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Sylvia McLaughlin, N&R editor, dies at 84

South Boston News
Mrs. McLaughlin, as seen in her fifth decade with the newspaper, and as a child with her beloved uncles Dick (left) and Bill Powell, who she considered her brothers. Below, the News & Record editor takes a break during a long press day to play with Carla Osborne, daughter of advertising sales representative Mary Leigh Osborne.
SoVaNow.com / December 27, 2018
Sylvia Overton McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, died Christmas Eve night from respiratory illness that caused her to be hospitalized since the day before Thanksgiving. She was 84.

She died peacefully at Virginia Baptist Hospital in Lynchburg, where she had been transferred after a stay at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital. Up until the time of her hospitalization, Mrs. McLaughlin had carried on with daily life as she had for the past five decades: covering meetings, taking photos, interviewing people for the newspaper, and chronicling the life of the county that was always her home.

“She was going to continue doing what she was doing as long as she could do it,” said William E. Coleman Jr., former county supervisor and director of Tri-County Community Action Agency, whose last conversation with Mrs. McLaughlin came as they sat together at an October banquet at The Prizery for Southside Outreach, a local affordable housing group. “She made that clear to me.

“She was a real fighter.”

Born Aug. 23, 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression to John Overton Jr. and Louise Powell DeVito, both deceased, Sylvia Overton was raised on the tobacco farm of her mother’s parents, John Edward and Annie Lovelace Powell.

At the Powell farmstead near Polecat Creek on Route 832, now Route 57, she grew up the baby of the family — doted on by her aunt and uncles, who all saw themselves brothers and sisters despite the generational difference between Sylvia and the other children in the household. Her mother Louise moved to Richmond to find work after her marriage dissolved. Mother and daughter were close despite the separation of distance in those early years. Mrs. McLaughlin also later became fast friends with her aunt by marriage, Elizabeth Overton of Halifax, who survives.

As a student at Halifax Elementary and Halifax High School — grades 1-12 were housed inside the same Mountain Road school building, recently converted into upscale apartments — Sylvia was “the belle of the class and the smartest girl there,” said retired Judge Charles McCormick, a classmate, lifelong friend and Halifax neighbor on Mountain Road. “She was a beautiful girl, very pretty and very popular with everybody. We were all kind of smitten with her.”

In high school, she led Halifax to a state debate team championship and received the senior award for having the highest grades in the class from Halifax principal Mortimer Leete. After graduating in 1953, she went on to attend college — first at Longwood, and later at the University of Virginia, where she enrolled in Mary Washington College, a program for women associated with U.VA. from 1944 to 1970, when the flagship university at last became co-educational. Today, Mary Washington is an independent liberal arts college in Fredericksburg.

While at U.VA., she took the same classes as University of Virginia’s male students — including her late husband, Tucker McLaughlin Sr., her high school sweetheart whom she had married while she was still attending Longwood. Their first child, News & Record sports editor Tucker W. McLaughlin Jr., was born in Charlottesville during the time the two were students there. Sylvia McLaughlin graduated in the late ‘50s with a degree in chemistry.

After graduation, they returned home to Halifax, where the family expanded to five children and McLaughlin, who died in 2003, entered business with U.S. Oil Company. His brother Henry, a Halifax lawyer before moving to Richmond to work as a Legal Services attorney, remembered his sister-in-law as a woman occupied with raising her children, but also a part of her husband’s commercial pursuits, in real estate, land development and the oil jobbing business.

“She was very much involved in planning, decisions, matters related to those ventures — the entrepreneurial part,” said Henry McLaughlin, who continues to work in private legal practice after retiring as director of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society in 2010. “They were very much a partnership in business matters. She didn’t just raise the children.”

In 1973, Tucker McLaughlin decided to go into a new business: newspaper publishing. Presented the opportunity to buy one of the community’s newspapers — the venerable but financially ailing Record-Advertiser and South Boston News, tailored for county and city readerships, though essentially the same paper — he took the leap. He and his wife were motivated not by the idea of a financial payoff, but rather by a desire to preserve a voice to counter the dominant paper of the times, the Gazette-Virginian.

The newspaper competition that resulted over the decades was and is an anomaly in the industry — two papers in the same town (even city), each vying for a general audience as the community’s paper of record. Each paper took on the identity of its headstrong publishers: liberal and conservative, offering opposing views on the pressing issues of the day, from school desegregation to the late 1970s campaign to build a new Halifax County Senior High School.

While Tucker McLaughlin Sr. eschewed direct involvement in the paper’s day-to-day editorial operations, he oversaw the hiring of young journalists to run it, variously ushering in brash voices to pair up against Lynn and Keith Shelton, father-and-son publishers of the Gazette-Virginian.

Sylvia McLaughlin’s early involvement with the newspaper was decidedly more low-key: she kept the books, sold advertising and held the title of company secretary.

It was a start to a career that would set the tone for the paper in the years to follow.

After a tumultuous first decade of publishing — which witnessed the 1975 merger of the Record-Advertiser and South Boston News as the News & Record; the founding of a sister newspaper, The Mecklenburg Sun, in 1976; a bitter antitrust lawsuit against the Gazette-Virginian that Tucker McLaughlin won, but only at the cost of heavy indebtedness due to legal expenses; and finally a fire that drove the News & Record out of its longtime downtown office home — the newspaper and its Mecklenburg sibling were in dire financial straits in the early 1980s. Left with little choice but to pare expenses and shelve the notion of a newsroom staffed by multiple writers, it fell upon Sylvia McLaughlin to keep the newspaper alive.

Which she did — by becoming the N&R editor, carrying forward at times what was a one-person news operation, and throwing her formidable energies at the challenge of covering practically every aspect of life in Halifax County.

With the newspaper constantly struggled to remain viable within the harsh confines of the monopoly-or-bust newspaper business world — itself under threat today as community newspapers vanish amid the flight of advertising dollars from print to digital — the News & Record’s editor kept it personal. She became the friend, confidante and source of good counsel and practical advice to many in the community. Her editorial output was low-key, steady, never geared at grabbing attention on any basis other than the nature of the subject material itself.

“Being calm and steady and objective, I think what Sylvia tried to do with the leadership of the News & Record was to report the news, not exaggerate it,” said Larry Clark, former principal of Halifax County High School and deputy superintendent of schools, who also resided for years in Halifax next to the McLaughlin family’s 442 Mountain Road home. “She was certainly not judgmental. I never recall a time when a judgment was expressed prematurely, when all the facts, all the information hadn’t been received. I never knew her to shoot from the hip.

“From a personal relationship, Sylvia was very special to Pam and me,” said Clark of himself and his wife. From a professional and community standpoint, she was “a good sounding board” and “someone I felt like I could ask about something that would have an impact on the community.” That role would take on added importance, Clark explained, when he ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors and won — serving one term beginning in 1983, two years before he became principal of the high school. As principal, he opted not to run again.

William Coleman, who also served as a county supervisor for three terms beginning in 1985, similarly hailed the News & Record’s late editor as “an example of professionalism. I found her over the years — many, many years, four decades at least — to be extremely fair. She was very thorough, but at the same time very progressive in terms of moving our community forward … She was thorough, truthful, unbiased, and at the same time she had a commitment to telling the story to the news reader as it should be.”

It was recognized by many, Coleman added, that the paper under her leadership was a voice for fairness and inclusion in community life, especially for black citizens who knew the sting of being excluded from local affairs. “Because [she was] fair and open in terms of covering the story the way it should be — we could count on that,” said Coleman. “And by ‘we,’ I mean the community.”

Late in life, Mrs. McLaughlin received an award that overwhelmed her customary aversion to ever being the center of attention: In 2014, the Halifax County/South Boston NAACP presented her with the Cora Tucker Award, named in honor of the late Halifax County civil rights activist. She is the only white person to be so honored.

Aside from this public role — unassuming as it was — she was also the unquestioned in-house leader of its paper and its original link to the business community, a female small-business owner who enjoyed warm relationships with others in the business community, many of whom also were her advertisers. Inside the N&R operation, she inspired something more than loyalty — the adoration of employees who worked long hours, often under stressful conditions, brightened only at times by the sunniness of her outlook.

“Sylvia was an exceptional woman and I am so thankful to have shared a part of my life knowing her,” said Mary Leigh Morton Osborne, who worked at the paper for 10 years before moving to North Carolina. Prior to joining the newspaper, Osborne worked as advertising manager for the Roses store at Hupps Mill Plaza. She first came to know her future boss as she would drop by the store to pick up ads.

“Today, after 40 years of knowing Sylvia, my mind is overwhelmed as a jumble of memories and words of how to describe it,” said Osborne, who called her “a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a blessing. Working at a newspaper and meeting deadline on press day can be insanity on a good day. Sylvia always remained calm in the midst of the storm.”

Osborne recalled particularly how she would sometimes bring her daughter to work for long stretches of time — by no means the first newspaper employee to discover that the boss, herself the mother of five children, adored children. “There were times when my daughter would be at the office in the evening on press night — a day requiring work from 9 a.m. to maybe 1 or 2 a.m. the next day,” Osborne said. One night, in “the midst of our deadline chaos,” Mrs. McLaughlin pulled away from her keyboard, stood up and began playing with daughter Carla — only four or five years old at the time.

She began pulling the girl around the office in a big cardboard box, much to Carla’s delight. Moments later, Osborne recalled, she looked up again to find the boss sitting in the same box, this time with her daughter trying to push it across the tile office floor. “My daughter loved it,” said Osborne. “So many memories.”

Charles and Nancy McCormick, Halifax neighbors, said they will always remember their late friend’s advocacy of public education on behalf of all of Halifax County children: “She was always a person who stood up for that,” said Charles McCormick. “She will be a great loss to the community, no question. Her voice was always one of reason.

Added Nancy McCormick, “You always saw her at meetings, she was making sure that the rest of Halifax that wasn’t there knew what was going on. That was her business. She made sure everything was covered.

“Such a stalwart — she set an example for us all.”

Clark struck a similar note: “She was always an advocate for public education, there was no doubt about that. Sylvia McLaughlin was a positive force in our community in support of public schools. Pam and I have not only lost a personal friend, this community has lost an objective voice. Not only of what this community is, but what this community can become.

“The newspaper represented her persona — a good paper, and Sylvia was a good person. I’ll miss her.”

She is survived by four children: Tucker McLaughlin Jr. of Halifax; Bill McLaughlin of Halifax; Ann McLaughlin of Mountain View, Calif., Tom McLaughlin of South Boston and six grandchildren. Her younger daughter, Sylvia McLaughlin Chambers of Seattle, Wash., died in October.

Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date, with the obituary to be published Monday.

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A very special woman. I feel privileged to UM known her.

Comments

I assume one of Mrs. McLaughlin's kids wrote this article/tribute about their Mom. She would be so proud of you. And she would be more proud if you can find a way to continue her life's work to present a fair view of the not so conservative news in Halifax County. On a personal note, I remember trick or treating at your big house on Mountain Road in the late 1960s. The candy was good but I was always afraid to walk to the house because of the decorations got more spooky each year.

Comments

Determined, dedicated, hardworking, and loved children. All qualities every family would be proud of if they were so blessed. May God continue to bless this family.

Comments

Very nice tribute to a wonderful woman. One small correction - Uncle Dick is on the left and Uncle Bill is on the right in the picture top right. Cousin Bill

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Sylvia and I were friends all the way through high school and sorority sisters - KD's - At Longwood College. We grew up together and had some wonderful pajama parties! I will miss her greatly. We even saw each other when she would visit her daughter here in Seattle.


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