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Times' history filled with colorful cast of characters

Shortly after he bought the St. Petersburg Daily Times in September 1912, Paul Poynter wrote to his wife back in Sullivan, Ind., to report on the acquisition. "I am actually in charge of the business here and a bad mess it is," he wrote. "The machinery is in bad condition (with) most of the force suffering from … hookworm and absolutely inefficient.'' The Times hasn't always been in St. Petersburg. (It was founded in Dunedin in 1884 and moved to Clear Water Harbor — today's Clearwater — before coming to St. Petersburg in 1892.) It hasn't always been called the Times either. (For a time in the 1890s, it was apparently called the News and the Once A Week.) For many years, it wasn't even the dominant paper in St. Petersburg. And if, as Paul Poynter suspected, some members of the 1912 staff had hookworm and other shortcomings, that didn't last long. Throughout its 125-year history, the paper has attracted talented, energetic people to its staff. Some of them were quite colorful, too.

THE CRUSADING EDITOR

Perhaps none of the people who have held the title of Times editor was more colorful than the editor Poynter inherited when he bought the paper — W.L. Straub.

Like so many who followed him, Straub came to St. Petersburg for his health. He and two partners bought the Times — a humble, four-page weekly — for $1,300 in 1901. And for the next 38 years, he was editor, associate editor or vice president as the paper and the community grew up together.

Straub was a 6-footer with a rugged, friendly face and gray eyes that peered through wire-rim glasses. A boyhood injury left him with a crippled left leg. But nothing slowed him down. Using a crutch on his left side, a cane on his right, he could walk rapidly and clamber up stairs with ease.

Straub disdained the typewriter. From his pencil and big black pen came editorials (sometimes masquerading as news stories) and cartoons that exhorted the little town by the bay to uplift itself with better roads, schools and government, to beautify itself with parks and a publicly owned waterfront, to sell itself to the tourist market up north. It was Straub who led the long fight to separate Pinellas from Hillsborough County and give the peninsula its own county.

Although the Times grew and improved, moving to twice-weekly publication in 1907 and six days a week in early 1912, it never prospered as a business. When Poynter bought the paper later that year, he had good reason to call it a mess.

The new owner was smart enough to retain Straub as editor, however, and even when Straub left the paper for several years to be St. Petersburg postmaster, he continued to write editorials. He also wrote a history of Pinellas County.

Straub died in 1939. "Like every good editor, he felt a tremendous responsibility for his readers,'' a Times editorial said. "Friends, gifts or threats could never dissuade him from a crusade in the interest of his readers.''

THE BOY REPORTER

He was a gawky, shy teenager in knickers on his first day as a copy boy. But 14-year-old Tom Harris already had big plans. "He says he wants to be editor of the Times,'' business manager C.C. Carr told the staff with a twinkle in his eye.

The teenager in knickers didn't remain a copy boy very long. Late one night in February 1924, the newsroom got word that a St. Petersburg couple had been murdered in their home. Since there were no reporters about, the city editor turned to Harris, who caught a ride to the scene in an ambulance.

It was a sensational crime — the couple had been killed by their deranged son — and Harris handled it so well that he was assigned to help cover the trials that followed.

"The distinction of being one of the youngest reporters in the country ever to cover an important murder case is held by Tom Harris whose stories on the Frank McDowell trial appear in today's Times," the paper reported under the headline "Boy Reporter Stars at Trial." The byline on the story: "By Tom Harris, Times 16-Year-Old Boy Reporter."

Harris needed one more thing before he could become a regular reporter: long pants. Another reporter took him to a clothing store and bought him a pair for $4.

He was still a teenager when he became city editor and only 25 when he became managing editor. When he retired in 1968, he had been on the staff for 45 years. He died in 1985.

THE DUCHESS

She was a grandmotherly widow with swept-back white hair, rimless spectacles and high-top shoes. She lived quietly in a simple home, drove a little Dodge and favored dark clothing and a pearl choker.

She also held St. Petersburg's "high society'' in the palm of her white-gloved hand.

As society editor of the Times in 1931-1948 and then food writer until 1956, Diana Rowell was St. Petersburg's social arbiter. From her post in the newsroom, she decided which weddings, club meetings and teas were important enough to rate a splash of publicity — and which could be downplayed or disdainfully ignored.

Rowell typified the way the Times and other American newspapers covered women in their pages and treated them in their newsrooms. It was an era in which "women's news'' was generally limited to society functions, gardening and cooking, a time when most female staff members were paid less than men, barred from key supervisory roles and denied the opportunity to cover "hard news'' such as government, politics, courts and police.

The redoubtable Rowell may have been "Diana'' to friends. But to the staff, the imposing woman with a lacy handkerchief was always "Mrs. Rowell'' or — behind her back — "the Duchess.'' It was Rowell who originated the debutante ball for prominent white families in St. Petersburg in 1937. Until her death 36 years later, she helped decide which young women deserved the honor of making a debut in society.

THE DARLING OF BROADWAY

She was born Hildegarde Fisher, but after becoming a chorus girl in New York City she changed her name because it wouldn't fit on a theater marquee. As Lorna Carroll, she played a series of roles until 1924, when she became the heroine in a smash hit called Abie's Irish Rose and earned a new moniker — "the darling of the Broadway stage'' — from the New York Times.

In the 1930s, she married, left the stage and came to St. Petersburg to establish a theater. When it failed in 1935, she took a job as a cub reporter at the Evening Independent. Three years later, she moved to the Times.

In her 28 years at the paper, she covered everything from the gulf beaches to religion. She seemed an odd fit for one job — filling in as outdoors editor during World War II — but she was a natural as a feature writer.

Carroll never lost her flair for the dramatic. To research stories about St. Petersburg's elderly in the 1960s, she dyed her hair and masqueraded as a widow from New York. For eight days, she pretended she was poor, then middle-class and then rich. Her conclusion: loneliness was a constant with each group.

When she died in 1976, one of her former editors — Tom Rawlins — noted that she never stopped performing. "At the slash of an editor's pencil,'' he wrote in her obituary, "she would begin pleading with the large blue eyes which had wooed theatre-goers decades ago, and if the editor stood firm, would begin a performance that could end with tears. No word in any story was insignificant to her. If she put it there, it was worth fighting for.''

THE OUTDOORSMAN

It was July 1954, two months before the original Sunshine Skyway opened, and Rube Allyn could smell a good story. With photographer Bob Moreland right behind him, snapping pictures, he became the first to cross the 15-mile bridge from end to end.

Part of the trip was by car — no sweat. But when the two journalists got to the still-incomplete middle span, 11 stories above the water, it took an hour to negotiate, walking and crawling over 8-inch steel girders and planks.

"Up there,'' he reported, "it is a lot higher than I expected; the wind was blowing harder than I supposed — and the bridge, which looked solid from a distance, was swaying like a hammock.''

That was vintage Allyn. In his quarter century as the Times outdoors writer, he was known for both his daily column and his showmanship. He peppered his columns with fishing tips and calls for conservation. He loved a good adventure, like the time he and two companions became the first to cross the Florida Straits from Key West to Cuba in an outboard motor boat.

Allyn was an entrepreneur as well, founding a company that published a number of outdoors books. One of those books, his Dictionary of Fishes, sold more than a half million copies.

He died in 1968 after he was struck by a car while bicycling. At his request, he was buried at sea, wrapped in sail cloth, at a spot near Egmont Key "where the kingfishing is best.''

THE BOXER

In a 52-year career, Robert H. Fowler published several history magazines, owned four weekly newspapers and wrote seven novels. Starting with $20,000, the lanky North Carolinian and his wife built a book and magazine publishing company with circulation of 1.5 million and annual sales of $25 million.

All of that was still in front of Fowler when he came to the Times in 1955 to be city editor. To prepare him, his new bosses had him explore the area and work briefly in several departments before assuming his post.

Fowler was a genial, soft-spoken man, but he apparently had his limits. A former intramural boxer in college, he became so irritated at a colleague one day in 1956 that he floored him with a single punch.

Fowler's victim was not especially popular, and most staff members secretly applauded. The Times brass took a dim view of the incident, however. He was removed from the city desk and resigned to take another newspaper job in Pennsylvania. He was living there when he died in 2002.

THE RELENTLESS REPORTER

As the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief in the 1960s, Martin Waldron was renowned as a scourge of the high and mighty, a reporter of boundless intuition and gall. When he was on the trail of skullduggery, he was relentless and exuberant.

A beefy, unkempt man, Waldron talked and acted like a hillbilly from the south Georgia turpentine country, where he grew up. He had worked for the Associated Press and the Tampa Tribune when the Times hired him in 1961.

The state capital and Waldron were perfect for each other. He had ideal instincts for the secrets and bureaucratic gamesmanship of a government town, and he was 250 miles from his editors, most of whom he regarded with contempt.

Stories about Waldron's prodigious appetite for work and life abounded. He could down two steak dinners and eight martinis in a sitting. He drove an ancient convertible with a top that wouldn't go up. His clothes were so rumpled that former Gov. LeRoy Collins later remarked that Waldron's "idea of semiformal dress was having his shirttail in.'' Even Times editors were in awe of him, and his expense accounts were the stuff of legend.

An anonymous call to Waldron triggered a series of stories on the Florida Turnpike Authority and its reckless spending and financial abuses. The authority's chairman resigned, the Legislature overhauled the state's bonding and auditing practices, and in 1964 the Times won its first Pulitzer Prize — the gold medal for "disinterested and meritorious public service.''

Two years later, Waldron left the paper for the New York Times. He was exposing financial ties between New Jersey politicians and the casino gambling industry when he died of heart disease in 1981.

THE HUMORIST

As a columnist, Dick Bothwell loved to crack jokes about stuck zippers, asparagus, exploding outhouses and country preachers. But his favorite target was himself.

A man once described as "the St. Petersburg edition of Will Rogers,'' Bothwell switched places with a radio deejay for a day, became an extra in a TV movie and entered a beautiful legs contest — anything for a chuckle. He also liked to compare himself to Hollywood leading man Robert Redford: "Women will look me boldly in the eye and say suggestive things like, 'Have a good day,' which is obviously a come-on.''

The tall Dakotan taught himself to draw by correspondence course and came to St. Petersburg in 1939 as an editorial cartoonist at the princely salary of $17.50 a week. When he returned from World War II service in the Pacific, he began reporting on the weather. That led to a general assignment reporting role and two columns — Of All Things (OAT) in 1962 and Brighten Up Monday (BUM) in 1978.

In the newsroom, he was known for the candy jar atop his desk and, of course, his self-deprecating humor. One day in January 1981 he dressed as a cowboy and twirled a lasso as colleagues guffawed. The next morning, he died of an apparent heart attack at age 63.

"For most of our readers, Dick Bothwell was the St. Petersburg Times,'' executive editor Robert Haiman said. "His column wrapped them in a blanket of good humor, nostalgia and optimism that made them feel good about themselves. A reader once wrote me, 'I read Dick Bothwell first every morning to get the warm snugglies; then I can turn back to page 1 and face the bad news.'''

THE RACE BEAT REPORTER

When Samuel Adams joined the Times staff in 1960, he did some reporting for the so-called "Negro news page,'' a daily casserole of news in the black community that circulated only in black neighborhoods. But soon Adams' byline was appearing from the datelines of the civil rights movement — Birmingham, Ala.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; St. Augustine; Albany, Ga.; and Washington.

In 1964, Adams wrote a series called "Highways To Hope'' about the experiences he and his wife, Elenora, had as they drove 4,300 miles through 12 Southern states testing compliance with the new Civil Rights Act.

That year, when Newsweek magazine singled out the best reporters on the "most dangerous assignment in U.S. journalism — the race beat,'' one of them was Adams.

In fact, Adams was the only black reporter covering the civil rights movement for a white mainstream newspaper in the South, according to Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their 2006 book, The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and The Awakening of a Nation. As a black person and as a reporter, he had learned how to comport himself.

"You don't stick your hand into your pocket when you're around a bigot, for that's an excuse to be killed,'' he said. "You don't show fear and, if possible, you keep smiling. That hurts (bigots) most.''

In 1965, Adams and other Times reporters disclosed financial irregularities at the black junior college in St. Petersburg. Two top college officials were indicted and one went to jail, and eventually the college closed. Four years later, Adams won a prestigious journalism award, the Green Eyeshade, for a series on conditions in Florida's migrant labor camps.

Adams left the paper in 1968 to teach and work for the Democratic National Committee. He then taught journalism at the University of Kansas until retirement in 2000. He now lives in Waycross, Ga.

THE TARGET

In Bette Orsini's early years at the Times, the paper was quick to capitalize on her blond hair and good looks. In 1946, it entered her photo in a movie studio's search for the best looking newspaper woman in America. When she was named runner-up, it ran her picture in a bathing suit beneath the headline "Magnificent Doll.''

That same year, she was a double for the actor Lizabeth Scott when scenes for Humphrey Bogart's Dead Reckoning were filmed in Pinellas County.

Over time, the bathing suit blond became a tough, tenacious reporter. She won a slew of national awards for education reporting, and her disclosures helped send state Education Commissioner Floyd T. Christian to prison. When the Pinellas School Board ejected her and colleague Charles Patrick from its meetings, the resulting lawsuit helped lead to Florida's open meetings law of 1967.

Perhaps the high point in Orsini's 41 years at the paper came in the mid 1970s. Her digging shed light on the ugly underside of the Church of Scientology, an organization that had secretly bought the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel and other property in Clearwater.

As it had elsewhere, Scientology answered its critics in the press and community with a campaign to discredit and intimidate them through lawsuits, harassment and dirty tricks. One of its targets was Orsini. Scientologists widely distributed an anonymous letter and official documents falsely accusing her husband, an Easter Seals official, of misconduct.

Vindication for Orsini and the Times came in 1980, when she and colleague Charles Stafford won a Pulitzer for their reporting on the church. She retired in 1988.

Much of the material for this report is taken from The Times and its Times, an 80-page supplement by Robert Hooker that appeared on the newspaper's 100th anniversary in 1984. Other sources: Research and stories by former Times stalwarts Tom C. Harris and Dick Bothwell and A Sacred Trust: Nelson Poynter and the St. Petersburg Times by Robert N. Pierce. Times researchers Mary Mellstrom and Chris Sturgeon and David Shedden, library director at the Poynter Institute, also contributed to this report.

Times' history filled with colorful cast of characters 07/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 2:41pm]
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