Longtime editorial page editor dies
Free Lance–Star editorial page editor Paul Akers once told a friend that if three people didn’t call to complain about one of his editorials, he hadn’t done his job.
Akers, who also didn’t hesitate to put scathing missives about his opinions at the top of the letters to the editor section, died Friday night at VCU Medical Center’s Main Hospital in Richmond after developing complications from heart surgery. He was 63.
“For the past three months, Paul came to work carrying a pump that kept his heart beating. Nothing could keep him from the work he loved,” said Nick Cadwallender, publisher of The Free Lance–Star.
“We will miss his brilliant writing, his passion for well-reasoned argument, and his respect and graciousness toward those with whom he disagreed. We will miss his quiet, self-deprecating good humor. His death leaves a giant hole in the heart of this newspaper.”
Paul E. Akers was raised in West Virginia and was the first in his family to attend college. He served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, an experience to which he alluded in a number of his columns.
By the time he was hired as editorial page editor at The Free Lance–Star in 1998, he had worked as a reporter and editor at a number of papers and had most recently been a senior writer for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Akers had also served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1975–97, where his duties included editorship of the 80th Division newspaper.
Josiah P. Rowe III, publisher emeritus of The Free Lance–Star, hired Akers for the editorial position. Upon hearing of Akers’ death, Rowe said: “His background included not only an interest in and knowledge of a wide variety of issues, but he came with writing skills to summarize complex arguments. We seldom had to ask for more clarity or more detail.
“He recognized that almost every local issue had supporters on both sides, which generally guaranteed that someone would be offended by what he wrote. Only rarely did Paul have to acknowledge that a reader was right and he was off base. His gentle spirit will be missed.”
Friends and colleagues were quick to point out other qualities as well. While Akers was forthright and articulate about what he believed in, he would listen to opposing views and made sure the editorial section offered a balance of opinions.
“That’s vital to newspapers,” said Arch DiPeppe of Stafford County, who differed with Akers politically but became a good friend. “Whether you agreed with him or not, he made you think. He would bring in all sorts of different people to write editorials and op–eds. You could see that it was important to him that they reflected the entire community.”
In a long-ago column where Akers mentioned his friendship with DiPeppe, he also wrote about his father, a staunch Democrat who died at the age of 55. He was “an abiding presence” in Akers’ life, and the yardstick against which he measured masculine conduct, including his own.
“One thing my father had was a quiet dignity, the adjective infusing the noun. I never, ever saw him make a public scene—what the old black ballplayers called cutting a hog,” Akers wrote.
“When another’s rudeness might have provoked a justified verbal retaliation, my dad held his peace, got the kind of look on his face you get when you’re out to eat and you open the restroom door to a dirty toilet, and silently walked away, not out of fear but in recognition of the First Rule of Pigs: Never wrestle with a pig; he likes it and you get dirty.”
The influence apparently rubbed off. DiPeppe described Akers as a “mensch,” a Yiddish term meaning a particularly good person, a stand-up kind of guy; it was the highest accolade people he knew growing up could give someone.
“I have run into few people like Paul. He was honest, principled, yet open to different ideas and had a good sense of humor,” City Councilman Matt Kelly said of Akers. “A genuinely good person. I am a better person for having known him. He will be missed.”
Ed Jones, who recently retired as The Free Lance–Star’s editor, said that Akers not only made him think, but the author of the Tio Pablo columns on the editorial page also made him laugh.
“I’m indebted to him on both counts,” he said.
“It’s not often you encounter someone who is a superb writer, an insightful thinker and a true gentleman, but who never takes himself too seriously,” Jones said. “In many ways, Paul was a passionate idealist, but he balanced that with a down-to-earth practicality.
“He was, in short, a brilliant editorial page editor and a genuine friend. You did not have to agree with Paul to recognize his great skill as a writer,” Jones said.
“I learned a lot from Paul, not the least of which was how you can be both fair-minded and provocative. Working with him was an honor—and a lot of fun.”
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407