Editor’s note: Ron Taylor, a legendary journalist and a truly beloved member of the Like the Dew community, died the morning of May 31.
Dew writers would know him best as their night editor. Most nights for the past three years, Ron would take the submitted stories, edit, find art and turn them into Dew posts. He would look at the page and search for what was missing – seeking out other stories from a cadre of writers whose stories they trusted to Ron to repost or he’d “knock something out” to fill the hole. Then very late each night, it was Ron who hit the submit button to send out the morning Dewsletter. He didn’t do it for fame and certainly not for the money, Ron did it because of his friends.
His long-time colleagues and friends Ann Woolner and Leonard Ray Teel wrote this obituary, which was authorized by Ron’s family. Like the Dew welcomes and encourages additional tributes in the coming days.
James Ronald “Ron” Taylor, award-winning journalist and internationally-known author and lecturer, died Thursday in Hospice Atlanta with metastatic melanoma. He was 65.
Born in Trion, Georgia, to a mill-worker and a homemaker, Taylor worked for 41 years at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution as a feature writer, editor and online producer for ajc.com and AccessAtlanta. Articles he wrote or co-authored exposed unhealthy and cruel conditions at the Atlanta Zoo in 1983, prompting a transformative overhaul there; won a national prize for revealing Georgia’s deteriorating mental health system; and broke ground in 1983 with early reporting on the HIV virus at a time when few news organizations dared write about it. Taylor traveled to Haiti to do more AIDS reporting.
“AIDS: The killer that no one understands,” read the front page headline on the first of several such stories, which garnered more awards.
“Among all the savvy, talented people in the Journal newsroom, he was our very best writer,” said Bob Johnson, longtime Journal city editor.
Before the afternoon Journal and morning Constitution merged reporting staffs in 1982, they competed, although the Cox family owned both papers. “Ron was the only feature writer who worried us,” said Jim Auchmutey, a feature writer at the Constitution before the merger.
Taylor began as a sports reporter working for the Summerville News in his hometown in the foothills of the Appalachians. In later years, his reputation as an American journalist reached around the world through his teaching and through the journalism textbook he co-authored, which promoted honest reporting and “writing with style.”
He defined style as “that quality buried in us all which manifests itself as a shout of distinction. The person who has found his or her style leaves some personal mark upon the work.”
Taylor left his personal mark on his state, his hometown, his adopted city and on aspiring journalists across the globe, as well as his friends and family. He especially cherished time with his son, Alex Brooke Taylor, whether camping, fishing or taking him and his friends to a punk rock concert.
Born July 29, 1946, in Trion to James and Bertha Bethania Crawford Taylor, Taylor grew up in nearby Summerville and began writing as a small boy. “I remember his Tom Thumb typewriter and his little desk that he would sit at and write,” recalled his cousin, Nancy Zeigler, who lived next door. He wrote plays in grade school and high school.
While in Summerville, he was active in the Baptist church, sometimes taking to the pulpit to preach as an adolescent, according to his sister, Angela T. Mitchell. One summer he worked sweeping cotton dust from the floors of a textile mill near Trion, Georgia, which employed his father, a World War II veteran who had stormed the beaches of Normandy. The job prompted the younger Taylor to declare that mill work wouldn’t be the life for him.
In school, Taylor played football and by his senior year in high school had begun working for the local paper covering high school sports, an important beat in the small town South. The first in his family to attend college when he went to the University of Georgia in 1964, Taylor continued writing a column, Taylor Talks, for his hometown paper. He also joined the staff of the Red and Black student newspaper at UGA as a sportswriter and, later, columnist, taking over as editor his senior year, 1967-68.
Taylor married his college sweetheart, Lynn McGaughey, in a union that ended in divorce. They had one child, Alex Brooke Taylor, of Atlanta.
In college Taylor aspired to a career in sportswriting, but the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King Jr. changed his focus to news, which he considered more meaningful.
He joined the staff of the Atlanta Journal that year and quickly established himself as a versatile reporter and skilled story teller.
He was soon winning awards for a series on suburban life in north Atlanta, “The Golden Ghetto,” and as one of the reporters of the series, “Two Atlantas- -Living in Limbo,” an in-depth look at race relations and a follow-up to an earlier series.
He reported from Plains, Georgia, election night 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president, and from Washington, D.C., that January for Carter’s inauguration. He wrote on homelessness in Atlanta, and later helped edit and direct a team of reporters covering the South.
“One of our duties was to guide coverage of every hurricane that whipped through the region,” said Keith Graham, then an editor on the national desk. “Ron was especially adept at pulling together files from reporters in the field and assembling them into a coherent main piece, usually with the bylines going to a couple of the reporters out braving the storms.”
The work that produced the most dramatic reform began when Taylor reported that the Atlanta Zoo had sold a sickly, 12-year-old elephant named Twinkles to a traveling circus, where she died in a trailer. He and then-reporter Susan Faludi followed up with articles about Kodiak bears the zoo had lent out turning up dead in a roadside menagerie, zoo personnel making rabbit stew from animals intended for the children’s zoo and raising chickens and pigs for slaughter.
Filthy conditions, inhumane treatment and incompetent management gave way when the stories provoked public outrage and city leaders mounted an effort to re-make the facility into Zoo Atlanta, considered first-class.
Taylor “had an innate sense for human interest, honesty, and humor,” said his co-author Leonard Ray Teel, a former Journal reporter who teaches journalism at Georgia State University. “He had grown up interested in people’s stories. As a journalist he listened to not just two sides, but many, and then pieced together the full story, with style.”
Their book, Into the Newsroom, influenced students and working journalists around the world, translated into Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Armenian. Overseas English editions reached students from India to Nigeria.
In recent years, Taylor devoted vacations to traveling to the Middle East and North Africa where he taught Arab journalists and students eager to learn American standards.
He left print journalism for AJC.com around 2003, which required him to master code for posting stories and photos. “It was a learning curve most people on the print side weren’t willing to tackle,” said Hyde Post, former vice president for the Internet at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Known among his coworkers and friends for his contagious laugh, his easy smile and his quick, off-beat humor, Taylor was an avid hiker and camper. “He wasn’t the most athletic hiker that ever hit the trail, but he sure did like it,” said Post, one of his hiking partners. “He was intrepid.”
Taylor regularly organized “camp-outs” at the Blue Ridge spread of former Journal reporter, Johnny Turner and his wife, Dianne, posting hilarious memos on the newspaper’s bulletin board inviting whomever wished to come.
Taylor also loved music, said his son, who lives in Atlanta. When Alex was 13, his dad took him and some friends to see The Clash, whose album, Sandinista! was a favorite of both father and son.
After retiring from the Atlanta newspapers in 2009, Taylor continued to write for the Atlanta-based web publication, LikeTheDew.com. One recent piece, “Reflections on Cairo in Calmer Times,” was his memoir of the city when he taught there before the revolution.
“I have visited Cairo four times, and I have made friends there. It remains one of my favorite cities for the very reasons some people don’t like it: It is old, a little dirty and full of restless people. And there is nothing more awesome than viewing the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza for the first time, even with a Kentucky Fried Chicken just across the street.
“When last we were in Cairo, we rented a horse and carriage to cross the bridge after visiting the U.S. Embassy and managed to beat most of the suicidal rush-hour traffic back to our hotel. The sky was clear and the Nile was steel blue except for the occasional faluka taking tourists for a river ride.”
Taylor leaves his son, Alex; daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Strickler; and grandson, Cassius Seanor Taylor; all of Atlanta. He is also survived by his sister, Angela; brother-in-law Dale Mitchell, both of Summerville; niece Stephanie Griffin; her husband Bryan; their three children, all of Huntsville, Alabama.
Southcare Cremation and Funeral Society is handling his cremation. The family invites friends and admirers to gather at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 6, beginning at 6 p.m., to memorialize him.
The family asks that any memorial contributions be made to CURE Childhood Cancer, 1117 Perimeter Center West, Ste. N-402, Atlanta, GA 30338 | 800 443-CURE.