Meeting the Man in Black

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 14, 2003

Shortly after the birth of my son, Adam, in 1989, my wife and I, with baby in tow, left Hopewell to go to Virginia Beach on a summery Friday afternoon to attend the Virginia Press Association’s annual summer meeting.

I remember pulling off 460 at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy and parking behind the bleachers at the football field and waiting while Cathy breastfed the baby. Who’d thought we’d live here one day?

The summer meeting used to be a big event. Times were good then for newspapers. Paper prices were low and advertisers still had few options but to buy space in the local newspaper. The Internet was still but a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye. We were all fat and happy.

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No business was conducted at the summer meeting – at least as far as I could tell. It was just a bunch of newspaper executives from around the state gathering for a few days of surf, golf and partying at company expense.

The highlight of the meeting was always the Virginian of the Year Banquet on Saturday night, when the VPA would honor some native son or daughter to honor. In 1989, the honoree happened to be June Carter Cash.

Cathy wasn’t about to leave 3-week-old Adam with a hotel babysitter, so I got dressed and went down early to the reception stag. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There, standing at the door greeting people as they entered was the Man in Black himself, Big John Cash.

I turned and ran back to our room at the Cavalier Hotel and told Cathy to come see Johnny Cash. She grabbed Adam and headed for the door, wearing just a T-shirt and shorts.

We waited our turn to shake his hand. My boss and his wife were there with a camera and when it was our turn to greet him, Johnny reached out to Cathy and grabbed Adam. I was star-struck and dumbfounded as we clustered around for around for a photo.

Today, that photograph is among my most prized possessions, Johnny Cash holding my 3-week-old son and me standing next to him grinning like a big, goofy idiot. I was on cloud 9.

&uot;I can’t believe you let that old drunk thing hold that baby,&uot; I remember my mother saying.

While I was a fan before, I’ve been a fanatic since. I love everything Johnny Cash, particularly the last few albums he issued in the American Records series.

About five years after our historic meeting at the Cavalier Hotel, I saw Cash perform in Branson, Mo., also courtesy of the newspaper I was working for at the time. He didn’t disappoint.

More than just his music, though, which was great, I admired Johnny Cash for what he stood for – the common man, the poor, the oppressed. He was born dirt poor in Arkansas and never forgot from where it was he came.

In that regard, Johnny Cash was a lot like President Bush, who never turned his back on the rich and privileged class to which he was born. You have to admire that kind of loyalty.

So I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss Friday morning when I heard Johnny Cash had died overnight. I’m sure I’ll never have another brush with greatness like that.

That baby Cash cradled in his arms at the Cavalier Hotel is 14 now, interested in music and thinks Johnny Cash is cool. We recently got him a guitar.

Although deep down I know it meant nothing, I can’t help but wonder and hope that their meeting was somehow more than just chance.

You never know….

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. You can reach him at 934-9611, or via e-mail at