Today’s print column is about one of our community’s best storytellers — and the impact he has on our newspaper now and in the future.
Only a few hours after the horror unfolded in a Colorado movie theater two Fridays ago, I got an email message from Walter Boyd in Burlington. It said, simply: “Burlington did have a theater shooting once — 84 years ago.”
Walter, an attorney and historian with a passion for Alamance County’s past, has a wonderful habit of dropping little tidbits like this one on me. In the news business such things are called “teasers.” They’re meant to get you interested enough to say, “And … ?!?”
Usually Walter’s little notes follow something I’ve posted on social media and go something like this:
“Did I ever tell you about Coley Cain’s reign of terror back in 1936?”
Or, “That reminds me, ever heard of the Avon murders?”
Then, of course, I always ask for more.
Predictably, I did the same when Walter dangled the information about a movie theater shooting here back in 1928. It was at the Lyric on South Main Street. Within the hour he had an item in my mailbox with this note:
“Here’s an article I wrote about it. Odis Robertson’s sister Cordie was married to Newman Cox, my maternal grandmother’s brother. Don (Bolden) has a photo of the Lyric, I believe. It sat approximately where the west end of the old depot is now.”
What Walter had written was a fascinating tale about a nasty personal dispute between two men who by coincidence wound up at the Lyric theater as one show was letting out and another was prepared to begin. Both men were armed. One got the drop on the other. It was a story rich in detail, to say the least.
And while it wasn’t very similar to the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed and 58 wounded in a planned massacre during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” it certainly got the attention of our readers on Saturday morning — both in print and online. The story was heavily praised, deservedly so.
Almost on cue, I got this note from Walter:
“I just noticed that the Lyric Theatre story made the ‘most viewed’ status and already has 42 Facebook recommendations. It appears that there is interest in old crimes, too. Maybe I should do one about the time Burlington’s mayor and most of the city council went to jail for grave robbing?”
I laughed aloud and asked the question we pose frequently here at the Times-News: “How does Walter find out all this stuff?”
That came up often in putting together our special section published last week about the history of the Times-News. In March, I asked Walter if he could supply us with an early history of the publications that ultimately became the Times-News. As always, he was happy to oblige — and then some. For the period ranging from 1887 to around 1940, Walter provided a rich narrative of how the newspaper evolved, its owners and editors — especially the editors. The details are simply remarkable.
“How did he find out this stuff?” retired Times-News publisher Steve Buckley asked me the day the section was printed. That question again.
Diligence added to interest then multiplied by local knowledge would be my guess when it comes to Walter’s uncanny ability to dig things out. Walter, who plans to write several volumes on Alamance County’s history, started what is obviously a lifelong passion by listening to family stories passed down for generations about Burlington. He then takes on the painstaking work of reading through old newspapers, court records and other archives. He spends long periods talking to people, listening and then trying to sort memories from facts.
Sometimes that’s the tricky part.
All of this, of course, is prelude to a conversation I had with Walter on Wednesday. That was the day our countdown of history-making stories leading up to our 125th birthday ended. Because readers have indicated a powerful interest in our area’s past through this series written by editor emeritus Don Bolden, I wanted to keep a version of it going in another format. I talked to Walter about writing a monthly feature focusing on one aspect of Alamance County history.
While we haven’t worked out all the details, Walter quickly agreed. Perhaps he can fill in some gaps to questions history-loving readers have posed in recent days about the old stone wall at the former Fisher Street school or details about the Ace Theater that used to be on Worth Street.
But first, I have to know more about that city officials and grave robbery thing.