At the height of the civil rights movement in Nashville, Tenn., Rob Elder, 25, sat barefoot in his living room floor propped up against a small tube television as he set up a tape recorder.
It was the fall of 1968, tensions were rising across the nation as university campuses exploded in protest over racist Jim Crow policies, and in front of him were four young activists and students pouring out their deepest frustrations about a system that had left them behind.
“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” one student told Elder.
Elder captured the wide-ranging conversation in a Tennessean Sunday magazine story called “Angry People and Glass Houses,” a piece that would become one of the first examples of the kind of community-focused journalism he would practice for the rest of his life.
The author of exposures targeting abuse of power, heart-wrenching pieces uplifting the voices of underrepresented communities and critical editorials questioning the authority of city leaders, Rob Elder always told his son Jeff that a journalist’s job “is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted . ”
“He really had a deep empathy for the poor and the underprivileged and he took a lot of risks,” Jeff Elder said of his father. “The work with civil rights he did has always inspired me because I could see how much he believed in it.”
Robert Laurie Elder, a lifelong journalist and editor, died peacefully Sunday at his home in Sea Ranch on the Sonoma County coast after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and other health issues, Jeff Elder said. He was 82.
From a young age, Rob Elder surrounded himself with printed work as he grew up working for the family business, Elder’s Bookstore. He attended Washington and Lee University and received a master’s degree in American history from Vanderbilt University before beginning his journalism career as a reporter at the Tennessean.
There, Elder exposed racist housing and hiring practices, interviewed civil rights leaders like John Lewis and even dove undercover to work in dangerous migrant labor camps. When he left the job, Nashville civil rights leader Ed Shea told the Tennessean “his deep empathy for humanity’s underprivileged and disenfranchised is great indeed.”
In the 1970s, Elder was hired at the Miami Herald, where he covered the case of George Curtis, a young African-American man who was shot by police.
Curtis was imprisoned after seven white police officers testified that he was a sniper during a riot, but after Elder dug deeper he found other police officers who said Curtis was innocent and should be freed. For his reporting, Elder won Florida’s top journalism award in 1973, the Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Achievement Award.
“When Curtis was freed he came to a party at our house and pulled me aside to tell me what my dad had done was life-changing for him, and truly extraordinary,” Jeff Elder recalled. “I’ll never forget that. It’s hard not to think of your dad as a hero when somebody tells you that. ”
After a year-long journalism fellowship at Stanford University, Elder went to work at the San Jose Mercury News under publisher Tony Ridder and editor Larry Jinks, who were also alumni of the Miami Herald.
At the Mercury News, Elder rose through the ranks to the role of editorial page editor. His columns and editorials warned against the fast-paced development of Silicon Valley in the 80s and 90s, calling for thoughtful growth. Colleagues said Elder wasn’t writing stories about the massive growth San Jose was experiencing – “he was a part of it,” going to public discussions, sitting in at city council meetings and poring over proposed blueprints.
“When Rob was still in the fellowship, I spent some time talking to him and then I had him working on assignments as a reporter that were designed to kind of deal with major problems in the area,” Jinks said in an interview. “I was so impressed with the way he handled all of that that I was satisfied he could do a good job of running the editorial page.”
Though it was his adopted home, Mercury News editorial page editor Barbara Marshman said San Jose became a part of Elder, and he a part of the city. For him, Marshman said it was one big small town.
Marshman was hired by Elder as part of an overhaul of the editorial page to better reflect the diverse views of a changing community. At one point he had 13 editorial writers, all from various backgrounds. But Elder didn’t just rely on his writers to lead the conversation in San Jose; he also encouraged readers to write letters to the editor and pen their own counterarguments to columns published in his pages.
Elder sponsored a swanky dinner at a winery for readers who wrote the best letters to the editor, known as the Silver Pen Award, to show his appreciation for their insight. Despite disagreements, Elder’s colleagues say he was always willing to meet and talk to someone about their perspective.
“A lesson I learned from Rob is that when people disagree with you, the important thing to do is to get in touch with them, sit down with them and hear them out,” Marshman said. “You may never change their mind, but you must make even your most vociferous critics feel heard.”
Elder cemented himself in the San Jose community, said Tom McEnery, the city’s mayor in the 1980s. McEnery said he must have gone on about two dozen walks around the city with Elder talking about San Jose’s preeminent issues.
“Elder, it’s accurate to say, was on the cutting edge of making sure that a sensitive type of growth was affected to rebuild downtown San Jose,” McEnery said. reason Jeff Elder is a Business Insider reporter today.
Rob Elder is survived by his wife Jacquelynn Baas; two sons, Mark and Jeff Elder from his first marriage to Elizabeth Sherman; four grandchildren: Toby, Violet, Brooks and Ashton; a brother, Randy Elder; and sister, Marilla Arguelles. Friends can donate in his memory to the nonprofit Redwood Coast Medical Service.