Two Big Losses: Kern and Beagle

Smiling John Kern and me at last year’s Prayer Vigil in Roanoke

The losses over the past few days have been heavy for Roanoke. First, my long-time friend John Kern, a big-hearted historian, had that heart go out on him. Then Ben Beagle, the print voice of Roanoke for so many years, died after 90 years among us.

I worked with Ben for about 10 years and enjoyed a real friendship with John for maybe 20 years. I loved that man. He was warm, funny, kind, generous, brilliant, dogged, and the kind of person I wanted to be. John had grace. Real grace, one that allows some to be a cut above the crowd, to give without thought of receipt, to understand why.

He was a historian who opened Roanoke’s office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. That was a state job that encouraged the collection of local and regional history, an office often under threat of being cut by parsimonious Republicans as unnecessary. John made it necessary, digging at history until he found its diamonds and published dozens of them, a number having significant practical impact.

John’s whole life–which lasted 78 years–was built around academics, beginning in Iowa. His parents were college professors at the University of Iowa. He graduated at prestigious Swarthmore College, a source of great pride for him. He took master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. John collected history so he could help us understand ourselves. He specialized in black history, I think, because John, a Quaker, loved underdogs. He certainly admired our African-American brethren.

I learned a lot about patience from John, a guy who never showed me any signs of having a temper, even when talking politics–where, like me, he was quite liberal in a conservative age. He took loving care of his invalid wife, Sandy, for a number of years until her death.

John was always active–a former runner and soccer player–and spent some of his final hours doing two of his favorite things: talking and teaching. According to Pam Martin, writing Sunday in an online Quaker publication, “John was attending The Virginia Forum, a history conference at Emory and Henry College, where he had delivered a paper on Friday about Reverend Francis Griffith’s role during the struggle for civil rights in Prince Edward County.

“He was having lunch with his good friend, George Kegley, when he took ill. He was rushed to the hospital in Abingdon where emergency surgery was performed.  According to his daughter, Margy Zeitouny, who was with him, he was conscious and lucid after the surgery but took a turn for the worse during the night. He [died] in the company of his daughter and his stepson, who made it to Virginia before he died.

George says a memorial service will likely be held some time this coming summer, possibly July 22. His daughter will have that information. You may email her at

(Note: Amy Friedenberger’s obit in The Roanoke Times–here–was quite well written and researched [John would have been pleased], though five days after the fact.)

Ben Beagle at the post he was born to.

Beagle and I worked together–separately, he in the news room, I in sports and features–at The Roanoke Times for 10 years in the 1970s, early ’80s. He wrote a column that became a breakfast fixture for many and always impressed me as a guy who could take the most niggling, dull assignment and make it shine. The big boy could write, but he could also understand what he was writing about in human terms.

Ben was basically shy (saying “hello” was often more than he could handle), but when he put on his reporter’s visor, he became another person, one who had great questions and a big ear for listening and for hearing. I was never a fan of his column, which often wasn’t about anything (Dan Casey and Mike Ives are/were far better Metro columnists), but I’d search out his by-line on anything he wrote, whether it was a slow-news-day council meeting, a Radford High football game (he grew up and played there and took great joy in it), or story of coming back from the brink.

Ben was like Walter Cronkite in that people trusted the big, quiet, slow, ambling man with the affecting smile, when you could coax one from him. He hadn’t written in a goodly while at the time of his death and many in Roanoke don’t have a clue who he is, but he was part of a fraternity of newspaper professionals (some without college degrees) that produced a newspaper people wanted to read, that people trusted.

I think of Ben in the same sentence with Buster Carrico, Ozzie Osborne (no, not that one), Margie Fisher, Jimmy Thacker, Bill Brill, George Kegley and a whole crew of people who grew up in the ’40s and became the backbone of the newspaper business. They worked and partied and drank and smoked and sucked down coffee and brought you the news, unfiltered, honest and straightforward.

It was a business filled with heroes and Ben was one of them.

(Beagle photo: Roanoke Times. My friend Susan shot the photo of John Kern.)

By admin

Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On Advisory Board of New River Voice.

2 replies on “Two Big Losses: Kern and Beagle”

Thanks for this. My father was a BIG fan of newspapers in Roanoke (getting both morning and evening papers) as well as Roanoke history (he was a volunteer at the Transportation Museum). He shared those with me until I went to college and moved away from Roanoke. We spent many a time reading the morning paper and reading Mr. Beagle over brekfeast.

Leave a Reply