Gene Metrick: Farewell Jeff — my mentor, my friend, my brother


Gene Metirck


Telegram Editor

Sunday, March 10, 2019

I lost my older brother last week, and I still can't wrap my head around it.

Former longtime Telegram Editor Jeff Herrin died Monday at the age of 60 — five days short of one year since his retirement on March 9, 2018.

Although not related by blood, I have always thought of Jeff as my older brother. He mentored me, encouraged me, pushed me, teased me and laughed both with and at me.

And he taught me.

Not just about the newspaper business, but about life — how to treat people, how to be a better man and how to manage a staff with care and compassion but also with a firm hand.

I also learned from him how a daily newspaper can serve and monitor a community with compassion and empathy, to consider and try to anticipate the impact of what we do with care on the lives of the people and institutions we cover.

It's an awesome responsibility, one he never took lightly. It took awhile, but he managed to drill that into me.

He was a hard act to follow.

Jeff hired me in 1998 to cover politics and economics for the Telegram. He kept me very busy, eventually assigning me a lot of difficult stories outside my beat that often annoyed me. But I later realized he did it because he trusted me to investigate them.

He pushed me in my early days, and I wasn't always happy about it. But it was good for me, and I could never stay mad at him for very long. He never asked any of us to do anything that didn't have to be done.

And he would get mad at me from time to time — and as most current and former Telegram reporters and photographers will tell you — if Jeff yelled at you, you probably pretty much deserved it.

Most times, I always tried to keep my pie-hole shut when he did. On the rare occasions — and they were very few — when I spoke up because I didn't feel I deserved the tongue-lashing, he usually relented and apologized.

Not many bosses do that.

And I don't think many bosses spend a lot of time talking with their staff about life, sports, music and a range of other things that have nothing to do with the job at hand the way Jeff did. And we loved it — I know I did. It was often the highlight of my day.

Every fall, I learned more than I cared to know about the South Carolina Gamecocks and their ups and downs in any given season, and I would dutifully try to commiserate or celebrate with him about something I really didn't know or care about.

And then there were the Green Bay Packers — probably next only to his beloved wife Susan, his children Jake and Lindsay and Bruce Springsteen — that were probably the fifth great love of his life.

Hailing from Joliet, Ill., and a life-long Chicago Bears fan, I will say that I suffered a lot of abuse from Jeff during all those years that the Packers routinely beat the hell out of us. But every once in awhile, I could get my digs in — like when the Bears, even though they sucked, somehow managed to beat the Packers on Thanksgiving Day in 2015.

I had a lot of fun with that at his expense.

I still can't believe that he is gone. I always told him that I feared that he would retire some day and I would have to take over from him — something I never aspired to do — and he would just laugh.

But that's the way it worked out.

And in the past year that I've been editor of the Telegram, I've walked in his shoes and confronted many of the challenges and responsibilities he had to contend with over all those years that I was unaware of, but with the advantage of being able to look back and remember how he managed them.

I'm quite lucky for that.

It's been a really tough time this past week in the Telegram newsroom. But we have soldiered on, despite our grief, not only because we have to, but because Jeff would not be happy at all if we didn't.

And I continue on, still considering myself after one year at the helm as the new boss and hopefully, as Pete Townsend of The Who — one of Jeff's favorite bands — famously wrote, “same as the old boss.”

Gene Metrick is the editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram.