Forrest Landon was born to be a newspaperman. As a 10-year-old in Sidney, New York, he wrote, published and sold advertisements for The Sidney Flash, his very own newspaper that he peddled on the streets.
Later, he went to an elite journalism school and embarked upon a news career that spanned four decades, all of it in Roanoke. And somewhere along the way, Forrest became “Frosty,” which is how everybody knew him.
Forrest “Frosty” Landon, longtime editor of the Roanoke Times & World-News, as the paper was then called, died Monday, according to Beth Macy, his niece-in-law and former Roanoke Times reporter. He was 87.
“He was a born newsman,” said George Kegley, a journalist at The Roanoke Times from 1949 to 1993.
In a 40-year career, Landon pulled off a hat trick in Roanoke news reporting, working in radio, television and newspapers. When he started with the locally owned Times-World Corp. in 1955, the company had a good-sized monopoly in Roanoke’s media. After Norfolk-based Landmark Communications bought it in 1969, the TV and radio stations were sold, and Landon remained a newspaperman the rest of his career.
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During his time as executive editor of The Roanoke Times (which was also called the Roanoke Times & World-News for most of his career as newsroom boss), the newspaper was a three-time finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
Landon never fully left journalism even after his retirement in 1995. A year later, he co-founded the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and served as its first director. The nonprofit group worked to make citizens aware of government transparency and open records laws, and to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. For years, Landon drove a Volvo with a license plate that read, “OPEN GOV.”
He worked with the late Clifton “Chip” Woodrum, who represented Roanoke in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1980 to 2003, to push for the General Assembly to create the Freedom of Information Advisory Council in 2000 to oversee the application of the state’s open records and meetings laws.
“What he did for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government was nothing short of heroic,” said Megan Rhyne, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Rhyne said Landon was skilled at securing grant money, including one substantial grant that has allowed for VCOG to be one of the few state open government coalitions to have an endowment and be able to have a full-time employee.
“What he’s done for open government is that while there are always going to be challenges and those who don’t embrace open government, he’s allowed us to be consistently present for all this time,” Rhyne said. “Whether it’s me or others, people see us and hear us. They may not vote our way or agree with us, but they knew we were there and respect us.”
Landon, a native of Sidney, New York, was 22 years old and just out of the University of Missouri’s journalism school when he came to Roanoke in 1955 to work at WDBJ-TV the day the station went on the air. At the time, WDBJ was owned by Times-World Corp., the same privately held company that owned the two daily newspapers, The Roanoke Times and the afternoon World-News. Times-World also owned the WDBJ radio station. Landon soon moved from television to become the radio station’s news director.
The late Ben Beagle, a longtime Roanoke Times reporter and columnist, once described Landon’s broadcast style as “a sturdy Cronkite-like delivery coming from a short, aggressive kid from upstate New York.” Landon covered major events in Roanoke that included John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign appearance at the Woodrum Field airport.
“It was midway through my god-awful radio career,” Landon told Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey in 2013. He recalled that the interview was broadcast live. “I was the only one interviewing him. Here’s this young whippersnapper reporter from Roanoke sticking a microphone in his face. The newspaper reporter, Charlie Cox, was behind me, listening. … I can’t remember what the hell I asked him or what he said. I wish I could remember the questions. They must have been really good ones.”
Landon also covered the integration of Southwest Virginia’s schools in the early 1960s. When Floyd County High School integrated in 1960, school officials banished reporters from interviewing Black students. Landon, working for the radio station, and a newspaper reporter tailed a school bus and interviewed a Black student in her home.
For several years, the television and radio stations operated out of The Roanoke Times building at 201 Campbell Ave., where Landon could mingle with the print side of the business. He made the switch to newspapers in 1962, working as an editorial writer, editorial page editor, associate news editor and eventually becoming managing editor — essentially the second-in-command in the newsroom — in 1979.
He became the executive editor of what was then called the Roanoke Times & World-News in 1982 when he succeeded Ben Bowers, who took a job in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Frosty liked to play the hardhearted, irascible boss — Mr. Dithers come to life in a bow tie,” said Mary Bishop, a former Roanoke Times reporter. “Though he tussled with us ambitious young reporters over news coverage, he usually gave in.”
Bishop said Landon served as a “historical anchor in the history of the newspaper.” He joined the newspaper when it was locally owned by the Fishburn family and there was a morning and afternoon edition. He stayed when Norfolk-based Landmark Communications made them part of its newspaper chain in 1969.
“Because he was at the paper in the old days, he took heat from contemporaries who’d been political leaders during the Jim Crow years,” Bishop said. “They’d squawk to him whenever we reporters wrote about their long-ago stances, but Frosty stood up for us, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.”
In 1979, Landon wrote a first-person account of his cancer treatment after doctors discovered he had a rare case of lymphoma. The lengthy article chronicled an odyssey through doctors’ appointments, incorrect initial diagnoses, radiation treatments and cancer drugs.
“It is not an expose, because there is nothing to expose,” Landon wrote. “It is not the story of personal courage, because I am not particularly courageous — and because it’s a story — with a little bit of luck — that will have a happy ending.”
Near the end of the article, he wrote: “Firm conclusion after all this: Most nurses are underpaid, overdedicated to their tasks. Tentative conclusion after all this: Doctors aren’t — although that harsh judgment surely will change if I’m cured.”
Landon survived the cancer and continued to lead the newsroom.
Landon was the newspaper’s executive editor until 1995, having overseen the closing of the afternoon edition in 1991 and the name change back to The Roanoke Times a few months before he retired. Landon was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in 1997.
In addition to Landon’s contributions in journalism, his daughter, Tracy, said he was a great patron of the arts in the Roanoke Valley and cared about helping those less fortunate.
He is survived by his wife, son and daughter and their spouses, and three grandchildren.
“He was a significant mentor and father to others, and not just his family,” his daughter said.