Former Post publisher Jim Hurley dies

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 3, 2012

By Mark Wineka SALISBURY — Former Salisbury Post Publisher James F. Hurley III, who was beloved by his employees and the community he strove to improve, died early Monday afternoon.
Hurley, 80, had spent the last several months in the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice and Palliative Care Center in Winston-Salem, constantly seeing visitors who knew that his cancer was winning, though he doggedly held on.
After an operation for the cancer in late 2011, he communicated only by gestures and written notes.
Hurley was a multi-faceted man. As a reporter, editorialist and columnist, he wrote extremely well. He also became a savvy businessman who invested wisely and loved the art of making money.
Hurley competed to win — in everything from business, to golf, to fundraising. Coworkers also knew him to be meticulous, loyal, stubborn, impatient, fun and self-deprecating.
Over his 22 years as Post publisher, which covered the newspaper’s most profitable era, Hurley testified before Congress, was quoted in Forbes magazine and profiled in the Wall Street Journal, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer and The Business Journal.
Even his own newspaper once named Hurley its “Newsmaker of the Year,” though the editorial board debated at length whether it was too self-serving.
“Not to have him selected, though,” an editor’s explanation said, “would have been to deny the obvious — that he has altered the view and vision of Salisbury and Rowan County for years to come.”
Hurley went by “Jim” and, just as often, “Jimmy.”
Three different Hurleys served as publisher during the family’s 85 years of ownership of the Post: James F. Hurley Sr. (his grandfather), J.F. Hurley Jr. (his father) and Jim Hurley.
Before his family sold the Post in early 1997, Jim Hurley championed an independent newspaper structured not to live or die by its earnings curve as much as it was driven by a desire to serve its readers.
He took his father’s advice to heart when J.F. Hurley Jr. told him, “We’re in the newspaper business to make a living, not a killing.”
Hurley was a publisher grounded by education and training in the news side of the business, rising from sports correspondent at 13 to the editor’s job 20 years later.
He met his wife, Gerry, when she was an assistant extension agent in Rowan County and he was covering the farm beat for the newspaper.
Hurley won first-place in editorial writing three times from the N.C. Press Association and served as Post editor for 10 years before becoming publisher in 1974.
He led an emphasis on local news, extensive government coverage, strong editorials, human-interest stories, broader use of photographs and making the Post a small-town paper of record.
As publisher, he followed his father’s example of investing in equipment, being efficient, preserving cash flow and creating stability. But he also sought to improve employee pay, advertising rates, circulation numbers and the paper’s overall appearance.
“On family newspapers,” he said once, “I think too many families try to make a good living without working. I think our generation was very lucky we didn’t grow up feeling rich. We grew up feeling an opportunity to contribute.”
During and after his days at the Post, Hurley led some of the community’s biggest fundraising campaigns and contributed millions of his own money to projects that helped to build parks, YMCAs, shelters, college buildings, scholarships, senior centers, libraries, swimming pools, school athletic facilties and more.
“I lean on people,” he said. “I know who has the money. They can’t poor-mouth me.”
But the always competitive Hurley said he never took on a fundraising cause he didn’t believe in or one in which he couldn’t be a winner.
“I never talked anybody into giving money,” he explained. “I give them a chance to invest their profits in this community.”
Out of the public eye, Hurley quietly funded students who needed financial assistance, employees who could use help with medical or utility bills and residents who required a leg up.
In one of those many stories written about him and his family’s small-town newspaper, Hurley spoke about the legacy he hoped to leave.
“When the one Great Scorer comes to mark against my name,” he said, “he’s going to ask what happened to all those opportunities he entrusted me with. I don’t want to have to tell him, ‘I hid ‘em in a lock box at the bank.’ ”
As publisher, Hurley usually reported to work in an Oxford-cloth shirt with rolled-up sleeves. But he was unable to wear a tie after surgery for throat cancer in 1989.
Back then, a series of operations removed his thyroid, voice box, parts of his windpipe and esophagus, plus the thyroglossal duct where his cancer started.
Six weeks and 30 radiation treatments followed, leaving his skin thickened and turning his neck and stoma into an open wound.
As he healed, he learned to speak again, using esophageal speech in which he mastered the swallowing of air and the burping of words.
Hurley wrote seven front-page, personal columns about his 1989 battle with cancer. A couple of years later, at his induction into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame, he spoke to the audience in Chapel Hill in colorful language that was his trademark.
“My gullet is gone,” he said. “It’s as useless as last year’s turkey neck, but doctors are pleased. They say I am living proof that cancer does not always kill. Maybe so. But after three five-hour operations, I promise you that cancer can put up a helluva fight.”
In 1996, at the funeral of his middle brother, Haden, in Naples, Fla., Hurley suffered a brain aneurysm that almost killed him. His recovery took many weeks during a year that also led up to the Post’s eventual sale to Evening Post Publishing of Charleston, S.C.
Hurley and his youngest brother, Gordon, then president of the company, sold the newspaper at an opportune time, when potential buyers were willing to pay a good price.
They also had an attractive business with no debt, modern equipment, a newspaper with high penetration in its market and a newly renovated facility.
Potential heirs were not interested in continuing ownership, and the Hurleys also anticipated demographic changes in the market and were unsure what new media, such as the Internet, would mean.
After the paper’s sale, the brothers set up an office directly across the street from the Post. From the office, they oversaw their various foundations and kept track of personal investments.
Over 53 years of marriage, Gerry Hurley became Jim Hurley’s closest friend and confidant. She stayed with him virtually around the clock during his stay at the hospice center in Winston-Salem.
Gordon Hurley also visited his brother daily from Salisbury.
By the time Jim Hurley was 2, Post employees were rolling him through the newspaper office in the accounts receivable trays. Later, the young Hurley would play hide-and-seek among the giant rolls of newsprint in the pressroom.
He eventually attended Woodberry Forest, a private school in Orange, Va. He captained the baseball team in his senior year and was named the top scholar-athlete.
At the University of North Carolina, Hurley changed his major from business to journalism after becoming bored in Economics 31 and realizing the journalism school didn’t have homework or exams.
Hurley presided over the Zeta Psi fraternity at UNC and was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar. Much later, Gerry Hurley would donate $100,000 to the School of Journalism to name an ongoing scholarship in her husband’s honor.
After graduating from UNC in 1953, Hurley served two years in the U.S. Army, becoming a battalion operations sergeant for the Third Infantry Division.
Hurley often mentioned that a Dale Carnegie public-speaking course in Salisbury was important for him because “it got me to where I was not afraid to get up in front of people.”
Gerry Hurley also helped him in social situations to break the ice.
He became the youngest president of the Salisbury-Rowan Chamber of Commerce at age 30. Meanwhile, he and Haden played a significant role in expanding the Post’s interests to include weekly newspapers in Lincolnton, Cooleemee, Mocksville, Clemmons and China Grove.
Hurley once noted that he took a test to show what occupation he was best suited for. The results came back as banker, accountant or mortician.
The test concluded he should never be a carpenter or dentist because he didn’t have the patience.
Hurley became a champion local golfer with a 2 handicap, but he gave up the sport in later years. He also was a Scotch whisky drinker, who had to give it up, along with smoking, after his first throat cancer surgeries.
At his Journalism Hall of Fame induction, Hurley accepted the honor in the name of small, independent newspapers, for three generations of the Hurley family “and on behalf of the hundreds of talented men and women who made the Salisbury Post a good newspaper for almost a century.”
Toward the end of January 1997, as the days closed in on his family’s sale of the Salisbury Post, Hurley traveled for the final time to Chapel Hill for the N.C. Press Association awards banquet.
The longest applause of the evening came when he walked across the stage to accept the first-place general excellence award for his newspaper.
The Post staff members on hand stood with others in the audience — lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes.

There will be a memorial service in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church on Thursday, April 5 at 11:00 a.m. followed by a reception in Lewis Hall.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.