Claude Dees Starling, who died Saturday night, was a colleague, an explainer of Wilson history to this non-native, a lover of good puns and bad jokes, a storyteller and a genuine friend for more than 30 years. When I came to Wilson in 1980 as the new managing editor, it was Claude, along with editor John Scott, who showed me the ropes and told me the stories and warned me of the hazards in my new position. Like Hamlet's Yorick, he was "a man of infinite jest," whose stories could keep you chuckling for hours.
He was intelligent and well read but easily distracted and not well organized. He had no interest in administrative duties that were offered to him, and he saw technology the way the Luddites saw machinery. He hated each new version of software that he was forced to learn in the years after The Wilson Daily Times put away manual typewriters 29 years ago. "You have to think like a computer," I advised him, as I had advised others who railed against the arcane commands of software, but he wanted none of it. The linear, "if, then" concepts of computer codes were contrary to Claude's serendipitous nature. He liked finding things, not necessarily the things he was looking for.
He adapted, when he had to, first to tedious, DOS-based routines and later to point-and-click, WYSIWYG, GUI computers that challenged him without fascinating him. Claude had an obsessive streak, which led him to brag when I first met him, about the 10 times he had seen "Star Wars" at the theater (no home video in those days). He was so obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkein that he made it part of his email password. He would challenge new friends to trivia contests about any number of topics he knew a lot about — UNC basketball, "Star Wars," Tolkein, Civil War history, or The Beatles. He declared me "pretty good" on Beatles trivia. I played Trivial Pursuit with him a time or two, and he once refused to accept my "Never Land" answer for the correct "Never-Never Land."
He never married and rarely had a date, but he was surely attracted to women, even if women were not attracted to him. He never had children but loved them and could win their hearts in an instant because he communicated with them on their level. He was avuncular and funny. He played Santa Claus for the Arts Council a time or two, and had a great time. He was courteous, even courtly at times. He was a shrewd investor who studied the markets and made good decisions, and dozens of colleagues followed his advice.
After he was laid off and I was working for the Red Cross, I called to ask him if he would like to volunteer at the Red Cross office. He jumped at the opportunity, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, he thanked me for asking him. He admitted that he'd been bored to death in his apartment with no one to talk to. Volunteering gave him a purpose two afternoons a week, and the Red Cross got a needed but not budgeted receptionist.
All of us who loved Claude also saw his flaws and were frustrated by them because he had no intention of changing. He never cleaned his desk and would be upset when someone else, no longer able to stand it, cleaned it for him. He'd wear a badly stained sweatshirt that looked like a rag. He loved food and could describe meals with mouth-watering enthusiasm. In his final weeks, he entertained visitors with lists of the 10 or 50 best meals he'd ever had. If you asked him, "How was your vacation?" he would start by telling you about the restaurants where he ate. That love of rich food battled against his diabetic tendencies and ultimately did him in.
Years ago, I attended, along with several other newspaper colleagues, the funeral for Claude's mother. Claude arose for the eulogy and spoke with a clear, unbroken voice full of warmth, despite his grief. He began by saying that at some church occasions, you have a "family side" and a "friends side," but he wanted us to know, "you're all family today." I was so impressed that I told him after the service that I'd like to book him for my funeral.
That won't be. A few months ago, Claude told me his goal was to live to age 70, but he wasn't sure he'd make it. He nearly didn't make it to 65 and Medicare eligibility after going without insurance for months following his layoff after 41 years at the newspaper.
I wish he could have made it just another five years.