Lyell Clay editor, publisher and dad
From my earliest memories, the Charleston Daily Mail was a huge part of my family.
My Dad, Lyell B. Clay, joined the paper in 1956, the year I was born.
The Daily Mail had special meaning to Dad because he had taken the reins from his stepfather, Walter E. Clark. As an attorney, Dad was instrumental in negotiating the Joint Operating Agreement between the Daily Mail and The Charleston Gazette. Many credit the JOA, which merged departments such as classified and composing, yet keeping editorial separate, for helping to assure that both papers had long lives ahead of them. Shortly thereafter, he became publisher.
As a child, all I knew was that the Daily Mail was a magical, Rockwellian place. In the newsroom there always seemed to be a clatter of typewriters as reporters and editors rushed to meet deadlines. I remember the editors — Sam Hindman, Charlie Connor and Rex Woodford. They often wore green-tinted visors and Sam was rarely without a cigar. And I remember my Dad in the midst of it all. In the earlier days, the executive offices were in the newsroom and I think my Dad rather liked it that way.
I have seen my Dad referred to as a businessman, which of course, he was, but to me, first and foremost, he was a newspaperman. I remember him telling me about a businessman he knew who decided he’d buy a newspaper. He thought he’d make a little money. Dad shook his head baffled, saying he just as well could have been selling shoes or anything else for that matter. He felt it was important to be emotionally invested in what you were doing.
To him, the Daily Mail was not just any business; it was part of the Fourth Estate. As publisher, he had an enormous responsibility, one he considered a great privilege. Folks looked forward to coming home from a hard day’s work, sitting down with their evening paper and finding out what was happening in their communities.
I think one reason he felt so at home in a newsroom was he had a tremendous love of the English language. He also had an incredible vocabulary. I remember when I was interning in the newsroom as a teenager during the summers and Dad would sometimes write a piece for the editorial page. I’d hear Rex Woodford holler from his desk, only half-joking, “Now, how do you spell that, Lyell?”
I was fortunate enough to intern in the newsroom while in journalism school, later returning to work at the paper as a reporter. It was truly a family. Many of the staffers had been there for decades. Someone once asked Dad the secret to his success in business and he said, “I hire people who are really good at what they do and then I let them do their jobs.” Dad saw the success of the paper as a team effort.
I never heard my Dad say he didn’t want to go to work. He embraced it. I remember he frequently worked on weekends and growing up, I would often tag along. I loved getting a paper right off the presses and the ink would be all over my hands. As the years went on, improvements in ink and newsprint quality helped to alleviate that problem, but back then, I never cared. I loved it. Getting a paper as it came off the presses made me feel a part of something immediate, timely and important.
Since my father retired in the late ‘80s, the newspaper business has changed significantly. With the addition of the Internet, there are countless news sources and timely has a whole new meaning.
But I think Dad would say that the same basic concepts still apply. He believed that integrity and impartiality should be governing principles. He loved the saying under the Daily Mail masthead that his stepfather used as the newspaper’s guiding light: “Without, Or With, Offence to Friends of Foes, I Sketch Your World Exactly as It Goes.” To Dad, those weren’t just words, but rather a promise to the readers, one he never took lightly.