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Staige D. Blackford Remembered for Eventful Life

PUBLISHED: July 1, 2003

By Matt Kelly, UVa News

Staige D. Blackford, retiring editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, died Monday of injuries sustained in an automobile collision at the intersection of Emmet Street and Arlington Boulevard in Charlottesville.

A Charlottesville native, Blackford, 72, enjoyed a varied career working for, among others, Time Magazine, the Central Intelligence Agency, former Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton Jr. and, for the past 28 years, as editor of VQR.

Blackford had a long connection to the University, where his father taught in the School of Medicine. A member of the Class of 1952, graduating with a degree in history, he was an editor at the Cavalier Daily and a Rhodes Scholar. He spent four years working for the CIA in the 1950s, then edited an internal publication for Time Inc. From there, he edited a history encyclopedia and worked as an editor at the Louisiana State University Press.

A passionate believer in the Civil Rights Movement, Blackford was director of research at the Southern Regional Council, a civil rights organization in Atlanta, from 1962 to 1964, a period he described as the movement’s “glory days.” He began working as a political reporter for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in 1964. While working there, he met Holton, who went on to become Virginia’s first Republican governor in living memory.

As Holton’s press secretary and speechwriter, Blackford crafted the governor’s 1970 inaugural address, a historic appeal for racial reconciliation after the state’s turbulent “massive resistance” era.

“Holton was the first of the new Southern governors,” Blackford said in an interview last year, remembering an inspiration he got while shaving at his in-laws on the Christmas morning before the inauguration. “He wanted to make Virginia a model for race relations. It occurred to me he would be speaking from the steps of the capital of the Confederacy, so why not invoke Lincoln, ‘With malice towards none and charity toward all …’?”

“Those were the four happiest years of my professional life.”

Writer George Garrett was a long-time friend of Blackford’s.

“He was a passionate Democrat who worked for a Republican governor, because he was more liberal than any of the Democrats,” Garrett said.

After Holton left office, Blackford came back to U.Va., working as a special assistant to presidents Edgar F. Shannon Jr. and Frank L. Hereford Jr. In 1975, he succeeded Charlotte Kohler as editor of the VQR.

As editor, Blackford was among the first to publish a story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler. Another time, a friend suggested he look over the work of a North Carolina writer who had dropped out of Penn State and was working as a house painter. Blackford liked it and was the first to publish the work of novelist T.R. Pearson. He also published a “lost” story of William Faulkner, who had been writer in residence at the University from 1957 to 1962.

“He was a good and dear friend over many years,” said Garrett, who helped Blackford sift through stories contributed to the VQR. “He was an admirable editor and he maintained the VQR as a major American magazine. We will miss him terribly.”

Blackford was particularly proud of VQR’s 75th anniversary issue, published in spring 2000, as well as two anniversary anthologies of Quarterly material, “Eric Clapton’s Lover and Other Stories,” a collection of short fiction, and “We Write for Our Own Time,” a collection of essays.

Blackford had three projects lined up for himself in retirement. A glaucoma sufferer, he wanted to write a book titled “For Your Eyes Only” on eye maladies written for the layman. He also planned to write a book about Virginius Dabney, whom he described as “an Old Dominion tragedy,” a talented man who failed at a critical time, Blackford said. Dabney, editor of the Times-Dispatch in Richmond for 35 years and the quintessence of liberal Southerners, remained silent during the massive resistance to school integration, while Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, railed against it.

He also planned to write his own memoirs, entitled “Downhill All the Way,” based in part on a diary he had been keeping since 1973, when he was working for Holton. Garrett recounted Blackford’s weekly lunches at the former University Cafeteria, where participants picked up inexpensive lunches and talked politics.

VQR’s office was located at One West Range, a prestigious address on Grounds, and Garrett said that while many coveted it, Blackford kept it out of their hands by refusing to have plumbing installed. Garrett said whenever someone started eyeing the space, they were discouraged by having to walk across McCormick Road to Alderman Library to use the bathroom.

“Staige Blackford was a friend to everyone with an interest in public affairs,” said Kenneth W. Thompson, director emeritus at U.Va.’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “He carried the VQR to the highest levels among literary magazines, but he was never too busy to talk to old friends or new writers with an idea.”

Blackford is survived by his wife, Bettina, who suffered minor injuries in the accident, and two daughters, Linda Blackford of Lexington, Ky., and Sheila Bloor of Seattle. As of Tuesday, funeral arrangements were pending.

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