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Gazette Publisher, A Fierce Watchdog Journalist, Dies Suddenly Saturday

A shock of sadness and surprise spilled into the community as news of the death of The Gazette-Virginian owner and publisher Keith A. Shelton quickly spread.

Surrounded by family and friends, the 74-year-old Shelton died suddenly Saturday night.

During his more than a half-century at The Gazette helm, Shelton’s tutelage, experience and expertise were invaluable to a generation of Halifax County journalists.

That legacy came to an unexpected end Saturday night.

Known as a newsman to reckon with and a government watchdog, Shelton made a name for himself following in his father Lynn Shelton’s footsteps, always holding government officials’ toes to the fire to protect the public’s interest.

As a publisher, he pushed the industry’s envelope always maintaining that the most important role of a newspaper was to get the news produced by government and make it understandable for the readers.

“It has to be between governmental operations and the public. If the newspaper can’t get the news produced by government and make it understandable for the readers, then we’re not doing our job.

“We are the watchdog on government for our community. If the newspaper business doesn’t do it, it won’t get done,” the veteran newspaper owner has been quoted as saying.

Quick with the pen, Shelton often pricked the conscience of leaders in his thought-provoking column “Talk of the Town,” that when necessary, could “peel the paint off a barn.”

In more recent years the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease had taken its toll on his vigor, but Shelton was a fighter — a stubborn one — who fought the disease as fiercely as he did perceived public injustice.

Shelton, a 1954 graduate of Halifax County High School, followed in his father’s footsteps as editor-in-chief of the Furman University newspaper.

Also like his father, he worked briefly on The Greenville News while in college.

Following his graduation from Furman in 1958, he came into The Halifax Gazette family and later succeeded his father as editor and publisher.

The newspaper’s second-generation Shelton left Duke’s political science graduate school in 1958 to join his father and buy The Gazette-Virginian from partners.

He was an innovator from his first day.

By the 1970s, The Gazette-Virginian had increased production to three editions, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and moved into its modern 11,250 square foot newspaper publishing plant where the paper is printed today.

Shelton learned early in his newspaper career the job is not always pleasant.

The publisher is no stranger to a friend’s call asking him not to print information.

However, he was quick to say his father set that standard for young reporters long ago.

“If you intentionally leave a name out of a court report, you’re fired the next day,” Shelton would warn newly hired reporters.

That, dear reader, is a first hand report.

“Yes, there’s no doubt that it is a demanding part when you have a good friend and you have to put his name in the paper for some violation, and he’s asked you not to,” the publisher said on occasion.

“But you have to do it or you lose your credibility right then. They usually understand after a while why you had to do it,” the seasoned newspaperman added.

Shelton served as mentor to young journalists who interned at the newspaper.

Upon learning of Shelton’s death Sunday, those who knew him best in the community described him as “an outstanding journalist and good newspaper publisher.”

“When he took over The Gazette-Virginian, it was not a very sound business operation,” said Judge Frank Slayton. “He made it a huge success.”

“He was one of the closest friends I ever had,” Slayton said, explaining he was associated with the newspaper and worked at The Gazette during his high school and college years when it was located on Short Street. The pair also served in the National Guard together.

“He and I were very close friends from high school until he died,” he added.

As many of Shelton’s friends and acquaintances would attest, Slayton said they didn’t always agree.

“But we always had a great deal of respect for each other. Despite our differences, we were always real close,” he said. “We had a very close relationship, and I really am going to miss him.”

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) and South Boston Mayor Carroll Thackston also fondly remembered Shelton on Sunday morning after hearing of his passing.

“Our relationship goes back over 45 years when we were lieutenants together in 1963 in National Guard Company, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Thackston recalled many friendly wagers on basketball and football games between Shelton’s beloved Furman and Thackston’s VMI.

“Keith always was very supportive of me as I rose in ranks of the Virginia National Guard, and he was especially so when I served as adjutant general,” he added.

Thackston remembered Shelton for his generous spirit.

Thackston told how about 10 years ago he was on a small committee struggling to raise funds to build a War Memorial in Halifax.

“Keith and his wife, Linda, were very instrumental in raising the funds and running newspaper articles with the result that we exceeded our goal and had a dedication in May 2003,” he said.

On another occasion, Thackston recalled when Republican Senatorial candidate George Allen came to South Boston campaigning for the U. S. Senate, and he wanted to go to the newspaper office to see Shelton.

“He really enjoyed talking with him because they both were real conservative,” he said.

In recent years with his declining health, Thackston said he did not see his friend as much as in the past but kept up with him through newspaper employees.

“This community will miss his contributions to local and national news stories,” Thackston said.

“We had our differences, but Keith and I got along fine,” he said, adding, my wife, Frances Ann, and myself express our deepest sympathy to Linda and his family.

W.W. “Ted” Bennett, a second cousin to Shelton, recalled many a conversation with the newspaperman in his latter years after Parkinson had taken its toll.

“I would tell him we could have a heck of a conversation because he couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t hear,” Bennett quipped.

“He really loved this community, and at times he was quite a conscience for it,” he continued.

At times when he thought things were going astray financially, Shelton was known for penning quite the “Talk of the Town.”

“There has been a void since his illness,” he added. “Talk of the Town was the most read piece in any paper in the area.”

Bennett described Shelton as “one of those people who probably should have been from Missouri. He required you to “show me. He had that requisite journalist’s cynicism which is a good trait and essential to a journalist.”

Although they were cousins, Bennett said that didn’t mean the two agreed on everything.

“You could tell his heart was with the community, and you had to like him for that. He always encouraged me, and we’ll miss him,” he added.

Longtime Gazette employee Sylvia Reese, who worked with Shelton for four decades, said learning of her former employer’s death came as “such a shock.”

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” she added.

Reese described Shelton as “a very good person to work for. He was good to his employees, and he never complained about having Parkinson’s. He just kept going.”

Former Gazette Editor Beth Robertson said American Patriot Patrick Henry’s family legacy burned bright in The Gazette-Virginian publisher’s fiery admonitions.

“Shelton’s firm convictions regarding government spending, its invasion of its citizens’ privacy and a dozen other issues are well-known to his readers,” she said.

She also remembered her former employer as a staunch American patriot, a defender of the taxpayer and a man who devoted time and talent to his community through service in the National Guard, United Way and coaching youth sports.

“There is no question the Shelton journalistic footprint will endure in Southside Virginia,” Robertson said, adding, “We will miss him.”

Gazette veteran photographer Joe Chandler remembered Shelton as not only his employer, but also as a great friend and mentor.

Some 35 years ago, he and his late father, O. Lynn Shelton, gave Chandler a job at The Gazette-Virginian as a photographer.

As the years passed, that job blossomed into a career for Chandler as both a writer and photographer. Much of the success Chandler said he has been blessed with in his career is a result of the many lessons Shelton taught him about writing and community journalism.

“Mr. Shelton’s death is also a huge loss to our community,” Chandler said.

Through this newspaper, Shelton provided a voice for the people of Halifax County. He loved the community and wanted the best for its people. When pivotal governmental and education issues confronted local governing bodies he staunchly supported those issues and ideas that he felt were in the community’s best interest. When it came to issues that he felt were not in the community’s best interest, he took a hard stand against them, Chandler said.

“Mr. Shelton was the epitome of a community journalist. His voice and presence in the community will be greatly missed,” he added.

Throughout his half century at The Gazette-Virginian, Shelton received numerous Virginia Press Association accolades as owner and publisher of one of the largest non-daily newspaper in the state, and he also was active in community and civic affairs serving as a former United Way president, coaching and sponsoring basketball and Dixie softball league teams, helping fund construction of the AYSO soccer field in Halifax, serving on the Furman College advisory board, and he was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

He is survived by his wife, Linda, and daughters Betsy Eller, Beth Tingen and Sarah Humber and grandchildren, Payne and Ben Eller, Amanda Long, Chase and Ryan Tingen.

Funeral arrangements for Keith A. Shelton were incomplete at press time Sunday evening.