Cain, DeRamus are inducted into Journalism Hall of Fame

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Charlie Cain and Betty DeRamus, two former Detroit News staffers being inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame on Sunday, are about as different on the surface as two journalists could be.

The late Cain — he died in 2011, age 60 — was a hard-driving reporter, the Lansing bureau chief for The Detroit News and later senior writer and editor at the Truscott Rossman public relations . He grew up with printer's ink in his veins, the third generation in his family to work in journalism.

DeRamus, an elegant stylist whose columns put the spotlight on people and places rarely featured in mainstream newspapers, wasn't encouraged to be a writer at all, and one of her nuns encouraged her to go into business. "I went into journalism to be ornery," DeRamus said. "So I defied expectations."

Both writers loved talking to people and telling their stories, enriching the lives of News readers over the years.

Betty DeRamus

"I never thought I'd be recognized for contributing to journalism," DeRamus said during the ceremony Sunday at the Kellogg center at Michigan State University, where the Hall of Fame is located. "I was just happy to be in journalism."

DeRamus' choice of career didn't come out of the blue. She's always loved words, and writes in such a way that readers can see, smell and taste whatever she's describing.

That was true of her Detroit News columns, but also her books, "Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad" (Atria Books, 2005) and "Freedom by Any Means" (Atria Books, 2009).

"Forbidden Fruit" is the source material for an NBC miniseries and a Broadway musical. The musical will feature original music by Stevie Wonder.

De Ramus' father, a "handsome railroad man," would sit nightly at her bedside and read from a children's book about the Bible. Every weekend, she would check out as many books as she could carry from the Detroit Public Library.

Her poetic use of words and imagery enlivened her columns in the Detroit News from 1987-2006 (with a break from 1995-98, during the strike).

DeRamus earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Wayne State and a master's from WSU in English. She worked as a reporter for the Michigan Chronicle, Associated Press and then the Free Press starting in 1972. In 1987, The News scooped her out of the Free Press editorial department to write a column.

"It's like when the Dolphins got Ndamukong Suh," said Luther Keith, a former Detroit News senior editor. "It was like, 'Wow, we got a heavyweight. We got Betty DeRamus."

"She is just a beautiful wordsmith; she has ultimate command of the craft of writing," Keith added. "And she could get people to open up to her, so she was also an excellent reporter."

Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Lucille and Jim DeRamus, Betty and her family moved to Detroit in the 1940's. In her News columns, she gave a vivid sense of what it meant to grow up in Detroit in the '40s and '50s.

Although there were many big stories — she was one of a few journalists to watch as Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 — her columns on everyday subjects were just as compelling, if not more so.

She was particularly adept at catching the reader with the first few lines.

"My mother drank nothing but orange juice, but my father grew up slurping the sort of stuff that melts your liver — home-brewed beer and Alabama moonshine served in Mason jars," DeRamus wrote in 2000.

"Mamma talked nonstop, filling a room with characters plucked from her childhood and brought to life. Mostly, Daddy spoke with his slow smile and soft eyes.

"No wonder their marriage was a war."

As Keith put it, "Great hitters never give away an at-bat; they are always on their game. And she consistently played a great game. She never gave away a column."

DeRamus said Sunday she's most proud of the impact of her writing of life in Detroit, which included chronicling the impact of the city's drug trade on the lives of black youths.

"You really can leave your footprint on people's soul," she said.

Susan Watson, a former Free Press columnist, led the nomination for DeRamus, a one-time colleague and later competitor.

"She wasn't born in Detroit ... but her soul was," Watson said.

Charlie Cain

He was known as one of the ultimate Lansing insiders, a hard-driving journalist who didn't rest until he got every detail right.

But his insider status didn't mean Cain let anybody slide. Once Gov. Bill Milliken told him that being governor was "a pain in the ass." Milliken added, "That's off the record."

When the vivid quote appeared in The Detroit News, the governor called Cain and asked why he had printed the quote, after being asked not to. Cain explained the journalist's rule: The governor had asked that the quote be off the record after saying it, not before; hence it was fair game.

Milliken laughed it off, and the two became very friendly over the years.

"From being a little boy, Charlie always knew he was going to be a journalist. It was his passion, his calling," said his sister Nancy Cain. She spoke at his induction, as her brother spoke when their father, Charles C. Cain, was inducted in 2001. They are the first father and son to be inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.

The elder Cain worked at the Detroit bureau of the Associated Press for 39 years, and as a boy Charlie loved visiting the AP offices with his dad.

"Tonight marks the first time a son has joined his father in the Journalism Hall of Fame," said David Ashenfelter, a retired Detroit Free Press reporter who gathered more a dozen nomination letters for Cain's induction.

Nancy Cain recounted a story about how Charlie filed his first story with The News under the byline of Charles C. Cain IV, but an editor thought it could confuse readers with his father's byline, so they changed it to Charlie Cain, and it stuck for the rest of his career.

Nomination letters came from Cain's former Capitol press corps competitors, News colleagues and former Govs. William Milliken and Jennifer Granholm, as well as their press secretaries.

Charlie grew up on Detroit's east side, attending Catholic school and graduating from Michigan State in journalism. He'd started at The News downtown as a copy boy, and after his graduation in 1972 was hired as a reporter.

"I actually learned a lot from Charlie, in addition to the fact that he was just a fun guy to be around," Keith said. "He was like a bulldog, and he would stay with a story and source it out."

Keith watched as Cain would pick up a tip in a bar favored by legislators, then work the phones back at the office to confirm it.

One of Charlie's more memorable stories was not about politics, but the first million-dollar winner in the Michigan Lottery, in 1977.

Hermus Millsaps invited Cain to his home, where he took out his dental plate and sang the "Wabash Cannonball," and gave the reporter a jar of pickled pigs' feet. Millsaps rode a Greyhound bus to Lansing to pick up his winnings, carrying a brown bag lunch and a chartreuse rabbit's foot.

Charlie Cain's daughters, Katie Cain and Kelly Cain, accepted the award on behalf of their family Sunday.

"As the stories have told, he was an outstanding reporter and an even better dad," Katie Cain said.