Tributes have been paid to a former Northern Echo journalist and Darlington College lecturer who inspired a generation of reporters after his death at the age of 77. 

Fondly remembered as a "scary, blunt and stubborn" chief sub-editor, as well as a champion of promising journalists and journalism in the North East, numerous stories of Jon Smith's career from those that he inspired have been pouring in. 

His creation of Echo Quest at The Northern Echo was noted as one of his greatest achievements - this was a madly elaborate treasure hunt, which had readers following clues all over the North East in pursuit of a glittering prize.

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When Echo Quest was published each year, his former colleagues remember people queueing around the block in Priestgate, eagerly waiting for the newspaper to go on sale, so they could get a head-start on the first clue.

Also noted as a distinguished lecturer at Darlington College, he taught generations of youngsters the art of journalism, and how to stay on the right side of the law.

Paying tribute to Mr Smith, ex-editor of The Northern Echo, Pete Barron, who first joined the Echo in 1984, credits his former chief sub-editor with "inspiring a generation".

He said: "He was a man who demanded the highest standards from reporters, and The Northern Echo was a much better paper as a result.

"Lots of us are in debt to Jon for passing on his passion, wisdom, and professionalism.

"As well as being a first-class journalist, he was also an author with a meticulous eye for detail and an appetite for research."

The Northern Echo: Jon Smith, left, and Mike Amos with their 125th anniversary book about the Northern LeagueJon Smith, left, and Mike Amos with their 125th anniversary book about the Northern League (Image: ANDY LAMB)

Mr Barron also humorously remembers an early encounter where the sub-editor took him to one side and said: “If you ever start another story with the words 'mystery last night surrounded' I’ll whack you round the head.”

He added: "He made us better and, in nearly 40 years that have passed since our first encounter, I can honestly say I’ve never written another story beginning with the words ‘mystery last night surrounded’."

In his spare time, Jon was an author and helped sustain the Milbank Arms in Barningham, Teesdale – until recently one of precious few pubs without a bar – and ventured far in the hope of better days for Darlington.

The Northern Echo: Greta Carter and Jon Smith pictured outside Barningham Village Hall which has had its clock missing for yearsGreta Carter and Jon Smith pictured outside Barningham Village Hall which has had its clock missing for years (Image: SARAH CALDDECOTT)

Before his Northern Echo days, he went down to Fleet Street to became a media trainer and returned 40 years ago to the Teesdale village of Barningham where he chaired the parish meeting.

It was here that he wrote books of his own, like Round the World, a 187,000-word A-Z of life and times in Barningham, a village of little more than 200 residents - the “world” the two-mile walk along which locals would exercise their dogs.

Former colleague Mike Amos, who was the news editor to Jon's sub-editor role, remembers his workmate 'Smithy' as "a brilliant operator".

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Paying tribute, Mr Amos said: "He remained stoical, laughed often, blamed the fags for his plight. In all things he coruscated. Smithy truly was a genius.

"Had ever he been immodest enough to write his own memoir, it would surely have been called Silk purse, sow’s ear.

"Jon died after a long, long illness that increasingly restricted his mobility but did nothing to limit his love of writing, literature and local history or, happily, to quench his thirst for a good pint."

It wasn't just his former colleagues who have been quick to pay tribute to the gifted journalist, his former pupils have also been offering words of tribute. 

Liz Lamb, a former reporter with The Northern Echo reporter and now a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Sunderland, first met Jon when she was 16 while studying media at Darlington College.

Liz said: "He was a straight-talking man and would tell you when you were doing something wrong or if a story you were writing was dreadful, but he always did it with a glint in his eye and with the best of intentions."

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She added: "I recall him telling me I could be a great journalist, as I had good ideas and could write, but that my spelling was terrible and I needed to sort it. I appreciated his frankness and so did the rest of my classmates.

"He really pushed us out of our comfort zones and told us to always get the best sources and to think outside the box, even if we were still students.

"I remember he was overjoyed when I got permission to interview a nun in a convent - which was no mean feat at the time as they had never had such a request - and when a fellow student and I blagged our way onto the boxer Lennox Lewis' tour bus and got an interview.

The Northern Echo: Jon Smith and Ann Orton from the Barningham history group whose newsletter Archive has won a top national awardJon Smith and Ann Orton from the Barningham history group whose newsletter Archive has won a top national award (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

"Jon was honest, authentic, and a salt-of-the-earth character.

"He was also a fantastic journalist who took us young trainees under his wing and encouraged us to chase our dreams. There are a lot of journalists who owe their careers to Jon's straightforward advice and encouragement.

"What an amazing legacy he has left. He will be truly missed by his journalism family."

With hundreds of tributes paid to Jon, from his former colleagues, those that he inspired into journalism, and countless more that he'd met throughout his life - the ex-managing director of The Northern Echo, David Kelly, summed it up.

"One of the most multi-talented journalists I have worked with. Jon could turn his hand to crafts/challenges of every kind. He has left his mark indelibly in this region in so many ways. He's unforgettable."