Staige Blackford: Editor dies a week before retiring

Staige Blackford was in his West Range office June 23, packing up the accumulation of his 28 years as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. At 9:30am, he called his friend David Gies to ask if Gies could use any briefcases. An hour later, Blackford, 72, was killed at the intersection of Emmet Street and Arlington Boulevard when a 2000 Jeep Cherokee crashed into the Volvo station wagon driven by his wife, Bettina.

June 30 would have been his last day with the University of Virginia.

"I venture to guess there's not a person here who didn't know Staige Blackford," says UVA spokesperson Carol Wood.

Friends and colleagues were stunned at news of the accident. "This is a terrible shock for everyone," says Gies.

He remembers Blackford's "extraordinary career." Besides publishing writers such as Ward Just, Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Olen Butler, Blackford was a Rhodes Scholar, a journalist, press secretary for former Virginia Governor Linwood Holton, and served a stint with the CIA.

Gies most fondly recalls Blackford's unrelenting curiosity. "He was a foghorn of questions, a reporter to the core. Each comment would stimulate three or four questions," he says.

Gies also remembers the day he met his wife, Janna Olson Gies, at the VQR offices, where she worked as managing editor for 10 years. She describes Blackford as "a kind and brilliant man" who loved the university– and one whose CIA background occasionally popped up.

"He was very investigative," she says. "He could figure things out. He knew I was dating my husband before I told him."

Friends like Sandy Gilliam, secretary to UVA's Board of Visitors, note Blackford's "well-developed social conscience," and say it was hereditary.

"If you read 19th-century Virginia memoirs, quite often there's a Blackford who was a strong character," says Gilliam, whose friendship with Staige Blackford went back to their grandmothers. "His father was a greatly beloved character in the medical school." Dr. Staige Blackford organized a UVA hospital unit that went overseas during World War II.

"He wasn't an ideologue," says Janna Gies. "He was a strong Democrat but at one time worked for a Republican governor."

It was as an editor that Blackford touched a generation of writers. George Garrett credits him with keeping the magazine "thriving" at a time when most intellectual quarterly magazines were dying.

"Last night I was talking to a young writer who used to work with him," says Garrett. "He said, 'You don't think about how much he did for young, beginning writers.'" That writer was Michael Knight, author of Diving Rod and Dogfight and Other Stories.

A Mariflo Stephens essay appears in the spring issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. She says Blackford published "a half dozen" of her stories and essays and "turned down at least as many."

She reads from a rejection letter he'd written: "Hope I'm not being too candid with an old friend. Sometimes when you step up to the plate, the ball goes foul. It did this time."

Stephens says Blackford's favorite word was "damn," as in, "This is just too damn hard to follow." And she thinks he was responsible for a lot of writers like T.D. Pearson getting books published after their stories appeared in the VQR.

"He was a great character," says Gilliam. "As the years went by, we'd say Staige got to be more and more like Staige. He became more of a caricature of Staige."

According to Gilliam, Blackford had been in poor health the past six months, and had lost vision in his right eye, which was why his wife was driving. He was sitting in the passenger seat when their car was struck by the southbound Jeep. At press time, police had not released the name of the driver of the Jeep and said charges were pending.

Bettina Blackford suffered bruises in the accident, say friends, and she spent the night at UVA Medical Center. June 23 was her 68th birthday.

Staige Blackford is survived by two daughters. Linda Blackford, who now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, was a former arts editor at the Charlottesville Observer, and Sheila Bloor lives in Seattle. "He was very proud of his daughters," says Janna Gies.

She also mentions Blackford's love of dogs. Truffles accompanied him to the office for 15 years, and "would look to cross the street before Staige would," she says.

A new dog, Pippa, who was with the Blackfords at the time of the accident, disappeared in the confusion.

George Garrett was able to provide information on the missing pup's whereabouts a day later. "This morning my wife was taking out the garbage, and there the dog was, sitting patiently. We drove her over to Staige's. She livened up as we got closer," he says.