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Longtime columnist Stephen Black dies at age 68

Stephen M. Black, a hard-living ex-Marine whose weekly Times-News column provoked outrage from readers of all political persuasion but also had the power to bring a laugh and a tear, died Friday morning after a long period of health challenges and a week of more serious medical problems. He was 68.

Mr. Black stomped to the gate mad as hell about the latest injustice on earth, and at last report was grilling God about why he let bad things happen to children and dogs.

Black had a heart pacemaker replaced about a week ago, said his wife, Joyce, and he had been experiencing pain and complications since then. Thinking her husband might be suffering from a heart attack, she took him Tuesday to be seen at the V.A. Medical Center in Asheville. Doctors treated him, ordered tests and sent him home with pain medicine. Then on  Thursday at the emergency room at Pardee Hospital, where doctors did more tests, treated him and sent him home. He never could get comfortable after the pacemaker surgery, Joyce said. She found him dead in his bed about 7:30 a.m. Friday.
"He went the way he would have wanted to," she said. "He only had one kidney. He had glaucoma so he was at risk of being blind. He had diabetes, with all the slings and arrows of that. He just went the way he wanted to."
The family plans a graveside service at Forest Lawn cemetery, although arrangements had not been made as of Friday evening.
Black is survived by Joyce, whom he married on Feb. 4, 1967; his son, David Black, of Hendersonville; his daughter, Sarah, of Atlanta; his brother, David C. Black; and his sister, Carol Ann Holmes; and numerous cousins in Florida and Henderson County.

Born Jan. 8, 1945, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to David H. and Ruby Garren Black, Stephen spent his early childhood between Hendersonville and South Florida. His father was a produce broker who served growers and buyers here and in Florida. After a summer of rain that Joyce Black said must have been a lot like this year, David Black lost everything and moved the family to Hendersonville for good. Stephen had many aunts and uncles on his mother's side. Ruby Garren was one of about eight children, Joyce said.
By his own accounts of his upbringing, Black was a cutup and less than a seriously dedicated student. He joined the Marines in 1965 and wanted to fight Communists in Vietnam. But that was just before the buildup, and he left the Marines without seeing combat.
"That wouldn't have been good," said his daughter, Sarah. "Ready, fire, aim. That would be him."
In his column Black returned often to Semper Fi, and his strong view on national defense was just one of the many contradictions that kept readers off balance. Conservative readers complained about Black's liberal views.
"Then he'd cross 'em up and talk about how he was for capital punishment," said Mitch Sandos, who was editorial page editor of the Times-News for most of Black's tenure as a Saturday columnist. "They'd look at this liberal guy for capital punishment and they'd scratch their head."
Black didn't hesitate to knock pompous politicians off their pedestal. But he didn't spare the rod when it came to his own flaws. He wrote about his long struggle with alcoholism, one time telling readers on the way into treatment that "he was trying to prove he could be a diabetic and still be an alcoholic," Sandos recalled.
"He'd peel back layers of himself," he added. "He wasn't afraid to do that."

Black's hiring as a Times-News columnist came when the newspaper, then a part of the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, went looking for a folksy writer who could stroll into coffee shops and come out with light-hearted chatter, town gossip and a joke or two.
Black was a letter writer of raw talent, then editorial page editor Bob Whitmire figured, and the newspaper signed him on as the Mud Creek Rambler. It didn't work.
"One of the problems was he kept slipping in editorial comments," Sandos said.
The local editors gave up on trying to shape Black into a folksy humor writer. Instead he became an editorial page columnist, first once a month on Sundays. Black talked editor Joy Franklin into letting him write more often, and his Saturday column, "On Borrowed Time," was born. The newspaper let Black be Black, which ignited a weekly 700-word dose of fire and brimstone condemnation of all that threatened Hooterville and why the snobs, charlatan and greedy capitalists should be run out of town.

In his last Times-News column, published on Feb. 23 of this year, he told readers that he had come on board to expose wrong and fight it.
"I looked around me and saw corruption, cronyism, bullying and incompetence," he wrote. "I saw animals being abused and murdered. I saw our city trees destroyed. I saw blatant racism. And hardly a word was said against any of it by anyone. It was time to put up or shut up. I stepped into the ring. I was scared, but with God's help, I fought against local evil with everything I could muster."
Black wrote his columns longhand, on a pad, and gave them to Joyce to type. She dutifully did so, often with a raised eyebrow and occasionally with a prediction that his thoughts would never see print.
"There were about three that were just so far out there I told him it's never going to fly," she said. In those cases, the editor did reject them. But many on the borderline made it through.
Former Times-News publisher Ruth Birge said she ignored calls to fire Black because she knew people read him every Saturday morning. "He had that everyman understanding of what was real," she said. "Did you love him? Yeah. Did you hate him? Yeah. Did you read him? Absolutely."

Black also had a way of provoking the pious with his own use of the Bible.

"He was going to be a minister," Joyce said, "so he had studied it and he remembered it and he could turn it on."
Explaining in his farewell column why he was hanging up his pen and pad, Black quoted Henry David Thoreau. "I went into the woods because it was time. I came back for the same reason."
"I began writing for the Times-News because it was time," Black wrote. "Have I lost heart? No, because I answered the call and fought local sin and wrongdoing. It is only the cowards who remain silent who need be ashamed."
His parting advice to the remaining corps of writers was to stop "mere intellectualizing" and "meaningless hash and rehash of the nationally syndicated columnists... For heaven's sake, write from your guts. Get mad! Get angry and focus on dear old Hooterville. Our blessed town needs help. ...
"Every good fighter knows when to step out of the ring, hang up his gloves and go home. I need to spend more time with the animals and birds, God's special gifts to the Earth. Unlike mankind, these blessed creatures are God's best gambles. They even speak with the tongues of angels if we have the ears to hear."