Up Front: March 2005

He wore it well

Frank Jr. called to tell me Derick had died. He thought I’d want to know. The obituary that ran in The Miami Herald the next day began: “Derick Daniels, a distinguished newspaper editor and executive whose penchant for fine living and even finer women boded him well as president of Playboy Enterprises during the late 1970s ... ” Lung cancer. He was 76.

Frank’s daddy and Derick’s were sons of Josephus Daniels, who bought The News & Observer in 1894. Derick, who grew up in D.C., never worked in Raleigh. After graduating from Carolina, he was a reporter in St. Pete and Atlanta, then won fame at the Herald and Detroit Free Press, which won a Pulitzer when he was executive editor for its coverage of the ’67 riots. The Knight chain, which owned both papers, made him its first corporate vice president for news in 1973.

Three years later, Hugh Hefner hired Derick to save his foundering empire. “He was attracted to Playboy because it had the three things in the world he enjoyed the most: drinking, gambling and women,” Frank told the N&O, which the family sold in 1995. Married five times, making and spending several fortunes, Derick January Daniels lived large — flamboyant was a word that stuck to him like ink to newsprint. Charming was another.

I first met him in ’86, after he left Playboy. He was doing some consulting for Frank, evaluating some of the News and Observer Publishing Co.’s other properties. One was Business North Carolina, which it had bought the previous year, shortly before I started here. I had returned to North Carolina after five years at the Herald to work for a rival publishing venture that was going to make me rich. Instead, it made me unemployed. I landed, if not on my feet then at least on my knees, at the magazine. To my mind, those were dark days. As a city editor at the Herald, I had managed dozens of reporters and editors. Here I managed myself — No. 2 man on a three-person editorial staff.

Then Derick breezed into town, “an aging wunderkind and hired hand” — in the words of Wayne King, the former New York Timesman who chronicled BNC’s first 15 years (www.businessnc.com) — who impressed the staff by “showing up at the office sporting fitted black leather trousers, a silk shirt and an ascot.” He invited me out for a drink. We spent a few hours sipping whisky, talking about the Herald and a world of other things and — in my case, like many before me — being charmed. They say he had a great eye for talent; I’d like to think that. I do know his opinion, and what others thought of it, had a lot to do with me being where I am now.

The story by Wayne, who runs Wake Forest’s journalism program and worked for the Free Press in the late ’60s, was not all flattering to his old boss. But Derick had only one complaint — and this from a man who wore a gold lamé jumpsuit to the party he threw to celebrate the Playboy gig: “I have never worn an ascot.” That made me, source of the slander, wince when I read another obit describe his post-newspaper attire: “most notably leather suits, silk shirts and ascots.”

I’m sorry, Derick. I recall now. It wasn’t an ascot. It was a white silk neckerchief.

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As this month’s cover story shows, business plays an important role in state government. After 27 years of covering Raleigh, it’s no secret to Jack Betts. That’s one reason The Charlotte Observer’s Raleigh-based associate editor was willing to become our new Capital columnist, adding that task to his already formidable workload. “Understanding how business and government relate to one another in Raleigh,” he says, “is basic to understanding what North Carolina is all about.”