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History notes the scrap, heart and camaraderie of the Tampa Tribune

TAMPA — The history of the Tampa Tribune is a book 479 pages long.

But it was also a coffee mug perched high on a newsroom shelf in honor of an editor who died. It was a threadbare 100-year anniversary T-shirt. It was a college student red-faced that a publisher knew her name.

"Hey — how you?" Red Pitt­man would shout out in a Southern drawl, always dashing off.

Measure history in Pulitzers, and there was one awarded to Tribune writer John Frasca in 1966 for "The Mulberry Tree,'' about two robberies that freed an innocent man from prison.

Measure in scoops, and there were more than competitors cared to admit.

Measure in camaraderie and meet the 843 people, most Tribune alumni, who gather regularly on a Facebook page to reminisce. They did so in full force Tuesday, with the announcement that the paper had published its final edition.

"We didn't have the Pulitzers, but we had a camaraderie that I've never experienced anywhere," wrote former television critic Walt Belcher.

The first edition of the Tampa Morning Tribune was orchestrated by Wallace F. Stovall in 1893. He marshaled his "brain, his guts, his talent, and his friends" to pull it from a "perilous infancy, into a cocky adolescence, and then into a mature dominance of the South Florida newspaper game," wrote Bentley Orrick and Harry L. Crumpacker, authors of The Tampa Tribune: A Century of Florida Journalism.

The newspaper went daily two years later and, over 12 decades, it shaped and recorded history in ways that touched ordinary lives. It was a Tribune writer, after all, who hatched Tampa's now annual Gasparilla celebration.

"They have chronicled the ups and the downs of this city," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tuesday, "the births and the deaths, the crooks and the scalawags, the heroes, the elected officials and the everyday lives of everyday Tampanians, and they have done yeoman's work."

The work was done not far from City Hall, first on one side of the Hillsborough River and then on the other, and sometimes over plates of food.

For decades, it seemed that all of downtown Tampa tried to fit into the cramped Tribune Grill, entered through a door on the Morgan Street side of the Tribune's old headquarters. The lunch counter and few tables filled up quickly, while customers filled up on hot Southern meals.

The Paddock Lounge was in the Stovall Building, across the street, and it served as the Tribune's watering hole for decades.

In terms of architecture, there was the old Tribune headquarters, in the heart of downtown Tampa, followed by the new building on Parker Street, a newer one next door shared with WFLA-Ch. 8, and then, finally, a return to the new — which was, by then, old.

"The type and gripe factory," columnist Steve Otto had long since dubbed the workplace.

His byline was one of countless consumed with coffee and toast on breakfast tables throughout the region.

Leland Hawes, historian. James Clendinen, editorial editor. Tom McEwen, sports editor.

Lucy Fulghum O'Brien was the first female Tribune reporter, and she worked for the paper as early as the 1940s, but it was the 1970s before women appeared in earnest.

After the staff move to Parker Street in 1975, and the restaurant's eventual closure, a column was named for the Tribune Grill.

It was a sentimental gesture by an unapologetically sentimental crew. Some, in the early days, had military ties and had come home to Tampa and newspapers. Some had never left Tampa.

"Ten of the best years of my life were spent at 202 S. Parker St.," former staffer Rick Brunson wrote on the alumni page. "Came to think of the people there not as just co-workers, but family."

As with any family, there were hard times. But they were the sort of work friends who would go to one another's family funerals. Once, already, they had buried a newspaper, when a sister paper, the Tampa Times, ceased publication in 1982.

In 1975, they had lost Bob Hudson, a former Marine who was then executive editor of both the Tribune and Times. He died of a heart attack at the Ybor City Night Parade. He was 49. He was in a pirate costume, having recently been inducted into Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

In 1989, they lost reporter Todd Smith, 28, murdered in Peru while investigating the cocaine trade for a story.

It was enough to quiet even the swagger and bark of publisher Doyle Harvill, who drafted a bilingual reporter to help him claim Smith's remains.

Harvill had arrived to run the Tribune newsroom in the late 1980s. He did so like George Patton ran the Third Army and had a habit of getting close to the face of the person he was addressing.

"Hey, you still writing for us?'' he would ask a reporter who hadn't had a byline in a few days.

Despite the bluster, he insisted, shortly upon arrival, on paying for the yearly Christmas party, a previously staff-paid event singularly known for skits that made bosses like him the butt of jokes.

He was rewarded with a show. McEwen — the sports columnist known for sharing his breakfast along with his insights — delivered a speech to the troops, simultaneously imitating Harvill and Gen. Patton, and standing before a giant American flag.

Together, they weathered "convergence," the buzzword of the 1990s, when the newspaper combined operations with WFLA-Ch. 8 in one of the first such efforts in the nation.

"We were the scrappy, energetic staff that did not want to get beat by the St. Pete Times," wrote Barbara Boyer, now a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"We worked hard and played hard at a paper that rapidly expanded in the 1990s with reporters in the far reaches of inner Florida. We were one big, happy — but somewhat dysfunctional — family."

She was among those who reminisced on the alumni page Tuesday.

In one post, a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked what comes to mind when former staffers think of the phrase "history of the Tribune."

Scores responded.

Some told of a mighty expansion throughout the region. Some told of doors opened for young reporters. Business coverage. Sports coverage. Political coverage.

But one after another named their former colleagues and old friends.

They praised the people who had shaped their lives and careers.

Times staff writers Philip Morgan, Patty Ryan and Richard Danielson, who contributed to this report, are all alumni of the Tampa Tribune, with 61 years of combined Tribune experience among them. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

History notes the scrap, heart and camaraderie of the Tampa Tribune 05/03/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 1:05pm]
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