Up Front: June 2005

High-school confidential

Lots of people hang their college degrees on the walls of their offices. The publisher of The Pilot, the Southern Pines newspaper, also displays his high-school diploma. He wonders why I would think that odd. “It was a huge accomplishment, getting through four years there, rigorous as it was,” David Woronoff says. “It’s something I’m really proud of.”

The diploma is from Woodberry Forest, the Virginia boarding school that for generations has educated the sons of North Carolina’s most famous — in an earlier age, they’d be referred to as our ”finest” — families. David’s is one. His great-granddaddy Josephus Daniels bought The News & Observer in 1894 and was Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the Navy and FDR’s ambassador to Mexico. The family owned the Raleigh paper for 101 years. His grandpa, then his uncle, was its publisher.

Growing up, I knew little about boarding schools — my father frequently threatened to send me off to one, but he was talking about Stonewall Jackson Manual Training and Industrial School, the state reformatory near Concord — but I was swaddled in Woodberry alumni when Business North Carolina was part of The News and Observer Publishing Co. I worked for Frank Daniels Jr. (still part-owner of the magazine), class of 1949. Frank III, class of ’74, preceded me as BNC publisher. David ’84 spent five years here before heading to the Sandhills after he, both Franks and two other partners bought The Pilot in 1996.

All three are extremely bright, thoroughly decent men. How much that has to do with where they went to high school, I can’t say. “I went to Woodberry for the sole purpose of going to Carolina,” explains David, whose parents were living in Michigan at the time. “I was told if I applied myself and worked hard there, I could probably get in. And Woodberry was a defining experience. I came out of there a pretty well-rounded person. Academically, I was much stronger.”

His memories echo those of many of the alumni Chris Richter talked to while reporting this month’s cover story, especially as to the impression the school’s honor code made, regardless of when they were there. “The honor code,” David says, “is the rock in the middle of the stream that does not move.”

He talks about how refreshing it was to live four years without locks on the doors at a place that was “all about honor and telling the truth.” He adds: “The downside is, I’m much more gullible. If somebody lies to me, I don’t understand it — how anyone would do something that was dishonest.”

Over the phone, he accuses me of rolling my eyes. After all, proud product of public education that I am, I sent my 10-year-old son — now the magazine’s publisher — to P.S. 125 in Harlem when I was in New York on a fellowship. That, of course, had more to do with means than morals: Working for a newspaper, which was what I was doing then, pays nothing like owning one.

One last question. David has two daughters. Would he send them to boarding school? With his answer, my friend the publisher sounds a lot like my daddy the plumber. “I threaten to.”