Gowan H. “Nutt” Caldwell, was a legendary character, a longtime editor at the Winston-Salem Journal, known for his deep skepticism about all news, his unique vocabulary and his utter contempt for “fancy writing.” But he was much more.
He was born in Durham, NC on March 22, 1901 to James Hughes and Eva Bowles Caldwell. When they moved to Winston, NC a few years later, his father, a native of Ireland, was a manager at a local oil company. Gowan was the oldest of four siblings, a younger brother, Leo, and two sisters, Annie and Nellie. Two of those would also become local legends.
Brother Leo was killed in the fifth football game played under the name of R.J. Reynolds High School at Hanes Park in 1923. His death would jumpstart the Winston-Salem Foundation, an organization that would go on to touch the lives of thousands of local residents. His story is here:
Sister Annie became a librarian, eventually THE librarian at RJR High School. There she coached the cheerleaders and founded the Pep Club and will always be known as Annie Graham Caldwell, the spirit of the Black Demons.
Gowan grew up in the West End and attended the Winston Graded School (later the West End Graded School) and the Winston-Salem High School on north Cherry Street.
Around 1910, the local YMCA formed a boys basketball league, consisting of four teams…Army, Navy, Harvard and Yale…15 game season…in 1916, when he was in eighth grade, Nutt Caldwell played on the Harvard team along with his brother Leo and the soon to be legendary New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. The following spring, at the annual high school St. Patrick’s Day event, he won a prize for “Irish dialogue”. He was one of the founders of the Hi-Y and in 1919 he was on the program for their Christmas gala, performing “Eccentric Dancing”. He was a regular feature of many local drama, dance and musical programs, usually in a starring comic role. He also played on the high school football and basketball teams, although his brother Leo was a far better athlete.
Contrary to a fondly held legend, which I once fell for, Nutt did not drop out of high school and fight in WW I…he was here all the time, but WAS a member of the local militia, the Forsyth Rifles, Company G, 120th Infantry, NC State Guard. He and Leo played on the championship Company G basketball team, where Leo was the scoring star and Nutt was considered the best defender. His specialty was shutting down the opponent’s top scorer.
In the early summer of 1922, Gowan, who by then had acquired the “Nutt” nickname, and his friend Ralph Clinard founded an entirely new kind of business, Oh-Boy, at 124 West Fourth Street, next to the Anchor Company’s magnificent department store. Oh-Boy was a perfect fit, because while the women were shopping at Anchor, their husbands and boyfriends could hang out at Oh-Boy, enjoying a good five cent cigar, a glass of Rief’s Special draught beer and check the latest baseball scores while rummaging through the out-of-town newspapers and magazines.
But Oh-Boy didn’t last long. Nutt had other things to do and Ralph had bigger plans. By December, Oh-Boy had become merely the entrance to Clinard’s new art supply store, which would become a downtown fixture for many years.
Nutt took his time getting through Reynolds High School, attending at some point every year from 1916 until he finally graduated in 1926 at age 25.
When Nutt died in 1973, Roy Thompson wrote one of his classic pieces about the man who he had worked with for many years. According to Roy, on March 1, 1923, Nutt opened the first service station in Winston-Salem, at the corner of Burke and Brookstown. On January 5, 1925, he went to work for the Winston-Salem Journal, covering the police beat and sports, worked his way up to sports editor and then state editor, where he settled in, retiring 42 years later on April 30, 1967. In the process he became a legend. He was a skeptic who believed nothing that he heard unless he had checked it out himself and tended to sometimes doubt even things that he had seen with his own two eyes. And woe be unto any reporter who lapsed into “fancy language”, or worse, made a factual mistake.
He was fond of assigning nicknames to his colleagues. For instance, legendary sports writer Frank Spencer was called “Cootch”. We won’t go into the details here, but any woman who worked around men before the age of enlightenment knows what was going on there.
Nutt had his own ideas about the spoken language as well, inventing his own patois. When a funeral home called to report a death, he would yell for a reporter to take the phone. “It’s one of our southern planters,” he would say. “Take a deceasement on someone who is no longer with us.” So in his front page story on July 23, 1973, Roy wrote “This is a deceasement on Nutt Caldwell, who is no longer with us.”
A note: Roy’s article, and a corresponding obituary in the Sentinel, mention that Nutt founded the first service station in the city in 1923. Apparently, at times, such as his service in WW I, Nutt added a bit of “extra” to his own legend. The first service station in downtown Winston-Salem, the Central Filling Station, opened at the corner of Fourth and Cherry Streets on Monday, April 7, 1919, when Nutt was barely 18 years old. The second, the West End Service Station, opened a few weeks later, at Burke and Brookstown, later becoming the Red Star #2 (Texaco). In 1923, Nutt’s father James opened the Standard Oil service station diagonally across the intersection from the Red Star…maybe that is what Nutt had on his mind. No doubt, he worked there. As some like to say, he was a legend in his own time.