I haven’t slept well for two straight nights. I’ve lain awake thinking of my veteran coworker Pierce Carson who died last weekend. When I write his farewell, how do I do right by him?
Our desks were side by side for 40 of his 50 years at the Register. That’s more years next to Pierce than I’ve had next to my parents, my children or even my spouses.
When I arrived at the paper in the ‘70s, there was Pierce, a young county government-courts reporter who wrote better than any of us, faster than any of us, and as if that weren’t enough, he had better news sources.
And the guy had personality. Reporters as a class aren’t particularly colorful. We spend our time interviewing people who are.
Pierce told ribald stories, dished dirt, spewed profanities and, more often than not, charmed the socks off you. A lifelong bachelor, he didn’t live a humdrum life of family, kids, mortgage. A night owl, he was out in the world, living large.
Pierce gained further distinction because of his byline, L. Pierce Carson. For years reporters guessed about the meaning of this cryptic L. At a loss for anything better, I always said it stood for “lima” as in “bean.”
More remarkably, Pierce went 50 years as a reporter — a guy who roamed the Napa Valley for a living — yet NEVER drove a car.
How was this even possible? Who would hire such a person?
Pierce’s workaround was brilliant: He got reporters, photographers, friends and sources to drive him wherever he needed to go. When he selected you to be his chauffeur, you felt as if you’d won the lottery. You got to go to a Mondavi concert, the Napa Valley Wine Auction or perhaps a classy winery dinner.
As the years went by, Pierce transitioned himself from hard news to pure features. His journalism became all about wine and food just as the Napa Valley was becoming all about wine and food.
This was the birth of epicurean Pierce. He was now in the newsroom only long enough to pound out a story, then he was off to more chef and vintner interviews, plays and concerts.
More than one editor questioned Pierce’s independence from the rest of the news operation. Too much lifestyle coverage, too many perks. Who gave a mere reporter such total control over his work life?
Their frowns had no effect. The Napa Valley was going world class and Pierce was going with it.
There was probably some wisdom in letting Pierce be Pierce. He added class to the Register joint.
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I remember when Pierce announced he’d bought a tuxedo for his fancy night assignments. It would be cheaper than always having to rent one, he said.
I was impressed. I didn’t even own a suit.
Pierce put on a few pounds over the years. I worried that his Falstaffian gusto for life might not be good for his health. All those sumptuous dinners. All that superb wine. Who can consume like that?
I didn’t see as much of Pierce in recent years. Now in his 70s, he worked half time. He would stay in Napa to report the big events of the wine year, then jet off to Prague in the Czech Republic where he had an apartment with a river view.
Extravagant? Most certainly, but also so very Pierce.
On the Saturday that Pierce died, I was setting more fence posts with Cheryl in our backyard. The news came in a noon text from Sean, our editor.
I dropped everything. Still in my grubby yard clothes, I headed into the office. Following a contingency plan, I was going to tear apart Sunday’s front page for a tribute.
I was awash with feelings. Sad, of course, but also honored that I could play a small role in Pierce’s good-bye.
Before entering the Register, I tidied up any trace of tears. I needn’t have bothered. The newsroom was empty. A profound quiet reigned.
With reverence — a commodity rarely found in a newsroom — I cleared away two preset stories for Sunday’s A1, creating a large hole for Pierce’s news obituary. It was a lovely thing crafted by Sasha Paulsen, our features editor, over the previous two days after we learned Pierce was fading fast.
With a few clicks, I married the obit with two photos of a smiling, still cherubic Pierce. Reading the story, I pulled out two quotes to add visual appeal to the jump page.
This is routine stuff. This is what we do many times a day. Only this time my job felt sanctified.
Here you go, Pierce. You forged a unique path at the Register. You wrote yourself into Napa Valley history.