Daddy, farewell

[This is the obituary I wrote for our father yesterday, a day the family gathered on Anne Preston’s front porch in Decatur to absorb the fact that he had passed away that morning. The Hospice staffer reached me around 6:30 a.m. while I was at Tate. A few moments later, two deer walked regally by just in front of the screen porch, a doe and a buck, disappearing into the thick mist. Meanwhile, in Decatur, Anne remembers waking up suddenly, inexplicably, at 3:30 that morning. My brothers Bryan and Walter had the exact same experience.]

Joseph B. Cumming, 94, Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau chief during the civil rights era and a pied piper of many gifts, died Monday, Nov. 9, in Decatur.

Among the journalists who covered the “Race Beat,” Cumming was their poet laureate and teacher of many, with a lyrical and historian’s touch. After 1981, he taught journalism at West Georgia College and wrote a column on Southern writing for the book page of the Atlanta newspapers. With a Ralph McGill Lifetime Achievement Award and honorary doctorate from the University of the South at Sewanee, Cumming was more honored in the delight he took encouraging the achievement of others.

He is survived by four children, seven grandchildren and five great granddaughters. His wife of 68 years, Emily (Wright) Cumming, died four years earlier.

Born in Augusta on Feb. 26, 1926, the sixth generation of a family harking back to the city’s founding, Joe Cumming graduated from Sewanee in 1947, after serving in the Navy, and began work in a family building-supply business. There he learned from his Uncle Harry Burum the power of the profit motive, and the rough dignity of the unsung characters he recalled in an article for Georgia Magazine. Burum Company “had taught me much of what I needed to know” before moving his family to Atlanta in 1955.

Two years later, he joined the Newsweek bureau started in Atlanta by William A. Emerson, another colorful mentor. Cumming covered news from the Cuban Revolution to the trouble a young Pat Conroy created teaching poor black students on Daufuskie Island, S.C. But the big story was the decade-long saga of the Black movement in the South.

“By the greatest good luck,” he once wrote, “I could squeeze into black churches and feel a breathing air of excitement. We in the media walked beside the marches and demonstrations, and eavesdropped on confrontations.”

Besides filing dispatches for Newsweek, he hired and encouraged others, from stringers around the South to reporters he sent forth. One of those was the late Marshall Frady, who credited Cumming with first teaching him “the possibilities of a journalism employing the extra eye of the artist.”

His professional life and private life moved to the same rhythm. He and his wife hosted an annual big-band “I’ll Remember April Party” for years in Atlanta and, later, in Carrollton. He played jazz saxophone and piano with friends and family. He wrote the scripts, lyrics and music of several musical comedies and helped start the Tater Patch Players, a community theater in Jasper. In downtown restaurants and Manuel’s Tavern, he organized gatherings of writers and national journalists in Atlanta bureaus.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Bo Emerson (William’s son) wrote on Facebook on Monday: “Driven by his conviction that people need music and lyrics and poetry and drama to survive and that amateurs can create beautiful theater, he made the world a better place.”

After earning a master’s degree at Emory University in 1981, he moved with Emily to Carrollton, where he taught at West Georgia until 1991. They moved back to Atlanta in 2011.

His poems were published by Peachtree Publishers, in collaboration with sons, as “The Family Secret,” and a selection of his magazine articles and columns were collected in “Bylines: Writings from the American South, 1963-1997.”

Since Emily’s death in November 2016, he has lived at Arbor Terrace of Decatur. Despite the onset of dementia, his children found inspiration in his company on outings, where he rhapsodized on the miracle of the everyday sights with the excitement of a fresh discovery. The isolation of the pandemic led to a physical decline. He died peacefully.

His surviving children are Joseph Bryan Cumming III of Nashville; Douglas O. Cumming (Elizabeth) of Lexington, Va.; Walter W. Cumming of Black Mountain, N.C. and Anne Cumming Preston (Clay) of Decatur. Also, grandchildren Anna (Cumming) Beckley (Gary), Alston Cumming (Julie), Helen Preston, Paul Preston, Daniel Cumming, William Cumming (Alyssa), and Sarah Rose Cumming.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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4 Responses to Daddy, farewell

  1. Your father lived an amazing life and left an incredible legacy. God bless your family ~ A Georgia Peach in NC.

  2. Colon, Aly says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your Dad. His talents and dedication to his profession and his family came across clearly and affectionately. You obviously inherited his journalistic talent. Just as an aside, I took a class when I was at Stanford from an Newsweek Associate Editor. He was on a one-year fellowship. During the class he told us stories about Newsweek and basically ran the class as if we were Newsweek reporters. I enjoyed the class immensely and helped appreciate the work Newsweek reporters and bureau chiefs did.

    Your father’s mentorship and journalistic skills obviously elevated Newsweek’s reputation and influence at time when such coverage became even more vital.


  3. Doug Cumming says:

    Thanks, Aly. Yes, those were golden years, when Newsweek had reporters in bureaus all over the world. Daddy was a rarity among them, since he stayed in one bureau (Oz Elliott in NY had him pegged as a courtly Southern explainer), while others moved around. That meant he had mentored reporters who ended up in San Francisco, Detroit, Nairobi and D.C. I ran into journalists everywhere who spoke of him as an inspiration. “I know,” is all I could say.
    Newsweek in the 60s had almost no bylines — reporters would send “files” to New York, and these would usually be re-written by a brilliant writer named Pete Goldman. For my father to really stretch out, he freelanced from other magazines, like Esquire and Atlanta.

  4. Julie Cain says:

    What an interesting and dynamic personality – he and Emily were a gift to all who knew them!

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