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 Writer's Desk:  NCR's daily Web column
Each week, a member of the NCR staff offers commentary on topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

July 12, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 14




global perspective Requiem for an activist and friend

by Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large

He was an upper crust white man, St. Paul's prep, Harvard magna cum laude, patrician, laid to rest after a ceremony organized by members of Newark's African-American community.

Derek Torrey Winans, my friend for more than 40 years, was an original.

He was empowerment personified decades before anyone understood the concept.

He began as a journalist, The Wall Street Journal, Gannett, a couple of magazines. Around 1960, three Gannett journalists working the lobster shift (nights) started Four Corners, the nation's first "city" magazine, in Newark.

Frank Jones (no relation) financed, organized and headed it, and Derek and I were co-editors. Four Corners died valiantly trying to bring justice to Newark's poor.

Derek left journalism about five years later when Newark experienced its riots, uprising, or rebellion, depending on one's take. Though he grew up in toney South Orange, the little house he bought was in the city. He'd returned to the city his direct forbears founded in 1666, and never left.

Also by Arthur Jones
May 17, 04 The closed world of insiders
Mar. 5, 04 Words that penetrate
Mar. 4, 04 Marketing reverence
Mar. 3, 04 Life can be cruel to good people
Mar. 2, 04 If only we had the time!
Mar. 1, 04 Preparing to cure what ails us
Jan. 9, 04 Rural tranquility and violent times
Jan. 8, 04 St. Magnus the non-violent
Nov. 3, 03 6.30 a.m. Mass
He drank in political organizing with his morning orange juice.

His father, "JD," head of Winan's Salt, Paper and Twine, was a big-time Democrat who, early in every political season, would have a weekly dinner table crowded with political hopefuls and determined backers. Wealthy himself, he could attract wealth. I remember James Michener from one dinner.

Derek had been chairman of the Harvard Democrats, knew Eleanor Roosevelt because of it. He was early and physically courageously into the civil rights movement. He worked in major campaigns, including Bobby Kennedy's Senate race.

By the late 1960s, ex-journalist now community activist Derek utilized all of the organizing skills he'd learned at home and in a constant series of campaigns. But he was that rarity, a modest activist. He was a political impresario skilled at propelling others to center stage. He wanted no personal credit.

In a PBS documentary series on the War on Poverty, he appears in one scratchy black-and-white segment, glimpsed on stage coaching other people to the microphone.

He could walk into a crowded room, a beanpole figure even when young, with a slight professorial stoop, a pipe (or later, one of the cigarettes that helped kill him at 65) clenched between his big teeth, and circulate.

The issue was always socio-political, socio-economic and a burden on the poor.

He'd sense who was who -- though later he knew just about everyone who'd be at meetings he'd be at. His braying laugh that could startle horses would be heard as he went about his work. He'd ask why they were here, and what they were concerned about, and wanting to do about it, and why, and how, and who else was doing what, and why and how.

Then move on.

He'd have notes now on his yellow pad. His handwriting was handsome, his typing hilarious. He used one finger on his right hand and operated the Caps key with his left thumb.

At some point the meeting would start and later still Derek would be asked a question. He'd read off his 1-10 list of what needed to be done, and how, and who could do it. But he'd do it in such a way that everyone was convinced they'd pulled this together. As the issues and resultant organization began to consolidate Derek would seem to disappear into the wallpaper.

He was a fine poker player and terrible driver. He had a cavalier attitude toward car maintenance and hated to lock doors. His car and the apartment we shared were always being robbed. We had mountains of New York Times he was always going to clip and never did. To this day visitors remember scaling mountains of Times to get to the bathroom.

Superb gambler and when young a ferocious tennis player. He and I would follow the international amateur lawn tennis circuit, Far Hills, Orange Lawn -- to watch one game and then join off-court players sitting at fairly high stakes cards.

We ran a Thursday all-night two-three table poker fest in our apartment for New York and New Jersey newsmen -- women never came -- and the cops who came to bust it but stayed to play.

As an anti-poverty and community activist he raised money, or he worked without money. The Newark International Youth Organization -- community activist to its core -- where he worked in his final years would run out of funds. Derek would be laid off and go on unemployment until it got another grant. And still turn up for work every day.

The funeral Mass was in Grace Episcopal Church on Newark's Broad Street.

Fr. J. Carr Holland III said that life is God's gift to us. When we die, we hand the package back to God and God opens it. Derek Winans, he said, had a vocation to the poor. His was a journey of righteousness.

And when Derek handed his life package back to God, God would be very pleased.

Then Fr. Holland said that at Grace Episcopal "this is an open altar," and everyone was welcome to receive the Eucharist.

Derek would have been very pleased. God, too.

Arthur Jones' e-mail address is

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