A Pulitzer star that was pretty bright from the start

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He was probably pushing the envelope even then, the new guy on the reporting staff of The News & Observer. David Zucchino was, after all, fresh from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1973, but he stayed with the shoulder-length hair and the almost-fu-manchu mustache and the corduroy jeans, a skinny tie being almost an afterthought. He was in a very serious place, the loud, smoke-filled newsroom of the State Capital paper, where editors were very short-spoken types, old school most of them, walking through the newsroom with heads bowed.

One even sent out a memo demanding that reporters submit to their editors an “itinerary” of their plans for the day. Zucchino grinned, sat in front of his old manual Royal, and started typing under the heading, “What I will do today — by David Zucchino.” Pretty soon, other reporters crowded behind him. “10:15 — try to get in late without being seen. 10:30, get a Sun Drop. 11:05, start thinking about where to go to lunch. We went to the Mecca yesterday, but it was over $4 and so we might go to Poole’s today. 12:45 — have another Sun Drop.” And so forth.

A righteous editor went ballistic. But a senior editor, wearing a sort of half grin, said, “Look, this guy is the best young reporter we have. In fact, he’s the best young reporter I’ve ever seen. Forget the memo.”

And there it was. David Zucchino, a North Carolinian who just last week picked up his second Pulitzer Prize for a masterpiece of nonfiction, “Wilmington’s Lie,” got where he is, at the top of the profession, on talent and more often than not, on sheer bravery in reporting from some very violent places. His Pulitzer — he also won years ago for reporting from South Africa — tells the story amazingly unknown by many of a coup against African American leaders in Wilmington in 1898. Zucchino celebrated the prize by mowing his daughter’s lawn after he got back from Afghanistan as a contract reporter for The New York Times. He’s previously served newspapers in Philadelphia and Los Angeles from foreign bureaus.

Before all that, in his student years at Chapel Hill and during five years at The News & Observer, he lived with friends is a place near Chapel Hill they called Spudtown, where they played a game called Cosmic Croquet. Today, Zucchino and his wife, Kacey Zucchino, still live near Chapel Hill, and have raised three daughters. The long hair is gone, and not with a trim but with follicle evolution, and the mustache is white.

And though his highfalutin’ positions at the nation’s biggest newspapers would admit him to the literary salons of New York, Zook, as he’s known by friends, prefers Raleigh’s Players Retreat, his long-time hangout, and stays close with his N&O friends of long ago and the now-elderly gentlemen of Spudtown. At their retirement parties, birthdays, reunions, there will be Zook, in the middle of it all, trying to film things on his phone.

What he won’t be doing is talking shop. Though he’s been in some very dangerous places surrounded by hostile, armed people with powerful weapons, all he’s said to me in response to “Why do you do this?” is simply to say, “I don’t know. I love it.” Other reporters, in fact, have noted that Zucchino will go places others don’t want to go.

And he won’t brag. One evening, swapping tales after he’d had a successful book event at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, I asked him in the midst of a small group who was the most impressive, the greatest person he’d ever met in his career. Quietly, very quietly, he said, “Nelson Mandela.” I decided to hold off on my story about meeting Barbara Mandrell.

It is that self-deprecating manner that sets him apart from other big name reporters — or as some prefer, correspondents. And perhaps that’s the key to success as well. While others meet the prestigious editors and the glamorous public figures, Zook is boarding another plane for Kabul.

Jim Jenkins retired in 2018 after 31 years as an editor, editorial writer and columnist for The News & Observer.

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