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Remembering Chris Gladden (with a Laugh)

This is the Roanoke World-News news staff in the late 1970s with Chris the scruffy guy on the third row (white shirt, big beard) and me at the back to the left with glasses. We hadn’t both joined the features department yet.

I was intensely interviewing Dolly Parton on the phone for a story when Chris Gladden, who sat directly facing me in the features department of The Roanoke Times, slipped a photo under my nose. It was a shot of a gorgeous nude actress (Jean Seaburg, as I recall) and I couldn’t contain myself. I laughed out loud.

Dolly wanted to know what was going on. “I’d better not say,” I said. “Oh, come on,” said Dolly. “I love a good joke.” I told her and she broke up.

This is the later Chris, a lot more cleaned up.

Chris and I had a blast in that department for about 2 1/2 years in the late 1970s. We thought of ourselves as the stars of a department that had some heavyweights, including Mary Beth Armistead, Joe Kennedy, Jeff DeBell, and the like. We both covered the arts and did a lot–a whole lot–of feature writing. In fact, we wrote so much that we began a weekly competition for by-lines that didn’t sit well with our editor, Sandra Kelly.

During one stretch when we were both averaging more than 20 by-lines a week (and I was designing the TV section on one day of my schedule, giving me just four writing days), we went into Saturday’s paper tied at 24. I had one up my sleeve. One of my assignments weekly was to write a weekend column with no by-line about what was happening in the region. It was called The Tipoff. I began each paragraph of my story for this particular Saturday with a letter of my by-line and Sandra didn’t notice until Saturday morning when the paper came out and I had won the contest for that week.

When we arrived at work Monday, Chris met me at the office door with, “You know that won’t count. You cheated!” I grinned and Sandra bellowed, “IN MY OFFICE!” She raised hell at us, grinning like school boys who had put a frog in her desk, as everybody outside laughed.

It was that kind of department: fun, creative, busy, resourceful and productive as hell.

I have a lot to remember today as I think about Chris, who just died at 71 this week. I haven’t seen him in years, but we’ve kept up through the grapevine. We shared our (recovering) alcoholism, love for books, movies, theater and music. Chris was a good guitar player with the Grevious Angels in the 1970s and was always close to his outlaw band buddies. They played a lot of clubs, raised a lot of hell, drank a lot of booze, smoked a lot of mary jane.

But it was the colleague who inspired and challenged me that I remember. There was one story in particular that we did together, reviewing every restaurant in downtown Roanoke at lunch. There were more than 35, but by the time we talked Sandra into letting us write the reviews, we’d eaten at almost all of them.

The story was a running conversation between us, as much critiquing each other as we did the restaurants. I tended to like the shops that fed us well (The Four Parrots and its legendary cook, Sweet Pea, who adored us and stuffed us) and Chris wanted the hoity-toity food (Alexander’s). The story was a load of fun for us and for everybody who read it.

There is a lot more to Chris than my stories, of course, but mine are the ones I know best. I remember a funny guy who could have a very serious side on occasion. He was a talent in every area he chose as his own and his voice was unique: Southern redneck/intellectual. He was never at a loss for words–in that Salem drawl–and he was not stingy with praise for what he thought was good writing.

My alcoholism led me to be fired from The Times (after 10 years at the paper) and I think what I missed most in leaving was the fun Chris and I created for each other and for everybody else.

It was a real professional highlight.

Chris had challenges after leaving The Times, though he did open a successful book shop, Christopher Gladden Bookseller. His son, Sean (named for the John Wayne character in “The Quite Man”) died at 38 in 2018 and I know that weighed on him.

Chris was at The Times for 18 years. We started the same way, as copy boys who couldn’t type, and worked our way into full-time jobs as journalists among our heroes, neither of us achieving a college education first (though he had more time in class than did I).

I think we were both in love with the profession and never allowed the standard journalism bane–suspicion of everything and everybody–interfere with our good time. It was a great period for us both.

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.

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