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Times celebrates 100th year

Residents, community leaders and passersby gathered Oct. 1 for a socially distanced celebration featuring cake, live music and words of affection and reflection to mark the 100th anniversary of The Smithfield Times.

“We’re very proud of hitting that milestone,” Publisher Steve Stewart told a small crowd who gathered on the newspaper’s front lawn at 228 Main St. in historic downtown Smithfield.

A group of local businessmen established the newspaper in 1920. After its first decade in business, the paper flourished under the leadership of three long-term owners — Jesse Scott and his wife Lillian from 1930 through 1962 and Tom and Betty Phillips from 1962 until 1986.

Former longtime publisher and editor John Edwards joined the paper in 1972. He and his wife Anne bought The Smithfield Times in 1986 and she began working there full-time, playing an integral role in the paper’s business operations. Stewart, in turn, bought the paper in 2019 when the Edwardses retired.

Any business, Stewart said, would be proud of reaching the milestone of 100 years. He lauded John Edwards for his 47-year tenure at the newspaper. “Someone asked me today if I plan to break John’s record. I said that would require me to live to be 100 and keep a sound mind,” Stewart quipped. “I’m not going to break John’s record, I can assure you, although I hope to be here for a really long time.”

Stewart, a former publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald and the Tidewater News in Franklin, also lauded John Edwards for his decades of sterling journalism. “I’ve been doing this newspaper thing since I was 15 years old,” Stewart said. “I know a good newspaper man when I meet one, and John Edwards is the consummate role model. I hope the community knows how blessed you have been to read a newspaper every week put out by a man I consider to be a legend in our field.”

Smithfield Mayor T. Carter Williams read a proclamation honoring the Edwardses for their “many years of outstanding achievements and faithful service to their Smithfield community.” Williams also shared his memories of what it’s been like to be in both the good graces and the crosshairs of the local newspaper.

One of his earliest memories, Williams recalled, was visiting John Edwards at the newspaper in the 1970s. “He was sitting at his desk and smoke was coming out of his ears and his eyes were red,” Williams said. “He was fussing and cussing and screaming and hollering.” The object of frustration? A new computer, bulky and ancient by today’s standards, which came with a dictionary-sized instruction manual, according to the mayor.

Regardless of the publication technology used, “when John wrote the newspaper, he made a lot of people mad a lot of times,” Williams said. “He made a lot of people happy, a lot of people laugh and a lot of people smile. I was one of those people,” Williams said.

And even when one found oneself the object of critical coverage, Edwards’ reporting, editing and storytelling was so professional, credible and compelling, everyone was reading. As an example, Williams said, when Edwards published a story about someone Williams was close to on town council, they got mad and canceled their newspaper subscription. “But every week, they’d come by my house and want to borrow my copy to read it,” Williams said.

In addition to decades of influence in journalism, the Edwarses also helped establish a new tradition — Smithfield’s Summer Concert series, which began in 1987. The coronavirus pandemic led organizers to cancel the entire season of the popular Friday night event this year.

Upon the Edwardses’ retirement, the town of Smithfield purchased the newspaper building and grounds, and the town partnered with the longtime sponsor the Isle of Wight Arts League to produce the concerts.

Elaine Dairo, a member of the arts league’s board of directors, said John invited her to participate in booking performers and shaping the season several years ago “and it’s been a really nice ride,” Dairo said. “We’ve been doing it together maybe since 2013, 2014 and John works diligently in terms of trying to get a variety of genres to come out. We have everything from the seasoned professionals to upcoming professionals and then locals that John wants to kind of showcase what our community can bring to the stage,” she said.

Priscilla McGreevy, vice president of the arts league, said Edwards’ support of the concert series has enhanced Smithfield’s recognition on statewide level with the Virginia Commission of the Arts.

Joel Joyner, Smithfield High School’s director of bands, provided entertainment for the celebration. “This is so nice — this is beautiful,” said attendee Carolyn Jackson as Joyner’s soulful vocals and jazzy trumpet licks filled the air. Indeed, with clear skies and temperatures in the high 70s, it was a near-perfect atmosphere for an outdoor celebration.

Dairo said she looks forward to working with John Edwards to resume the concert series next year. In 2020, “we had a hiccup — COVID is not here to stay — and we plan to come out with a bang next year and John will be right in the trenches with me,” she said.

“It’s been a real honor to do what we’ve done over the years,” Edwards said, who took the stage to accept the proclamation from the mayor. “We have thoroughly enjoyed knowing this community, being a part of the community and hope to continue being a part of it,” he said.