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Editor Gorman served communities with guts, dedication for 40 years

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WASHINGTON — Thirty years ago last spring, I got my first glimpse of Bob Gorman, striding through the morning mist from afar, en route to the Williamsburg County Courthouse in tiny Kingstree, S.C.

Gorman wasn’t on trial, but he may as well have been.

It was the paper he edited, and the investigative journalism he produced, that had resulted in a 23-count indictment against none other than the county sheriff.

By the testimony of multiple witnesses, the sheriff ran the county jail like a personal fiefdom. Privileged prisoners came and went at will. Others made deliveries to his grocery store. Hogs meant for the jailhouse were served instead at the sheriff’s barbecue on the edge of town.

The Barney Fife atmospherics, though, turned ugly after inmates were assaulted and raped. Gorman drew a line in the sand, put the story on his paper’s front page, and put the sheriff behind bars.

In nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter, I never saw more courageous journalism.

That, though, turned out to be Gorman’s hallmark. It’s what he signed on for when he began his career running community newspapers four decades ago, and it’s how he went out Friday, when he stepped down as managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times.

It’s one thing to write biting critiques of presidents, cabinet members, senators and congressmen you seldom see in person and never come across socially.

It’s another to throw a spear at the king of a community with a few thousand people, knowing you’re certain to run into them at the PTA, the Rotary Club or the deacon’s meeting.

That’s what makes what Gorman did for 40 years so extraordinary.

He printed the truth as he saw it, let the chips fall where they may, then made himself as publicly accountable as possible, participating fully, and often spearheading, the essential civic institutions at the heart of small town America.

There was never a time that kind of integrity could be taken for granted. In the age of hit-and-run cable news, partisan reporting, Twitter feeds and the blogosphere, it has become sadly archaic, and our communities are the poorer for it.

Gorman cared deeply about the communities he served — in Kingstree, later Georgetown, then Sumter, S.C., and, eventually, Watertown.

He immersed himself in each of these places — volunteering his time and talents through church, coaching youth sports, heading up fundraising campaigns to serve community needs and stepping up in every way he could.

At base, though, Gorman’s signal contribution to the communities he served was to bring them the unflinching and unvarnished truth, in black and white.

There was, and is, no substitute for Gorman’s brand of journalism.

It informed his readers, and the decisions they made, large and small. It provided a starting point for uncounted thousands of conversations that provided the impetus for needed change. And it reminded the people in the communities he served that they were part of a larger whole, a unique civilization of people with a shared identity, a common story and far more to gain from cooperation than conflict.

The sheriff of Williamsburg County got out of jail. Eventually, though, he wound up back in. He died in federal prison serving time for a drug-related conviction he pleaded innocent to until death.

By then, Bob Gorman had long since moved on. The wheels of justice don’t turn on the timetable of journalists, who, instead, wield the influence to be had from reporting the truth.

For four decades, Gorman told the truth as he saw it. His influence ranged from the communities he served and the journalists he mentored to the larger world far beyond the circulation areas he served. And we are all the better for it.

Bob Deans is a former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the director of federal communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council

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