|Charles A. “Zan” Womack Jr.|
Charles A. “Zan” Womack Jr. will be remembered as a true newspaperman who dedicated his life to small-town, community newspapers.
Womack, 71, who owned the Star-Tribune and 14 other weekly newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina, died Monday following a brief illness.
His close-knit newspaper family, along with the Danville community where he spent his entire life, was stunned by his sudden loss.
“Mr. Womack loved newspapers, especially small-town newspapers, and always believed that a newspaper is the heart and soul of a community,” said longtime Star-Tribune editor Tim Davis.
“His standard advice to reporters and editors was to get more faces and names in the paper. He always said that’s what readers want and what sells newspapers,” said Davis, who also serves as Womack Publishing’s editorial director.
“He was kind and compassionate and a great leader. We will miss his wisdom and guidance, but will carry on his newspaper vision,” Davis said.
Chad Harrison, director of operations for the Chatham-based newspaper company, said Womack spent his life building great relationships.
“He connected with the communities our newspapers serve, and he connected with his employees. He was a true newspaperman and gentleman,” Harrison said.
Altavista Journal editor and general manager Mark Thomas said Womack was a good teacher.
“Mr. Womack once told me, ‘We're all local, all the time,’” said Thomas. “He cared deeply about serving the readers of his newspapers with the latest news and advertising information from their communities.
“He wanted his editorial and advertising staff members to know their communities and to be involved,” Thomas said. “I appreciate the opportunity I've had to learn a community journalism lesson from one of its strongest proponents.”
Marvin Hamlett, editor and general manager of another Womack paper, the Times-Virginian in Appomattox, said Womack was a great listener, which made him able to make quick and wise decisions whenever he was faced with problems.
“He also knew how to talk to people, which is kind of a lost art these days,” Hamlett said.
“But I think he would tell you that his greatest asset was his family, a family of which he was undoubtedly proud. He took that same love for family and put it toward his love for his community newspapers,” said Hamlett.
Editor and general manager Tammy McQueen-Dunn with the Montgomery Herald in Troy, N.C., said many small communities in North Carolina and Virginia benefited from Womack's love for community newspapers.
“Mr. Womack saw the importance of providing local news to the community. His newspapers are filled with faces of the community and the stories that impact the people of the community,” McQueen-Dunn said.
“With the passing of Zan Womack, the world of community newspapers lost a champion. He believed in the mission of these local institutions and gave his editors the flexibility to carry out this mission.”
Longtime Womack Publishing employee Leigh Ann Shields admired Womack’s compassion and heart for people.
“It didn't matter if you were family, friend or employee, if something was going on in your life he was always concerned and would help any way he could,” she said.
Born on Dec. 28, 1942, Womack was the oldest of five children. He grew up in Danville and graduated from George Washington High School in 1961. At GW, he was co-captain of the Cardinal’s golf team that won the state championship.
Womack graduated from Virginia Polytechnic and State University in 1967 with a degree in history and political science and soon joined the family community newspaper company started by his late father, Charles Womack Sr.
Womack Publishing Company began in 1960 with the purchase of the Danville Commercial Appeal, and added the Caswell Messenger in Yanceyville, N.C., in 1966 and Star-Tribune in 1969.
Womack Publishing also launched the Bull Mountain Bugle in Stuart and purchased the Clarksville Times. It started the Gretna Gazette in 1974.
Zan Womack worked at the Commercial Appeal before purchasing the company in 1975.
The Clarksville Times, Bull Mountain Bugle, and Commercial Appeal were sold, but
Womack Publishing continued to expand with the purchase of additional community weeklies and the successful start of newspapers at Smith Mountain Lake and Lake Norman near Charlotte, N.C.
In addition to the Star-Tribune, Womack owns the Altavista Journal, Times-Virginian in Appomattox, The Union-Star in Brookneal, Smith Mountain Eagle, South Hill Enterprise, Independent Messenger in Emporia, Brunswick Times-Gazette in Lawrenceville, and The News Progress in Chase City.
North Carolina papers include the Lake Gaston Gazette-Observer in Littleton, Mebane Enterprise, Caswell Messenger in Yanceyville, News of Orange in Hillsborough, Montgomery Herald in Troy, and Warren Record in Warrenton.
In 2001, Womack Publishing purchased three newspapers in Colorado, including its first daily, The Telluride Daily Planet. The purchase also included the Norwood Post.
An affiliate, Colorado Newspapers, purchased the daily La Junta Tribune-Democrat and weekly Bent County Democrat and Fowler Tribune in 2002.
Womack Publishing sold its Colorado newspapers to Liberty Group Publishing of Northbrook, Ill., in 2005.
The company also publishes telephone directories, magazines, visitors’ guides, and a number of other publications and has a printing operation in South Hill.
“He was an excellent businessman,” said Charles Majors, executive chairman of American National Bank and Trust Company in Danville. “He knew how to make community newspapers work for the community and as a business.”
Retired American National Bank president Jim Motley agreed.
“He was a real entrepreneur,” said Motley. “He did an outstanding job acquiring newspapers and building them into a successful business.”
Motley also was a good friend and played golf with Womack the day he became ill.
“We had a great time playing golf,” he said, adding that both friends shared a keen interest in Danville’s history.
Lifelong friend Townes Lea Jr. grew up with Womack. “He will be dearly missed,” Lea said. “He was a fine person — always up front and honest.”
Retired state senator Charles Hawkins of Chatham said Womack understood the role of community newspapers.
“He was unique in many ways, but what I admired most about him was his understanding that small towns need the kind of papers he produced. He was just a good guy,” Hawkins said.
Veteran Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors member Coy Harville said Womack was always interested in the community.
“He was quite unusual for a newspaper guy,” Harville said. “He was so open, and always interested in the growth of the county and what people were doing.”
Womack served one term on Danville City Council and is a former member of the German Club and Young Men’s Club.
He also was a member of the World Presidents’ Organization and Chief Executive Officers’ Organization.
Retired Reader’s Digest editor Henry Hurt of Chatham said Womack knew how to run a newspaper.
“I’ll always be sorry he was thwarted in his attempt to buy the Danville Register & Bee when it was for sale in 1995,” Hurt said. “Had Zan prevailed in that fight — as opposed to the caretakers selling the paper to the out-of-town newspaper chain — it would have made a significant difference across our region in terms of economic vibrancy and quality of life. To succeed, a region needs a strong daily newspaper, and Zan had the courage and integrity required to run one.”
Indeed, Womack’s failed bid to buy the Danville newspaper — a deal that would have given the paper’s employees an ownership stake — was one of his biggest disappointments.
Womack will also be remembered for his commitment to the Womack Foundation, a philanthropic organization started by his parents, Charles and Estelle Womack.
Over the years, the Womack Foundation supported a number of worthy causes, including parks and community centers, swimming lessons and summer camps for children from low-income neighborhoods, and scholarships for deserving students.
Womack became more active in the foundation following his father’s death in 2005, and served as vice chairman.
Bishop Lawrence Campbell Sr., who serves on the foundation’s board of directors, said Womack’s contributions were invaluable to the region.
“What I admire most is the continuance of the dream and vision his father had to be philanthropic in giving back to the community,” said Campbell.
“He was a person who did not see race,” the minister said. “He really was humanitarian in that he made sure all people were included and treated fairly. He had a heart beat in him to help alleviate deficiencies in education and recreation. He will be sorely missed.”
Another foundation board member, John Gilstrap, said Womack had a soft spot for kids, especially children in poverty.
“He was a wonderful man — very generous, very kind-hearted,” said Gilstrap, a member of Danville City Council. “He certainly did a lot to help the community.”
Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders, who knew Womack for more than 40 years, said Womack was a successful businessman who was generous with his good fortune.
“Like his father, he truly cared about his community and contributed much to those who were less fortunate,” Saunders said.
The mayor noted that Womack was an active supporter of education, arts, science, and history.
“The city of Danville is better today because of Zan Womack,” Saunders said. “He was a great example of a public servant. His business experience and overall concern for mankind contributed to the success of so many families in Danville and the region.”
Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce President Laurie Moran, a former editor of The Gazette in Gretna, said Womack had a strong commitment to the communities he served.
“He encouraged his newspapers to focus on the most important component of our communities — its people,” Moran said. “Through his vision, leadership, and support, Zan provided opportunities for many young journalists to gain the fundamental skills and discipline for successful careers. The legacy he has left is his commitment to serving others through his newspapers and through his personal life.”
When he wasn’t working in his Chatham office or visiting newspapers, Womack enjoyed playing golf and traveling.
He loved tomato sandwiches at ChathaMooca and a hot dog at Pat’s Place in Chatham.
He is survived by his loving wife, Bobbye Raye, who is an integral part of Womack Publishing.
The couple has two sons: Charles A. Womack III is a newspaper publisher in Greensboro, N.C., and Patrick I. Womack is a musician and writer in Hillsborough, N.C.
The Womacks also have four grandchildren: Charles A. “Alex” Womack IV, William Eric Mabry Womack, Andrew Scott Womack, and Caroline Grace Womack. Also Morgan K. Mitchell, fiancee of Charles A. Womack IV.
Womack also is survived by two brothers: David Harris Womack and wife Sydney of Greenville, N.C.; and Ray Thomas Womack and wife, Debbie, of Burlington,N.C.; and two sisters: Robin Womack Giles and husband, James, of Greenville, S.C.; and Jill Womack Harris and husband, Hiter, of Richmond.
His funeral will be held Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church on West Main Street in Danville followed by a private burial.
The family will receive friends at the residence.