Alumni Profile



Like many Southern writers before him, Jim Dodson found fame and fortune Up North.

But during a low point in his life he felt the tug of his roots and started a second career

writing for the newspaper in Southern Pines.  “To go through an open door sometimes,

especially at midlife, is not easy.  But I knew I wanted to come back.

I knew something good would come of this.”

By Steve Tuttle          Photography by Glenn Sides
Dodson Books
he author of four best-seller books, including one that became a made-for-TV movie about his life, turns sideways to scoot between desks in the cramped offices of PineStraw magazine, and then steps out onto the shady sidewalks of Southern Pines. He’s headed for lunch at the diner around the corner and is explaining to a visitor why he gave up a comfortable and financially rewarding perch in the publishing spotlight to work for the local paper.

It was one of those offers you just can’t refuse, says Jim Dodson ’75. It came when he was in town to cover the 2005 U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst; he was approached by David Woronoff, the publisher of The Pilot, and offered a job as the paper’s writer in residence. Dodson had just published his sixth book—a well-received biography of storied golfer Ben Hogan—and had worked for nearly 20 years as an award-winning columnist for Golf Magazine, whose circulation in the millions makes it a bible of the industry. The Pilot, recognized as one of the best small papers in the country, comes out three times a week and has a circulation around 15,000.

“He said ‘I can’t pay you what those people will but I can promise you all the North Carolina barbecue you can eat and all the sweet tea you can drink.’ What he didn’t know was that was just the deal I was looking for. I agreed to do it on a lark. I thought I would stay here two weeks and four years later, here I am.”

He’s had ample opportunities to dine on swine during some recent media tours for his eighth book, A Son of the Game, published in the spring, in which he chronicles his passage into this new stage of his life and his changing love of golf. The book is set in Pinehurst and Southern Pines amid the famous golf courses and handsome old inns and restaurants of the golfing mecca. It’s selling quite well despite its critical look at the game of golf, at least that version of it hawked by the PGA on television.

The monthly arts and culture magazine he edits, PineStraw, also is doing well. In the year since he took the job, it’s expanded to 100 pages and won the N.C. Press Association award for best periodical.

Understandably, Dodson feels like he’s had lots of risk and reward in the first nine holes of his life. But now he’s turned to the back nine, the wind is at his back, and he's just birdied the 10th.

Yankee charm

Abruptly moving home to North Carolina after 22 years in Maine wasn’t the first time Dodson had heard a different drummer and marched off in an unexpected direction. Just two years out of East Carolina, he became a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal’s Sunday magazine and during seven years there collected two major journalism awards. The one prize he valued most came when The Washington Post called with a job offer. That was his dad’s paper before moving up into in newspaper management at other papers, lastly and notably at the Greensboro Daily News.

Weighing the Post's offer while visiting friends in Boston, Dodson by chance met Judson Hale, the legendary editor of Yankee magazine, who also had a proposition.

Dodson sought advice from his dad. “I had told him I was honored with the writing awards I had won in Atlanta and the recognition that would come from working for The Washington Post, where he had worked, but I said I have come to hate most of the things I write about. He said, ‘Well, then get a job where you can write about something you love.’”

So he passed on the Post and took the job at Yankee magazine, where he would be free to pursue his muse. He wrote only about things that interested him; among his early stories was a profile of one of the best women amateur golfers of the 1940s and ’50s, Glenna Collett Vare, who then was in her 80s and living in obscure retirement. The inspiring story caused a minor stir. Dodson had had a love-hate relationship with golf since high school, and the story about Vare clearly demonstrated that he had a flair for writing about the sport and the people who played it. After the story ran in Yankee, it was reprinted by, among others, Golf Magazine. A job offered followed, and his byline became a fixture on the masthead of the sport’s biggest magazine. He settled into a comfortable life in a rustic home he built in Maine, married and began raising two kids.

During the 1980s and most of the ’90s, Dodson became known as one of the best golf writers around. He won the William Allen White Award for Public Affairs Journalism from the University of Kansas, plus more than a dozen awards from the Golf Writers of America and other industry organizations. He was invited to become a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. He wrote about things other than golf for Gentlemen’s Quarterly, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Travel and Leisure, Town and Country, Reader’s Digest, Geo, Outside Magazine, and other national publications.

In 1995, when he learned that his father had cancer, the two decided to finally take the golfing trip they always had promised themselves. They played the famous courses in Scotland and England, and the Continent. When they came home his father learned his cancer had spread. In the final months of his life, Dodson became his father’s caregiver. The result of all that intense love and loss was Dodson’s first book, Final Rounds, which was published in 1997. It attracted favorable reviews, made several best-seller lists, and has sold more than 300,000 copies in six languages.

Going south

After publication of Final Rounds, Dodson’s marriage ended and he had to decide how to tell his kids, particularly 11-year-old Maggie. He did that during a fly-fishing trip with her across America that started in the Adirondacks and ended at Yellowstone National Park. On the way Dodson discovered a great deal about fishing and about the special relationship that exists only between a father and daughter. That experience became Faithful Travelers, which, like Final Rounds, made the Times best-seller list. The book also became a made-for-TV movie on CBS called "Dodson’s Journey," which still turns up occasionally on cable.

On the last night of his book tour for Faithful Travelers, Dodson got a phone call that forever sealed his reputation as an elite golf writer. Arnold Palmer phoned to ask him to write his biography. Dodson spent extended periods with Palmer and his wife and had unfettered access to Palmer’s personal life. The result was Arnold Palmer: A Golfer’s Life, which came out in 2001.

Other books soon followed, including The Dewsweepers in 2001, which told of a year Dodson spent playing with an eclectic group of men who always were the first to tee off each morning at their club. It’s about friendship as much as golf.

His fly-fishing trip with daughter Maggie had been so rewarding to both that he replicated the experience with his son, Jack. Dodson, who had hit 50 and was sensing opportunities slipping away, dropped everything to take his 10-year-old son on a golfing vacation across Europe, hitting all the high and low spots and encountering problems that only brought them closer. The experience resulted in his 2005 book, The Road to Somewhere. His biography of Ben Hogan, one of the least-understood icons of golf, also came out that year.

As Dodson was finishing the Hogan book in the summer of 2004, which took much longer than anticipated, his life became a swirl of complexities, marked by near-constant travel and the pain of being separated from his children. About that time he had to make another painful trip, to visit an old friend who was dying—Harvey Ward, the man whom Byron Nelson called the “best player in the world” while he was winning back-to-back U.S. Amateur championships in 1956–57. Dodson thought there was a marvelous story in Ward’s storybook career, which went up in smoke when he was embroiled in a controversy over his amateur status. Exiled from the game, Ward, who had played golf at Carolina, eventually settled in Pinehurst and became a preeminent golf instructor. Dodson wanted to write a book about Ward but kept putting it off until it was nearly too late.

By 2005, Dodson had published six books in eight years, buried his father and mother and confronted divorce and its painful aftermath. Plus, Golf Magazine had a new owner who was chopping expenses by chopping writers from the staff. He was bone tired and feeling low when he blew into Pinehurst that spring to cover the men’s Open and to spend as much time as he could with Ward. That’s when he got an offer he just couldn’t refuse.

Life among the links
 Woronoff Dodson
The Pilot publisher David Woronoff with PineStraw editor Jim Dodson and creative director Andie Stuart Rose '82

At first, Dodson’s job as writer in residence for The Pilot—he’s believed to be the only person with such a title at any newspaper in America—was to write a Sunday column. He wrote about people and places he came across—“anything that passed under my nose.” One day it would be about an old lady in Carthage who saves animals hit by cars. Another time it would focus on a Korean journalist Dodson meets who tells him that reading Final Rounds changed his life.

In 2008, though, Dodson’s role at the paper expanded when he became editor of PineStraw, a monthly magazine The Pilot had started a year or so before. Dodson attracted other talented people to the magazine and filled its pages with good writing about the people and culture of the Sandhills.

“I believe this state needs a popular magazine that has a literary quality but still has a sense of mirth and fun,” Dodson declares. He is quick to point out that two other ECU alumni have contributed to PineStraw’s success. Andie Stuart Rose ’82 is the magazine’s founder and creative director. Robyn James ’76, who owns The Wine Cellar and Tasting Room in Southern Pines, writes a regular wine column.

Don Sweeting ’85, executive vice president of golf and club operations for Pinehurst Resorts, is among the many locals who have warmly welcomed Dodson to the region’s close-knit golfing community. “He exudes the history, the tradition and the honor of golf. As you would expect from a high-quality writer, he is a serious person, but he’s also a fun person to be around, which you would expect from an East Carolina graduate.”

Woronoff, who owns The Pilot along with Frank Daniels Jr., Frank Daniels III and others associated with the Raleigh News & Observer before its sale to the McClatchy chain, says the paper’s reputation (the Daniels bought it from Sam Ragan, a former state poet laureate) probably contributed to Dodson’s decision to come there. “We have a saying here that we are always small town but never small time,” says Woronoff, who grew up in Greenville.

With publication of his latest book, A Son of the Game, Dodson has had to travel frequently for book tours and media interviews. “I get so many requests to give speeches and make appearances, and I’ve adopted a policy that if it’s something in North Carolina, where I can go speak and still get back to lay my head on my own pillow at night, then I don’t charge anything. Out of state, that’s another matter.”

Dodson now is married to Wendy Dodson, who works at Sandhills Community College as an assistant to the president and secretary to the board of trustees. He frequently is asked to emcee local events and to speak at various functions, such as a big Father’s Day event in Southern Pines that he says was a blast. Life is settling into comfortable rhythms.

Learning the writing craft

The son of a newspaper man, Jim Dodson grew up in Greensboro and gained his first recognition as a writer while still a student at Grimsely High School. Described by friends as thoughtful and reflective from an early age, he considered Episcopal seminary but enrolled instead at East Carolina. He gravitated toward the English department and the student newspaper, where he was a staff writer, features editor and columnist.

Dodson transferred to Chapel Hill his junior year but stayed there just two semesters before returning to East Carolina and the student paper. Why? “It just felt like home. There was an intimacy at East Carolina that I just loved. It was the smartest decision I ever made.”

He wouldn’t take anything for his years in Greenville. “[The reaction I got] when I turned down the job at the The Washington Post to write for Yankee magazine was just like the people who said to me that if you go to East Carolina instead of Chapel Hill, your life will be over. They said if you want to be a journalist, Carolina is where it’s at. And I love Carolina. But it wasn’t where I was intended to go. East Carolina was where I learned the classics, learned writing, had fantastic professors, had the opportunity to work at the student paper.”

After graduating in the fall of ’75, he went to work for the Greensboro Daily News, where he had interned for two summers during college. This promising start to his career was shattered within a year when his girlfriend, while working at a country club in Hickory, was murdered by a robber. Dodson took a leave of absence from the paper for three months and wandered around Europe, grieving and healing. When he returned he got a call from the Atlanta paper offering a job. He took it and threw himself into his work. During seven years in Atlanta he perfected his writing skills and rebuilt his personal life.

From the deep emotion that comes from death experienced at close hand, and the years of writing under deadline came the skill and insight that would animate his writing career. Dodson’s greatest gift, according to Woronoff, “is this great ability to write with great sentiment but he avoids being sentimental. He has an uncanny ability to find the most extraordinary stories in the most ordinary of people.”

Dodson, who was honored by ECU as an alumni of the year in 2002, says he’s surprised by “the intensity of the reactions to [Final Rounds because] I thought this book might lack a big gut hit. It’s all about coming home. What it does have is hitting 50 and finding the ground shifting under your feet.”

He sees his children as often as he can and relishes a phone call he gets during lunch from Jack, who is doing a summer internship at a newspaper. Jack is about to go out on an interview, and dad delights in passing along a few tips.

“My spirituality has deepened,” Dodson says later. “I apply that sacredness to my writing. I had a father who said there are no mistakes in life. There are no time limits here. And what he said is true. “I have been lucky to have several opportunities where I have taken the road less traveled. I think it’s because I tried not to think too much about what I should do and instead of what I love to do. My dad said to try writing about something you love. That was very good advice.”    

1975 Fountainhead staff 
Jim Dodson is sitting on top of the Coke machine in this picture of the Fountainhead staff from the 1975 Buccaneer. Other budding writers in the photo include Tom Tozer ’76 (seated second from left), now deputy managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, and John Evans ’76 (seated at far right), sports editor of the Easton, Md., paper. Tozer recalls that everyone is laughing in the photo because his dog, Copy, had just jumped up on the table and knocked over the drinks.

Spouting off at
the Fountainhead

im Dodson’s best college memories are his two years working for the student newspaper, the Fountainhead. “I was the features editor during the Halloween riot in ’73 and then during the streaking craze that swept campus the next spring. I remember we ran a picture in the paper of [a campus police officer] who apparently had confiscated a case of beer from somebody, and he was walking by with this beer and he sort of had his tongue hanging out, and behind him you could see this girl’s naked bottom. The next day I got a call from Leo Jenkins and he was not very happy, not happy at all.”

Dodson wrote a weekly column, called Off the Cuff, that captured the laid-back attitude of the times, often spicing his prose with literary references. In one, he welcomed the arrival of spring after a long winter during which thermostats were lowered due to the Arab oil embargo. He wrote that he knew spring had come because a friend told him she saw her hit town. “She told me that she had just stepped out of the [Rathskeller bar] at about 11:30 at night and was trying to find her way to the curb to sit down when she glanced up Fifth Street to the bus station, and there was Spring…stepping down from a Trailways Pleasure Cruiser…wearing flowing robes.

“To many, spring is a time when feelings and emotions are at long last released from the soul enchambered by the shroud of winter. Mirth and frivolity prevail, and a sort of madness descends upon us all. Indeed, even old Emily Dickinson had to concede that ‘a little madness in the Spring is wholesome even for the king.’ And since we no longer have Emily Dickinson, nor a king, that leaves us with madness.”