To me, he was royalty.
Journalism royalty. Newspaperman royalty. Index-Journal royalty.
William “Bill” Collins was someone who set the standard to aspire to, even when those of us who worked alongside him knew, and still know, we could never reach those heights. But still we tried and, through the sheer proximity of being in his orbit, were made just a little bit better for the effort.
As I’m certain you likely read this week, Bill Collins — Mr. Collins, as I always knew him — died this week at the age of 88. An Army veteran — he was one of the original Airborne Rangers — and University of South Carolina alum, he was, of course, best known in Greenwood and the Lakelands for his 32 years as an editor, in one capacity or another, at the Index-Journal. He retired back in 2011, but continued to pen guest columns for the paper during the past decade.
For years he helped shape this institution, one day at a time. The newspaper business was, and remains, a rough and tumble affair. You put the metaphorical coal in the furnace every single day, creating an issue from a blank slate, filling it with stories and columns and photos and advertisements, always striving for, but never achieving, perfection, building to a crescendo when the presses roll and a new edition is born.
And then you go home, get some rest, and get up and do the whole thing again the next day. History on a deadline, and all of that.
It’s an unpredictable game, and a lot of hard work. But Mr. Collins always played his role with integrity, courage, intelligence and, yes, more than a bit of style.
I can still vividly recall, from our time working together at the Index, Mr. Collins coming down the aisle in the middle of our newsroom in the afternoon, and hearing the “click, clack” of his dress shoes as he hustled back to the composing room to pull an early draft of his latest column off the printer. Even in an era when things were becoming more casual, he was always nattily dressed at work. Like the newspapermen in the old movies, but in living color, right there on Phoenix Street.
We worked together for seven years, ships passing in the night, so to speak. It was the first seven years of my journalism career, and the last seven of his. But he always treated me as a contemporary, even when that was far from true. We also went to the same church, First Presbyterian in Greenwood, for a number of years, and it was always funny for me to see him there. Kind of like when you were a kid and you spotted your teacher at the grocery store.
And he would often offer advice and counsel. There was a time early on in my run at the Index when I was seriously thinking of leaving the paper. I was frustrated with my role at the time, and I was even interviewing for other jobs. This was 15 years ago.
Early one Saturday afternoon back then, I was in the sports office at the IJ, designing the next day’s sports page. I loved writing and reporting, but hated design work. But, we were short staffed and I was having to fill in. On this particular afternoon, Mr. Collins happened to be in the building. He wasn’t always in on Saturdays, but on this one he happened to be there finishing some work.
He spotted me in the sports office, and stopped in to speak. The office was much quieter on Saturdays than during weekdays, so he pulled up a chair and asked how things were going. I admitted to him I wasn’t crazy about designing the sports page.
Mr. Collins took an encouraging tone, and we talked it through. He encouraged me to hang in there, just a bit longer, and that better assignments would come.
“You’re just making yourself more valuable,” he said, and gave me a little knowing nod, and then he was off to finish a column.
He, of course, was correct. I got through that little rough patch, and have been in newspapers ever since. I’ve interviewed mayors and governors and presidential candidates, won awards and met untold people I never would have otherwise encountered.
And that’s because Mr. Collins took a few minutes on a quiet Saturday afternoon to offer words of encouragement and wisdom to a cub reporter who was still trying to figure things out.
Bill Collins was a soldier, a husband and father, a church elder and, God bless him, a Gamecock fan.
But to me he’ll always be newspaper royalty. Rest in peace, Mr. Collins.