To the journalism community, Elizabeth Whitney was a pioneer — the first woman business editor of a major U.S. paper and an oft-awarded reporter who always seemed ahead of the curve, from predicting the savings and loan crisis to chronicling the condo boom.
To friends, family and co-workers at what is now the Tampa Bay Times, Whitney was much more — gracious, devoted, self-sacrificing and stylish.
"In her quiet, determined way, Betty helped break those old gender barriers with distinctive reporting that distinguished the paper and leadership that helped nurture a new generation of journalists," said Times former deputy managing editor Rob Hooker. "She could not have been kinder and more supportive to green reporters like me, and I counted her as a mentor and friend for my whole career."
Whitney, 91, died Tuesday after a long illness.
A graduate of Ohio State University, where she was editor-in-chief of the campus daily newspaper, Whitney carved a career dotted with national and state awards for public service and investigative reporting. Among other distinctions, she received the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors' grand prize "for the best single piece of journalism done by a Florida newsman in 1970."
Apart from a brief stint covering religion and medicine, nearly all of Whitney's 28-year tenure with what was then the St. Petersburg Times was devoted to business-related news. She edited the Sunday real estate section and was an enterprise writer specializing in urban affairs, real estate and white-collar crime.
In 1979, she became Times business editor, overseeing the growth of business coverage from a few pages inside the paper to a standalone Sunday section and a Monday business magazine that debuted in 1983. She also wrote a much-admired Sunday business column that was notable for its pointed commentary couched in graceful writing.
"She was a remarkable woman in what she did at the Times,'' said Christine Paul, a former advertising account executive at the paper who went to high school with Whitney's son, Ken. "She was a real groundbreaker in that field (of business reporting).''
But Whitney, in recalling her pioneering days decades later, wrote that not all welcomed her as a manager — such as one reader who called to complain about an error: "You mean you have a woman business editor?" he snorted. "No wonder it's all messed up."
The daughter of a developer, Whitney cultivated an interest in business, especially real estate, early on. She was among the first business columnists in the nation to forecast the collapse of the savings and loan industry as it recklessly branched out from its traditional model of making home loans to investing in everything from golf carts to hotels.
"Betty" — as she allowed only her closest friends and colleagues to call her — "was a true steel magnolia,'' recalled Times staffer Susan Taylor Martin, who worked under Whitney as executive business editor. "She was tough in her opinions, which were always based on solid, meticulous reporting, yet she was unfailingly gracious to people who called to rant — as they often did — about something she or another staffer wrote.''
Occasionally, too, Whitney had to defend her staff from the wrath of the Times' own senior editors. When the business news department failed to cover the 1983 groundbreaking of the Florida Federal tower — the first major new project in years in a then-dead downtown — the top brass were furious about the oversight.
"It is inexcusable that we missed this event, which is the beginning of a turnaround for downtown,'' one angry note said. Whitney took the blame herself — although it was her assistant who had missed the ball by not assigning a reporter and photographer — and calmly put the note in the circular file.
Hooker remembers Whitney often eating two meals a day in the company cafeteria because her work days routinely lasted 10 to 12 hours. "Nobody — nobody — worked harder than Betty," he said.
In appearance as well as manner, Whitney harkened to an earlier, more formal era. Martin remembers her as always immaculately dressed in heels and stockings with her blonde hair perfectly arranged in an elegant updo.
"Before Betty went to Tokyo on one reporting trip, she had a photograph taken of her distinctive hair style so a Japanese salon could replicate it,'' Martin said. "We all teased her about it and she came back three weeks later with a photo of herself in a kimono — and her hair looking exactly as it did when she left.''
After she retired, Whitney continued to live in her condo at Harbour Hill on Beach Drive, which she had shrewdly purchased pre-construction decades before it became the dining and luxury-condo mecca it is today. She often went to lunch at the Museum of Fine Arts with Paul, who recalled Whitney becoming uncharacteristically annoyed when Paul started to take her arm as they were crossing a street.
"I'm quite capable of walking across the street by myself,'' Whitney said.
The two women bonded over their careers at the Times and often spoke of Whitney's two sons, Ken and James, who died within two months of each other in 2001. She is survived by a grandson, Scott.
Times senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin contributed to this report, which used Times files.