Knowing Hanes Byerly

Published 12:14 pm Saturday, July 15, 2017

I wish I had known Hanes Byerly.

That’s the recurring thought I’ve had since we learned a few weeks ago that Mr. Byerly would soon be leaving us. I did meet him. In fact, I spent a considerable amount of time in his presence and had countless hours of conversation with him. But by the time I had arrived at The Tidewater News nearly seven years ago, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease had taken their toll, and I never really got to know him. The man renowned for his sharp wit and stunning intellect was trapped inside a body that was robbing him of his ability to communicate the thoughts and ideas that his mind was still able to produce.

During my first few years, Hanes continued to come to his newspaper office each and every day. By 9 a.m. he would arrive — now with an assistant in tow — as he had done for nearly half a century. A voracious reader, he would devour several newspapers a day: The Wall Street Journal, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Virginian-Pilot. I was always leery when he’d come to the front and pick up that day’s edition of The Tidewater News, worried that he’d cringe at the sight of what we had managed to produce, convinced that we weren’t living up to his lofty expectations. Hanes, according to all who had worked for him, was a demanding perfectionist and a stickler for detail. But each and every time I mustered the courage to ask him how he felt we were doing, he was gracious in his praise of the work we were doing to the extent that he could express it. I never once suspected he felt otherwise.

He would go through his mail, and made several trips each day from his office to a large trash bin in the newsroom to dispose of what was no longer needed. Hanes kept a meticulous office. No clutter, no mess. There was never anything on his desk except for what he was reading at that moment. Those who him knew him well say that it had always been that way. His office remains the same to this day.

He was incredibly proud, and grew visibly resentful of the help that was increasingly required to help him navigate his trips around the building. He wasn’t resentful of the help that was offered, but because he needed it in the first place. Yet he was unfailingly polite to those around him, always pausing to speak with each and every person with whom he came into contact. His responses to “Good morning, Mr. Byerly,” began taking longer for him to utter, but it only meant the smile was on his face that much longer until he could get out the words he was trying to say.

My visits to his office, ones I was initially intimidated to make when I was new and we both knew I didn’t know a whole lot, increasingly became one-sided conversations. I would tell him how well the newspaper was doing or of any challenges we were facing, and the reassuring encouragement and sage advice he once gave was slowly replaced with knowing smiles and nods of the head. It was clear he remained passionate about the newspaper business and The Tidewater News, even though he was no longer able to fully articulate it.

In time, Hanes stopped coming to his office every day. Eventually he stopped coming altogether. His presence has been missed, and will continue to be for some time. It has to be, because for nearly 50 years Hanes Byerly didn’t just publish The Tidewater News, he was The Tidewater News.

On Tuesday, several of his friends, colleagues and family members gathered to remember Hanes. I listened to the stories they told and the memories they shared, recollections of a man who was at once proud and stubborn, generous and kind, meticulous and demanding. And it occurred to me that perhaps I had known Hanes Byerly after all, that while the Parkinson’s was slowly depriving him of his body it hadn’t ever shrouded his spirit. Yes, in fact, I did get to know Hanes, and like so many others I am better for having done so.

Rest easy, Mr. Byerly.


TONY CLARK is the proud publisher of The Tidewater News, the position previously held by the late Hanes Byerly from 1960 to 2006. He can be reached at