On the eve of David Kelly’s funeral, PETER BARRON remembers his old boss with affection, and offers an appreciation of the impact he had on the newspapers and people in his care

DAVID Kelly was a man who did everything with style – even when it came to falling off a horse…

In the late 1980s, as a way of relaxing from his duties in Priestgate Palace – iconic former home of The Northern Echo, Darlington & Stockton Times, and Advertiser Series – David had taken up riding.

Sadly, his new pastime was short-lived when Cuba, his mount, spooked and threw him to the ground, leaving him not simply with a broken bone or two, but with a shattered thigh.

Unable to walk to work, let alone climb the Priestgate stairs, he might have taken it easy for a while but, instead, made invaluable use of his time. He spent months compiling the most comprehensive and quite brilliant newspaper style guide likely to be found anywhere in the land.

The Northern Echo:

Grammar, punctuation, the correct spelling of every place name in the North-East, religion, armed forces, elections, courts, local government, central government, royalty, sport, trade names, weights and measures – you name it, David had it covered.

Every reference was so thoroughly researched that, 35 years on, it remains an invaluable journalistic aid. My copy remains close at hand in my office, and it’s time it was reprinted, so every reporter employed by The Northern Echo could have one.

David’s foreword ends with the cryptic sentence: “I also acknowledge the contribution of Cuba, without whom the opportunity to compile Northern Echo Style might not have arisen.”

In years to come, archivists might well wonder what it had to do with the Caribbean country, without knowing the truth behind the acknowledgement.

Nevertheless, it is a piece of work that sums David up: meticulous in everything he did; a guardian of standards; thoughtful about what might help others.

David’s death, at 78, came after years of ill-health and has led to a flood of tributes, underlining the respect he inspired within the news industry, and the wider community.

Born in Hornchurch, Essex, his father, also David, was a wireless telegraphist in the Royal Navy, while his mother, Vera, was a shorthand typist. He had a brother, Christopher, and sister, Pat.

The Northern Echo: David Kelly with his mother, Vera, and sister, PatDavid Kelly with his mother, Vera, and sister, Pat (Image: Kelly family)

The Northern Echo: David Kelly as a childDavid Kelly as a child (Image: Kelly family)

At Latymer Upper School, in London, his contemporaries included actors, Alan Rickman, and Jon Rake.

David chose journalism and began his career in 1964 as a reporter on the Middlesex Chronicle, in Hounslow, before moving six years later to the Swindon Advertiser. He headed north in 1976 to become features editor of The Northern Echo, and rose through the ranks to deputy editor, before going into general management and being appointed managing director in 1996.

Always arriving and leaving in his trademark brown fedora, he managed with style before retiring in 2005. By then, he'd fashioned an illustrious career, perhaps the highlight being the skill and care with which he guided the business through the early days of the momentous transition from print to digital.

With his first wife, Yvonne, David had two daughters – Emma and Jo – and doted on grandchildren, Jake, and Xanthe. After marrying his second wife, Sue, the couple settled in Mickleton, Teesdale, where his last great obsession became his garden, spending hour after hour learning about wildflowers.

Despite being incapacitated by his growing health problems, including a leg amputation, he immersed himself in the community, and his kindness included generous support of the village hall.

“Behind the scenes, he used his own money to support countless good causes,” says daughter Jo, who followed his lead to become a journalist.

“If he believed in something, or someone, he’d do everything in his power to help. Seeing all the tributes, and knowing that he touched so many lives, has been a real comfort.

“He was always wanting to expand his mind to the point of obsession. What he didn’t know about armadillos wasn’t worth knowing!

“But, most of all, he was kind and so proud of his family. He couldn’t have loved us any more than he did, and we were very lucky to have him.”

ON a personal note, I have a lot to thank David for because it was him who made my dream come true when he appointed me editor of The Northern Echo in 1999.

He gave me two main objectives: to revive the campaigning traditions of The Northern Echo; and make sure the paper was embedded in the community, so it was seen as a power for good.

He gave me freedom to turn the paper tabloid in 2007, though not before he’d insisted on devoting years to research and planning, with typical attention to detail.

He also allowed me to get a racehorse, called Northern Echo, and owned by a 70-strong syndicate of readers. Though I could probably have run faster myself, we had fun along the way, before lowering our sights and moving on to Northern Echo the racing pigeon, which was destined to be killed by a cat.

As in all relationships, we had some fallouts, not least over how best to deal with the ex-jailbird, George Reynolds, during his notorious reign as Darlington Football Club chairman.

But mostly, I’ll remember David for his passion for our newspapers, the high standards he set, and for having such a good heart beneath an often stern persona.

He also had a quirky side, and swimming among the countless memories is the saga of the kidnapped goldfish.

Newsquest, our publisher, had launched ‘Fish For Jobs’ as a recruitment advertising platform across the country, and David had insisted on a much more stylish approach to promoting it in Darlington. Each department was given a goldfish as a daily reminder of the importance of the new brand.

Soon afterwards, he called me down to the CCTV room and played footage of a shadowy female figure creeping into the newspaper sales department in the early hours. Using a tea-strainer, she transferred Scoop, the goldfish, into a biscuit box and scuttled away.

On close inspection, the culprit was identified as newsroom assistant and great character, Maureen Ward, whose duties included making the tea – with a strainer – and dishing out custard creams.

“That fish is company property and she either brings it back or she’s getting the sack,” David declared.

What followed was one of the most surreal episodes in my time as editor…

“Maureen, what have you done with the fish?” I asked in a telephone call.

“What fish?” came the curt reply.

“Maureen, you’ve been bloody caught on CCTV! You’ve stolen the newspaper sales goldfish – and the MD wants to sack you!”

Maureen eventually cracked under the pressure. She confessed to ‘liberating’ Scoop from his bowl, which was “far too small”, and he was enjoying his freedom in her garden pond.

Reluctantly, Maureen was persuaded to return the fishy company property, under cover of darkness, and she stayed in a job.

I’m still not sure whether David was serious, testing my negotiation skills, or just having a laugh. I strongly suspect it was the latter.

Thanks for the memories (and the style guide), David. Rest in peace.

  • David's funeral takes place at 2pm tomorrow at Darlington Crematorium, followed by a celebration of his life at Mickleton Village HallThe Northern Echo: