William J. Yates was born in Fayetteville, N. C., August 8, 1827. His father was an invalid, and was what was known in. those days as a ‘wheel-wright.” His mother was a member of the M. E. Church for seventy-two years, and she neglected none of the training that her son ought to have. The grandparents of Mr. Yates were English and Welsh, having come direct from Great Britain to this country. From boyhood he was thrown upon his own resources, and gladly assisted in the support of his mother and the younger children. Early in life he showed great devotion and tenderness to his mother, and this feeling was kept up through life, for after he left his old home he made his annual pilgrimage to Fayetteville to see her. He would make any sacrifice for her happiness, and a portion of his first earnings were spent in purchasing a house and lot for her.
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Mr. Yates’ first permanent employment was in the printing office of the North Carolinian, a paper published in his own town, where he served as an apprentice for about seven years. At the end of this time he became a “journeyman printer” in the same office, receiving a few dollars per week for his labor. This enabled him to lay by a little money to be invested in something at a suitable time. The struggles of Mr. Yates’ early life for an education are among the most conspicuous in the annals of the State. He was educating himself, and he had not the advantages of a college or university training, yet he was very eager to appropriate every idea that would benefit him in after life. He seems to have known in early life what his mission was, and therefore he began it with great earnestness and anxiety.
As a printer and journalist he was trained in the old school, which embraced such men as the able and celebrated E. J. Hale, editor of the Fayetteville Observer, and R. K. Bryan, editor of the North Carolinian, both of whom were the soul of honor and of exceptional ability. These men were in active life while Mr. Yates was young and ambitious, and many were the valuable lessons he learned when lie came in touch with them. Besides, they were in great sympathy with the young man, and encouraged him in his chosen field. His labor was not to go unrewarded, and at the age of twenty-seven he purchased the North Carolinian, and published it for a. time. This step seemed to broaden him, and from that date he became one of the best thinkers in the State. The question as to what to do in an emergency never troubled him for a moment. He could weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of a proposed measure instantly, and with marvelous precision. This caused him to become a leader of opinion, and he was consulted frequently, both in private and public matters. His sound judgment and his strong moral character made him a safe adviser. “He was religious by nature and training, and his moral principle was granite.”
The personal characteristics of Mr. Yates are especially striking. He abhorred any semblance of external show or anything that savored of vanity or egotism. These qualities were odious to him, and when met in a man always produced a look of disgust in his face. Those who knew him intimately say that a poor person never appealed to him in vain. He would give the last penny he had to one who actually needed it.
His foresight was phenomenal, especially in politics, where he seldom made a mistake as to men or measures. It is related of him that his judgment in matters of politics was so much sought after that the question, “What does Mr. Yates say?” was asked on every hand. People looked to him for the solution of questions, which they could not decide at once for themselves. Breaking a promise was something that was utterly unknown to Mr. Yates. No matter how little the promise might involve, he would not break it. He was also very kind to young men. He never tired in his attentions to young men in that line of business, which was his life vocation.
Mr. Yates was once asked the secret of his success, and he very readily replied, “that it was owing to hiss individual efforts (blessed by a kind Providence), close attention to business, complying strictly with every promise made, studying hard, working hard, the use of the proper economy, and never engaging in but one business at a time that of publishing a newspaper.” And that was unquestionably the secret of his success. He never neglected any duty, never tried to do but one thing at a time, and never gave up a task till it was finished, though he was often forced to work till eleven or twelve o’clock at night.
Mr. Yates’ love for the “Old North State” was akin to idolatry. He loved the masses, and may be called a man of the common people. With a wonderful rapidity he surveyed the various institutions of the State, saw their greatest needs, and proposed remedies for their deficiencies. He loved everything that tended toward the development of our resources, and he was never better pleased than when some movement was inaugurated for the uplifting of his fellow-men. He always attended the State Fair, believing it his duty to advocate every measure that might promote the best interests of North Carolina. Nothing that appealed to the philanthropist or the patriot failed to appeal to him. He had great State pride, and always felt that there was something great in the people of his own State. He reviewed the internal improvements of the State with a keen interest. He was always their strong advocate and promoter, and never failed to take a firm stand on every issue that involved the welfare of the citizens of North Carolina. Some one has said: “He was the best exemplar of home institutions and home rule we have ever known. For a man of his strong feelings and positiveness, he was the most conservative writer and adviser we have ever seen.”
The State of North Carolina owes Mr. Yates an inestimable debt for the fight he made for education. He was one of the pioneers in the cause of the common schools of the State. He realized that in education there is power, and he registered his vow to disseminate the truth throughout the State. A higher type of citizenship was the burden of his heart, and he thought that this could best be secured by a system of good public schools. He was ahead of his contemporaries in his ideas of education, and we are just beginning to realize what lie stood for in this field.
Mr. Yates was an earnest and consistent Democrat, having voted the straight ticket at every election; yet he never failed to criticize severely any wrongs in his own party. His strict loyalty did not make him blind to faults that needed correction, and his liberal views did not cause him to ignore a good measure in the Republican Party. His partisanship never made him offensive.
In the fall or 1856 he sold his paper in Fayetteville and moved to Charlotte, N. C., and took charge of the Democrat, which paper he conducted till his death. Mr. Yates’ strict business principles are best seen in his management of this paper. He published it for about thirty-two years, and during that time it never came out as a half-sheet on more than one or two occasions, and this would not have occurred, probably, had it not been for a destructive fire and the collapse of an adjoining building, which made it necessary for him to vacate his office. He had lofty ideas about journalism, believing that his greatest service to the State would be the publication of a clean newspaper. Not a single time did he debase it for any notoriety, his good judgment and modesty would not allow anything in its columns that would reflect upon the dignity of the distinguished editor. Through its columns he reached the people of the State as few editors have ever done. Back of every editorial was unchallenged sincerity and allegiance to every good cause, so his paper could not fail to have great weight and influence where it circulated. His was one of the few permanent newspaper successes in North Carolina.
Mr. Yates’ influence in politics was felt throughout the State. This was, doubtless, due to his remarkable foresight and the readiness with which he solved problems that demanded immediate attention. His love for politics never made him an office-seeker, but on the other hand, the office frequently sought him. During the earlier days of his life, official honors were repeatedly offered to him, but in every case he declined, believing that he could serve the State better in journalism than in office. Non-partisan offices were the only offices he would consent to fill. He stands out in bold relief as the typical citizen of North Carolina who cared nothing for the little offices that almost craze the minds of the politicians of today. Patriotism and love of state, not love of office and money, were the great principles that actuated him to service. He was broader than any political party, he was even broader than the State he served. His great popularity and influence led him to be chosen a member of the Council of State during a portion of Governor Ellis’ administration in 1859 and ’60. He also held the directorships in two railroads while they were being built, the Carolina Central and the Charlotte Air Line. In addition to these positions of trust, he served on what was known at the time as the (Literary Board” of the State, which board had the power to distribute the money set apart for the public schools before the war. Mr. Yates was also chosen a Trustee of the State University, which place he filled for a few years.
To show further that he touched the interests of the State in other respects, it is necessary to mention his appointments by the Executive of the State at different times. Reposing special trust and confidence in his integrity, the Governor, Thomas Bragg, in the year 1856, appointed him a delegate to the Southern Commercial Convention which met at Savannah, Georgia, in December of that year. In 1880 Governor Jarvis appointed Mr. Yates on a committee from this state to meet similar committees from Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, to make arrangements for the celebration of the Battle of King’s Mountain, which was to take place in October. Seven years later Governor Scales appointed him as a delegate to the Southern Forestry Convention, which met at Huntsville, Alabama. Other minor appointments were made, but the above are sufficient to show what his attitude was toward every interest of the State.
The labors of this noble son of North Carolina for the insane have endeared him to every citizen. When the Insane Asylum at Morganton first threw open its doors, he was elected director, and he entered the service with all the earnestness of his soul, visiting the institution each month during his connection with its management. A very pleasant incident is told of him while he was director. His frequent visits made him so popular with the demented inmates that it became necessary for him to go through the asylum in disguise, in order to avoid the numerous kisses and embraces with which they saluted him. This did not secure immunity for him for any length of time, for they soon learned again who he was and the trick he was playing on them. No labor in which Mr. Yates ever engaged afforded him more pleasure than this labor for the unfortunates of the State. The directorship was an office, which he really cherished. At his death the Board of Directors drew tip resolutions of respect, an extract of which will show in what high esteem he was held: “To his wisdom, sagacity, and devotion is due, in large part, the efficiency with which the institution is to-day fulfilling its humane mission.”
The best testimonials of the worth of this distinguished man to our State are to be found in the expressions of regret that followed the consolidation of the Democrat with the Southern Home, a paper published by Mr. J. P. Strong.
The paper resulting from the consolidation about October 1881, was known as the Charlotte Home and Democrat, but Mr. Yates continued his connection with the paper, keeping up that great reputation he had for writing sensible and interesting articles. The Fayetteville Examiner, commenting on the consolidation of the papers, said of Mr. Yates: “His strong sense, independent judgment, and honest expression of opinion have obtained for him a high position among the journalists of the State, and secured great influence for the journal which he has for twenty-odd years conducted.” The Raleigh Biblical -Recorder said of him: “His paper has been a great favorite in this office. We liked his sensible and independent way of putting things.” The Charlotte Observer paid Mr. Yates a high compliment in the following extract: “The Charlotte Democrat, under his management for nearly thirty years, has taken hold of the confidence of the people to an almost unprecedented extent. Conscientiousness has been its distinguishing feature and Mr. Yates’ claim to that virtue in his valedictory is founded in obvious justice.” For fear our testimonials become tedious, we shall desist from citing any mere in this connection. Suffice it to say, that the newspaper fraternity from one end of North Carolina to the other, spoke in terms of great praise for the veteran editor of the Democrat. He was regarded by them all as one of the best newspapermen in the State. Men of both political faiths were sorry for him to give up his own paper, but his good judgment told him it was the thing for him to do.
After Mr. Yates moved to Charlotte he became identified with the people, and his name was loved in every household. He was a leading spirit in every movement that meant the up building of the town in which he lived. Businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and bankers respected his intellect, for lie was able to grapple with the profoundest problems of society. Dr. Jno. H. McAden said of him: “He conducted the best weekly paper in the South, and made a continuous success as an editor.” Mr. H. C. Eccles, a citizen of Charlotte, paid him the following tribute “He was a good and valuable citizen, and his place in this community will be hard to fill. He will be missed as few men are.”
Mr. Yates’ phenomenal success as an editor should be an encouragement to the newspapermen of North Carolina. In his life is an example of consistency, honesty, and morality unsurpassed by few men that the State has produced. His one great aim was service, and in the service of his fellowmen he died. His death occurred October 25, 1888, after having spent that day in his office writing for his paper. The subscribers to his paper read the articles written by him the day before his death, while the brain that inspired them was deadened to all earthly things. His death was, indeed, lamentable, and in his demise the State lost a venerable citizen, a celebrated journalist, and his wife a devoted husband. No more loyal man could be found. He was faithful to every duty that devolved upon him. His sincerity and allegiance were proverbial. “He was an ideal elder brother.” His hopes were concentrated in his brother, E. A. Yates, and him he encouraged and helped to educate, thus preparing him for that great sphere of usefulness, which he fills today as a member of the North Carolina Conference. The inspiration from such a life as that of William J. Yates should be sufficient to show the editors of North Carolina that there is a great work for them. He has placed before them ideals lofty and pure. May they all be as faithful to their fellow men as he was. If they will follow the lines marked out by him, there need never be any fear for North Carolina’s journalism.
ZEB. F. CURTIS.
NOTE.-The material for this paper is taken from old papers and clippings belonging to the various members of Mr. Yates’ family. Z. F. C.