Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | William L. Purvis

Tampa native William Purvis wrote speeches for top officials

TAMPA — In January 1980, a congressional aide named William Purvis was watching television with his wife when he heard the news: His boss, Rep. Richard Kelly of Florida, had been caught taking a $25,000 bribe from FBI agents.

As Kelly's spokesman, Mr. Purvis found himself in the center of the Abscam scandal. He talked so much on the phone that he got an ear infection.

"He had an impossible job. There was no way anybody could make his boss look good in a situation like that," said Dave Schultz, a former colleague of Mr. Purvis' when both worked at the St. Petersburg Times.

The scandal ended Kelly's career, but made Mr. Purvis', whose skillful work under pressure drew notice.

A lean, neatly dressed man, Mr. Purvis impressed co-workers with his work ethic. He preferred to stand in the back of the room with his arms folded, listening as high-profile politicians delivered the speeches he had written for them. In recent years, these included two energy secretaries under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Purvis, a Tampa native, died on March 22 in Alexandria, Va. He was 71 and suffered from lung cancer.

After a stint at the Tampa Tribune, Mr. Purvis joined the St. Petersburg Times' Clearwater bureau in 1962. In 1965 he was jailed briefly, along with Times reporters Don Pride and Sam Mase for failing to reveal sources. The paper had written stories questioning Justice of the Peace Richard Davis' handling of the estates of deceased people. Davis responded with a "preliminary criminal investigation" of his own and demanded source information. The reporters enjoyed a jailhouse meal of clam chowder and grilled cheese sandwiches before a judge ordered them released.

Mr. Purvis left for Washington in 1976 to work for Kelly. After Abscam hit, he found employment with the National Coal Association (now the National Mining Association). For the next 20 years, he wrote speeches for the flamboyant National Coal president Carl Bagge and powerful Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Gaydos, who headed a subcommittee on steel.

"That's the profession where he should have been all along," his wife said.

John Grasser, who worked alongside Mr. Purvis for 25 years, agreed.

"He had the ability to take some of this technical stuff and put it into language that the average guy on the street could understand," Grasser said.

Mr. Purvis climbed a steep learning curve in the early years, sometimes pulling all-nighters to draft and fact-check his speeches. "There were times I wouldn't see him for 24 hours," his wife, Gail Purvis, 71, said. "There were dinners missed and places we couldn't go. I got frustrated, I'll be honest."

But Mr. Purvis tried to make up for his absences when he was home. He held his daughter in his lap and read the newspaper to her. He mowed the lawn religiously. They went to the theater and concerts.

After Grasser's job was eliminated by National Coal, he moved to the Energy Department. Mr. Purvis soon followed, and worked the last five years writing speeches for energy directors.

Prospects for retirement in Tampa waned when in 2008 Mr. Purvis, a once-heavy smoker who quit 13 years ago, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.

"The prognosis was not good," his wife recalled. "We were sitting on the deck, and he said, 'I thought I could get away with it.' But he couldn't."

His words will likely live on. With some irony, Grasser noted a campaign speech by Barack Obama: "Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent. We put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can't tell me we can't figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work!"

"Bill wrote that line years ago," he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


William L. Purvis

Born: Oct. 20, 1937.

Died: March 22, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Gail; daughter, Amy.

Service: 2 p.m. today (visitation at 1 p.m.); Demaine Funeral Home, 520 S Washington St., Alexandria, Va.

Tampa native William Purvis wrote speeches for top officials 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 9:50pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Lightning fans, don't get attached to your first-round draft picks

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — When Lightning GM Steve Yzerman announces his first-round pick Friday night in the amateur draft at No. 14, he'll invite the prospect onto the stage for the once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.

    Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jonathan Drouin (27) eludes  Montreal Canadiens left wing Phillip Danault (24) during the second period of Wednesday???‚??„?s (12/28/16) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens at the Amalie Arena in Tampa.
  2. Investigation Discovery TV show profiles 2011 Landy Martinez murder case


    The murder of a St. Petersburg man will be featured this week on a new true crime series Murder Calls on Investigation Discovery.

    Jose Adame sits in a Pinellas County courtroom during his 2016 trial and conviction for first-degree murder. Adame was convicted of first-degree murder last year for torturing and then executing his boyfriend as he pleaded for his life in 2011. Now it will be featured in a new true crime series Murder Calls on Investigation Discovery. The episode will air on June 26 at 9 p.m. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
  3. Uhuru mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel protests exclusion from debate


    ST. PETERSBURG — Jesse Nevel, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement candidate for mayor, on Thursday demanded that he be allowed to participate in a July 25 televised debate between incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and challenger Rick Baker.

    Mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel holds a news conference outside the headquarters of the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday to protest his exclusion from the mayoral debate. Nevel is a member of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.
  4. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman also has top-9 wing on his wish list

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — Much has been made about the Lightning's interest in bolstering its blue line, even after last week's acquisition of defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev.

    Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman gestures as he speaks to the media about recent trades during a news conference before an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning, over the past few days, have traded goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings, forward Brian Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and forward Valtteri Filppula to the Philadelphia Flyers. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA101