weight of a sad ol’ lonesome day is manifest. The song brings to mind the sorrowful days we do our best to get through.

May 31, 2012 was a sad ol’ lonesome day for friends and family of Ron Taylor, who died that morning from complications of metastatic melanoma. Taylor was 65. An unassuming and likeable native of Summerville, Georgia, Ron Taylor was that rare sort, one of the best friends you ever had, even if you had just met him. With his modest demeanor and penchant for cracking jokes, it may have surprised people to learn that Ron, in his 41 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), was a dogged reporter who could see his way to and through a story, no matter how difficult it may be to uncover. The tenacity he brought to investigating was matched by his ability to deftly communicate his findings to thousands of daily readers. There was nothing visibly heroic about the way Ron went about his work; it was simply his quiet realization that what had been revealed thus far didn’t add up. Certain elements were missing. His job was to find what was missing and deliver the truth. And deliver it with clarity. If feathers were ruffled or sensibilities offended, then so be it. Ron Taylor had a job to do.

Less than an hour before he passed away, Ron’s friend Joni Hunnicutt and I talked at the hospice about his commitment to journalism. As Taylor had long noted, even with the bombast of information in today’s media, there seemed a scarcity of hard news for citizens to digest and learn what’s happening to them – and why. Similar opinions were expressed in a recent conversation with journalist and musician Peter Stone Brown, as we noted the downsizing of newspapers and the closing of book and record stores. Brown thought he’d never live to see such a time, saying, “All that stuff is what I really like about living and it’s being deleted from the catalog.”

Well the leaves are rustlin’ in the wood — things are fallin’ off the shelf
Leaves are rustlin’ in the wood — things are fallin’ off the shelf

In “Lonesome Day Blues,” Dylan sings of stormy days, the earth trembling, with much around us, and us, being adrift. It’s a theme he’s covered before, pointedly so, as in “Everything Is Broken,” from 1989’s Oh Mercy. Grace and mercy had long been on Dylan’s mind, but such qualities, as well as resolution, were especially contemplated on the day “Love And Theft, the album that featured “Lonesome Day Blues” was released. That day was September 11, 2001. It was a lonesome day like no other.

Atlanta seemed far from where the terrorists struck, but like people in any American town that day, Atlantans feared what would happen next — and where it would happen. The reporters at the AJC hit the streets soon after the planes crashed into the buildings, taking full measure of the impact felt in a city with thousands of Federal government employees and the world’s busiest airport. The Federal employees went home, causing a rare mid-morning traffic jam in and around the downtown area. Other workers, hunkered down and with attention often focused on the televised news, did their best as the hours slowly passed. It would be such a relief too get home that evening. The AJC reporters, editors and production staff did incredible work in putting together extra editions that would help explain the most confounding day of our lives. It was good old fashioned reporting, grunt work with a pen and pad, like Ron Taylor long championed.

Taylor broke new ground for his readers in the mid-80s with his stories on the emerging AIDS crisis. During those same years, Ron’s beat, just 3 miles from the AJC, was the Atlanta Zoo, where animals were suffering. Talk about a man bites dog story. The conditions at the zoo were not only horrid, they were sinister. Two Kodiak bears were loaned out to a roadside menagerie and Twinkles the elephant was sent out with a traveling circus. All three animals died on the road. During that scandalous time, at least nine zoo animals died under mysterious circumstances. Less mysterious, but disturbing all the while, was news of the petting zoo’s keeper allowing workers to take rabbits home to skin and fry. The reporting by Taylor and Susan Faludi captivated Atlantans, causing great anger far and wide. Atlanta’s government-run zoo was a global embarrassment and the people at City Hall were slow to get the picture. One highly placed city official marveled that the fuss began with the death of a “decrepit old elephant.” Soon the city decided the best way to rid itself of annoying revelations was to change the story and give it a happy ending. Mayor Andrew Young did just that by finding the eminently qualified Dr. Terry Maple to run the zoo, taking it out of the city’s control. Positive changes took place. In the years to come, Zoo Atlanta regained its accreditation and was soon regarded as one of the country’s best zoos.

While Ron Taylor was the quick study, ideal for reporting on government scandals, the AIDS virus or a political campaign, his editors at the AJC also knew he possessed the common touch helpful in giving new light to everyday stories. On April 4, 1986 the AJC ran a feature by Taylor on the colorful characters who established a presence in Downtown Atlanta’s Woodruff Park. One who particularly captured Ron’s attention was a preacher who warned to passersby that “The Lord is coming through killing this time.” Taylor got the preacher talking, not only about his concern for the sinful around him, but also his own gig.

Another longtime regular has been the Rev. Roy Roper, shouting hellfire and brimstone with a battered guitar slung across his shoulder. The Lord said go to Atlanta and stand on the street,” Roper explained.

But the preacher’s days have been full of trouble lately. He said the law is on his back because he broke the legs of a bowlegged son trying to straighten them. And there’s competition too, from at least three other street preachers who frequently show up in the park.

Roper keeps the faith, however. “God’ll make it better for me,” he said. “He is going to help me show these false prophets and antichrists for what they are.” And Roper says he had a dream about better days for his music recently. “I dreamed I saw myself with my own equipment, amplifiers, and everything.”

The Reverend Roper’s determination brings to mind another fiery verse in Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues.”

I’m gonna spare the defeated — I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd
I’m goin’ to teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud

Sit Here So Contentedly . . .  Ron Taylor was one of those unique individuals. He accomplished much personally, but more so, through his hard work, he accomplished much for the community. And in his quiet and steady way, he made much of what the rest of us struggle over look so easy. Best of all, he never acted as if he knew that.  Ron possessed the spirit of a contented person. He’d do one thing at a time, do it at his own studied pace and still get it done on time.

In a Care Page update e-mailed to friends of Ron some three weeks before he died, the news was not hopeful but in the close, there was a note of encouragement. We were told to come visit. Ron was still quite alert and eager to share a few laughs. “The party continues in Room 229,” so the update said. Whenever we think of Ron’s spirit, the party will indeed continue.

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Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.