It’s hard to imagine Nashville journalism — or Nashville, for that matter — without Bob Battle.
Bob, who worked at the Nashville Banner for 55 years and served in virtually every editing position there, died Friday at age 82. For decades, he determined what was news in Music City and how it should be covered. He was the confidante to city leaders, county workers and country singers, police officers and probably prostitutes too.
Journalism wasn’t just in his blood; it was in his DNA, heart and soul. It was his life’s grand adventure, and he allowed readers to share in his joy every step of the way.
What made Bob such a tremendous newsman is that he never lost a cub reporter’s excitement for a big story. I can vividly remember a sixty-something Bob running through the newsroom, his high-sitting belly leading the way, when news broke. Breathless, he would call assistant editors at home at 4 a.m., urging them to hurry to the office. Throughout the decades, he never grew jaded, or more importantly, cynical.
No slave to fashion, he donned basic high-waisted pants, white shirts and immediately forgettable ties. I don’t recall him waxing eloquently about power lunches at expensive restaurants, but he could (and would) pen 1,000 passionate words about his love of Vidalia onions and fresh tomatoes.
First and foremost, Bob was as storyteller, both in print and in the newsroom. Between deadlines, he regaled the young staff with tales from days past, whether it was landing a role in a Rock Hudson movie or reporting on a political story.
Former business writer Dean Graber and I had a favorite Bob story, so we would come up with ways to trick him into telling it again. Once when Bob made his annual call to a woman who was famous for her weather predictions, she told him that her husband had just died. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Bob said. “Where is he?” he asked, inquiring about funeral plans. “He’s right here on the floor,” she replied.
Bob was the antithesis of many journalists today, and we are the worse for it. There was nothing high-falutin’ about him. He wrote and spoke simply. I can still hear him say, “Bring the hay down to where the goats can eat it,” which was his unique way of teaching me to write in a clear manner that would be easy for readers to understand. As I was preparing to leave the office, I would shout to Bob, “See you tomorrow!” He would reply, “Thanks for the wah-ning,” or, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
He was a walking, talking vessel of Nashville’s history. He knew all the players, as well as the players’ predecessors. During a morning news meeting, it was Bob who first recognized that one of the day’s obits was the father of Marcia Trimble, Nashville’s most famous murder victim.
Bob maintained a healthy respect for authority, even when he found himself reporting to much younger editors later in life, and respected the company’s structure and organization. He was never a rebel; indeed, he was the quintessential company man. In a deep Southern drawl, he would proudly (but without ego) reveal his title: Nashville Banner vice president and sen-yuh business edi-tohr. His badge of honor was the Banner masthead.
I don’t recall him raising his voice to me once. Indeed, I can’t even remember him losing his patience. Bob’s big secret was that he was tender-hearted; my gruff editor was a big ol’ softie.
While many of today’s journalists seem quite taken with themselves, Bob never seemed to overcome his insecurities, which is what made him such a strong journalist. He was only as good as that day’s story, and no matter how great it was, the next day’s pages were all blank.
I can remember many times standing by Bob as he edited a breaking story I had written on deadline. Just as I would begin the process of feeling proud about my scoop, Bob would say, “Whaddaya got for tomorrow?” It was that philosophy that kept him humble and hungry.
Bob’s life seemed inextricably linked to the Nashville Banner, so his friends worried that the paper’s 1998 closing would literally kill him. While depressed, he soldiered on, outliving the Banner and several other major American newspapers. Who would’ve known that Bob was a survivor?
Unfortunately, Bob was the last of a breed of true newspapermen. Now this city’s print and broadcast journalists too often have no sense of the communities or people that they cover, because in many ways they never become part of the community here. They don’t know their Clements and Wests from their Masseys or Dudleys.
Bob would have been (rightly) disappointed at the length and placement of his obit in The Tennessean. (If only the Banner had remained, he would’ve made the front page.) But this wasn’t a commentary on Bob’s impressive accomplishments, but evidence of Nashville journalists’ increasing disconnect with the city they cover.
Regardless of journalism’s direction, Bob Battle’s place in Nashville journalism history remains certain. For more than half a century, he epitomized Nashville journalism. Through the thousands of stories he wrote and edited, he helped shape this city’s direction and character, and it was his colorful personality and character that made his stories come alive.
Visitation for Mr. Battle will be held at Brentwood United Methodist Church from 6-8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 25, 2009 and from 11 a.m.-noon on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2009, with a service following at noon at the church.