‘SOUTHERNMAN’: My Personal Memoir of Jim Sutherland
By Eric K. Williams
Melbourne, Australia—A lot has been said and written about the man, what he meant, and who he was, since the recent passing of my friend, James Alan ‘Jim’ Sutherland. My friend Jim died suddenly, and unexpectedly, from complications from Pulmonary Embolism at Grady Hospital in Atlanta on Memorial Day, May 27, 2013. A recent Obituary piece in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspaper, noted his death, and there was a moving piece written by Frida Ghitis, posted on the web site wall of the Cable News Network, CNN. No doubt, people will continue to share their thoughts from around the world, as word of his death continues to spread.
I first met Jim in June of 1980, at the studios of WTVX-TV, better known as ‘X-34,’ when he was one of the new hires. This was in Fort Pierce, Florida, headquarters of that station, in what was a grand gamble by Frank Spain, the owner of that outlet. I had been there for just under a year, brought on as a field producer and reporter, shortly after I had left WYTV-TV in Youngstown, Ohio, where I had worked in a similar capacity.
Jim had just graduated from the University of Florida, up in Gainesville, and unlike a lot of the new hires, he was immediately engaged. At first, I didn’t understand this guy at all. He walked with a swagger, and had an air of confidence that could be easily mis-understood as arrogant, or haughty. At the same time, he immediately gravitated towards me, and the other reporters and photographers there, most notably with Sacou Sheppard, a fellow journalism school classmate of mine from New York.
Suffice to say that things were moving fast at Channel 34, as reporters and photographers were moved, and assigned to work out of the various bureaus, or sub-stations, in neighbouring cities such as, Vero Beach to the north, Stuart, Port Saint Lucie, and West Palm Beach to the south. Jim and I were assigned to work in West Palm Beach, along with other new hires that included Tandy Culpepper, Renee Bafalis, Stephanie Hart, and especially, Bob Nichols, who was a long time local television anchor, and news personality in southern Florida.
Jim and I were soon assigned to work together, as a reporter-photographer team. For those of you who have no idea what that is like, well, it is an arrangement that brings co-workers closely together. Sometimes it can be a clash of personalities and styles, which was the case for me in Youngstown. Or, it can be a special bonding relationship that goes beyond the work that you do. Such was the case, the latter example, anyway, with Jim Sutherland and I. Every day, for about a year, Jim and I would hop into a car, and chase stories around West Palm Beach, and at the end of the six odd hours of filming scenes and interviewing folks, we’d return back to the studio, and put together these little short films for the evening news. Out of all of the jobs I’ve had in television news over the years that time of working with Jim was among the best in my career. Certainly, it was the most fun.
One such special relationship like that which comes to mind, is that of the WNBC-TV reporter, Bob Teague, who spoke of his special relationship working in New York City with the late film photographer, Joe Gaffa, in his book, ‘LIVE AND OFF COLOR: NEWS BIZ.’ Bob and Joe kicked serious ass on the stories they’d crank-out each day. Jim and I did the same.
But it was also in those car rides that Jim and I went on a different kind of journey. We’d talk about our families, friends, and life experiences that that helped to shape who we were. Jim, a proud Southerner, described himself as a military brat, who spent a great part of his early life growing up in both France and Germany. He was also fluent in both languages. What impressed me was his world view, and deep understanding of current events whether across the globe, or in our own country.
For me, a Black native of New York City, who spent some years living in Atlanta, and thus, getting a better understanding of the South, and the different people who shape that part of the USA, my friendship with Jim was a gold mine of a different insight. We could talk honestly, openly and without rancour, for example, about American race relations, tensions, and the media’s role in shaping that discussion.
This discussion between Jim and I was important. The Miami race riots, or rebellion, if you will, was still fresh, and very much in the air, and also, a hot topic of debate following the case of Arthur McDuffy. For those of you who may not remember, McDuffy was allegedly beaten to death by Miami cops, while in police custody in September 1979. A trial of the all white police officers accused of murdering McDuffy, a Black Miami man, was moved to Tampa some months later. It was there at the Tampa trial where the men accused were acquitted. The results of that trial sickened Jim, and he made no bones about it.
In those car rides chasing stories, we’d also talk about our respective home towns, and what Jim called, ‘The Real Florida.’ He said, it was not all about beach surfers, rich people in Palm Beach, or Miami, or retirement villages, Cape Canaveral rocket launches, or Disney World. I had told him about the ‘other’ New York, as well. The city, the people, the neighbourhoods, the very different and cool scenes there, and that it, too, was nothing like the place most Americans had associated it with. I said it was a welcoming place, even for him, and that it was a very different picture from the large crowds, skyscrapers, crime, social pathology, urban decay, and racial tensions. I had said that I hoped to show him the New York I knew one of these days.
We turned each other on to different music, and I was surprised that he didn’t know much about Miles Davis, the great Jazz trumpet player. He said that he played trumpet in the university marching band. Loaned him my copy of ‘CIRCLE IN THE ROUND,’ the one Miles LP I had with me in Florida. He dug the record.
By mid-1981, I was gone from WTVX-TV, and had returned to New York, where I worked at a local radio network production house. We stayed in touch, and within a year, Jim began the first of his many trips, and short visits, to my hometown. Our careers went in different directions. He eventually ended up at CNN, and I returned to working in radio.
I made it a point to introduce Jim to several of the various non-tourist venues in the city, and also, to many of my friends, professional contacts, and working colleagues. On one of his visits, Jim introduced me to his older brother, David. His brother and I became fast friends.
Gotta say this: Whether at a public scene in Harlem, a music festival, a private party, or a friend’s home, where Jim may have been the sole white person present, his attitude, and demeanour remained consistent: He always went into a situation with an open mind, and most importantly, an open heart.
At one point in the years of our friendship, I had went and to live, and work in Europe. Jim went out to live, and to work, out on the American west coast. We may have been worlds apart, but the connection and our friendship remained intact. The both of us bounced around working at different jobs in the broadcasting industry, and more often than not, we would share whatever professional connections that would be useful to each other.
While at the Weather Channel I would argue that Jim’s position there as Executive Producer, helped to earn that company more than a half billion dollars in ad revenue during his tenure. It was under Jim’s direction when that company began to dispatch news / or weather journalist crews, to major storm sites around America, which in turn would bring millions of ‘eyeballs’ to their screens. I should know, Jim hired me as a field producer to assist one such crew during the major blizzard which struck New York in the winter of 1996. He was that kind of guy.
One thing we had talked about over the years was how the news business, in general, was moving, with rapid speed, to what now can be called ‘Infotainment.’ As such, serious journalists like Jim, and yours truly, were slowly, but surely, forced out of the industry altogether.
I had shared with Jim a note I had received from Gerald Harrington, the former NBC-TV News national correspondent, when I got my first job as a reporter in Youngstown years before. Harrington in that note called tee vee news, quote, ‘a young white boys business,’ and warned me on just how easy it is to get ‘forced out’ following years of service, irrespective of one’s gender, awards won, ethnicity or race. He had said ‘ageism’ was a big driver in such moves that often come out of nowhere. Jim agreed.
That was certainly the case for the both of us years down-the-line. In the case of Jim Sutherland, here was a man who had won a coveted Peabody award, along with a slew of local and national Emmys, in a career that ran just over 20 years. Yet, Sutherland could not get a job, even with Al Jazeera television working at a desk. You’d hear the same deal from long time CNN folks, some of whom like Jim, started there on the ground floor when that network first went-to-air, and who had also built their ‘brand.’
In the words of Pierre Kimsey, a colleague of Jim and I at WTVX-TV who also asked me to post his words in a few places, recently wrote, “It makes sense to me that Jim would build his own company because the mediocrity of corporate Television news just couldn’t contain his enormous talent. What a great loss. This is from someone who hasn’t worked with Jim for 30 years, so you can imagine what an impression he made on me. To know that Jim is gone has robbed me of my sense of ‘Home’ . Jim was a compass, he was true North. I have worked for Idiots, demagogues, alcoholics and Psychotics. None of them, NONE OF THEM! Could ever hope to be smart enough to have a Jim Sutherland on their staff.”
I share that view, as well.
I got extremely angry, for example, at a BBC news broadcast some months ago, that was carried over here on Australian television. It was an hour long useless segment on women in the UK, who had created a fad, of sorts, with Labia reduction. The piece made no reference to the controversial and brutal practice, in both Asia and Africa known as, Female Genital Mutilation. That same BBC piece did not talk about the on-going international effort to stamp out the practice led by high ranking female officials at the UN. NONE!!!
I yelled out loud to a friend, who insisted on viewing that program over my objections, “Dammit!!! My friend, Jim Sutherland, nor I, cannot find a job in news biz, and the BBC spends thousands of bucks on this crap???!!!”
On another note…….
Going back to the 1980’s, I started calling Jim Sutherland, ‘Southernman,’ not so much as a play on where he comes from, the South, but rather, as a play on his surname. It was a nick name that came out of affection, and he dug it, often calling me on the telephone, and uttering, “Yo! Eric, Southernman here!” We would just laugh, and laugh.
We would also laugh about the countless times that I had hailed a taxi cab for him on a Tuesday morning, to catch an early flight back to Atlanta. This usually followed a wild Monday night of Jazz club bar hopping for jam sessions from Brooklyn, to Harlem, to Greenwich Village. Whew! And Jim played a mean Jazz Trumpet, as well.
For me, Jim Sutherland was more than a Face Book friend. We’d chat there at least three times a week. Talk on the telephone, or skype, about three times a month on average. He would comment on my posts there, and I would comment on his. We shared friends, and we both did ‘friend suggestions’ on that social network on more than a few occasions. Having a real time friendship years before the advent of Face Book, made the contacts there all the more real for me, as I now live on the other side of the world. It was through that very medium that I learned of his passing. I now accept it, but the shock of it has not worn off. I am STILL looking for a fast and funny comment of irony from him even now.
The other night here in Melbourne, my partner and I attended a concert of Mike Stern, the great Jazz guitarist, who had played in the Miles Davis group years ago. Jim dug Mike Stern, and if he was performing at the ‘55 Bar’ in New York, we would make it a point to go see him. The Melbourne Recital Centre is not the ‘55 Bar,’ but I could feel the presence of my friend there inside that large room.
My friend may be gone, but the outpouring of love on his Face Book wall, and the comments on the thread I had posted hours on my wall, after his death, have been moving. The 44 minute video clip created by his son, Jimmy, a retrospective of work he produced over the course of his career and life, brought me to tears. Yet, the new friends I have made since his passing has been wonderful. The warm, genuine, and heartfelt embrace from his family, especially, is a testament to me on just how special a man Jim Sutherland was.
I will get a glimpse of ‘The Real Florida’ Jim had talked about, someday. For sure! ‘Southernman’ will not be forgotten, and somehow with his passing he is still around, and in me.
There are so many funny, and REALLY COOL memories of Jim, too many, to list here. But there is one memory I will share here as I close. When Jim and I would go our separate ways after hanging out for days on end, or even a few hours, it would go like this: We’d give each other a hug, and a HIGH FIVE, and say without missing a beat, “……To Be Continued.”
Goodbye my friend! I will miss you tremendously. I promise to continue living, loving, creating, being kind, open minded, open hearted, engaging, and having good people in my life who I will be as good to them, as you and I were to each other. That, indeed, is worth continuing.