When I started at The Virginian-Pilot as an intern, Guy Friddell was a faithful figure in the night newsroom cast. He was legendary for his thoughtful columns and his decades covering Virginia politics. I can still see him, frail by then, in his 80s, walking slowly through the newsroom on a quiet evening, framed by his oversized glasses and kindly smile.
By the time I arrived, his column focused more on tomatoes and Boomer the dog than Richmond politics. It was a highlight of my night to rim a Guy column, though I knew it might come with the challenge of writing a fresh 1-column headline on another vegetable laudation. I loved his gentle prose, poetic in a way rare to reporters.
Guy was generous to all, and the copy desk was no exception. He would tell his editor, even an uncertain intern young enough to be his granddaughter, how much she improved his column with the tiniest suggestion. He was humble, sweet, sincere. He gathered devoted followers and fans like no other columnist I know.
Guy was a Tidewater icon, an old-school newspaper writer, and a Southern gentleman.
Earl Swift has written a wonderful tribute to Guy, who passed away this past Sunday at 92.
Of course, it includes a section on tomatoes. No one loved the tomato like Guy.
His attention often lingered on nature’s contributions to his diet. Columns celebrated the taste and texture of buttered corn on the cob, decried the indifference accorded to okra, referred to black-eyed peas as if old friends. Apples, peaches and plums, squash and strawberries, pumpkins, onions, leeks – if it grew, Friddell ate it, loved it, and wrote about it.
Two fruits held special rank in his heart and stomach. Scores of his columns enumerated the merits of the watermelon, instructed the reader on how to pick a good one, or featured one as a central player in the narrative.
His feelings for the tomato, however, bordered on exaltation.
“With spring coming and summer close behind, thoughts of tomatoes tend to occupy my mind,” he wrote in March 1998, a year in which his byline appeared over 10 columns praising his favorite fruit – a tally he matched in 1990 and 1991, and topped with 12 in 1995. “Improve the tomato?” he wrote another day. “How can one perfect perfection?”
Left to his own devices, Friddell might have lived on tomato sandwiches: “Has it crossed your mind,” he wrote in August 1994, “that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?