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Philip Gailey

My ride on magic carpet comes to end

This is my final column. Not another peep out of me about politics or anything else. It's okay if some of you want to cheer. After nearly 43 years in the news business — 17 of them in this job — I am retiring at the end of the month and turning this paper's opinion pages over to Tim Nickens, who will run them well.

Nothing I have done in my career has been as rewarding as engaging this community in a conversation with itself. I spent too many years in Washington before moving to this gem of a city, but you were patient with my learning curve. When we have disagreed, as we often have, most of you have been civil about it and, more times than not, forgiving of my faults. You have made my years in this job the best, and for that, I thank you.

When I began my career at the Atlanta Constitution, Eugene Patterson was the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, a powerful voice for racial justice and a hero to young Southern journalists. Among the souls he saved was my own. He moved on to the Washington Post and then landed at the St. Petersburg Times as Nelson Poynter's anointed successor. I, too, moved on — to the Miami Herald, the Washington Star (it closed 27 years ago this month) and the New York Times, where I expected to spend the rest of my career.

Before he retired as chairman, Patterson and his successor, Andy Barnes, convinced me that I belonged at the St. Petersburg Times, among the nation's best newspapers thanks to their leadership. I felt I was home.

I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to my high school English teacher, the late Beatrice Hendricks, for steering me toward a newspaper career (I didn't have access to a daily newspaper until I was in high school, and I had to read it in the library during recess). She was right about journalism — it was a magic carpet that would allow me to go places and witness events that were beyond any dreams this Georgia farm boy ever had.

And what a journey it has been. Indulge me while I roll back the years.

In the early years, I wrote obits, worked the night police beat and covered my share of Rotary Club speakers. But I also reported on the civil rights struggle in small towns that were often overlooked by the big national newspapers. I believe I wrote the first story about a Christian housing ministry that became Habitat for Humanity. I spent three months at Fort Benning, Ga., reporting the My Lai massacre court-martial of 1st Lt. William Calley Jr.

I went on to cover Congress, national politics, more than a dozen national political conventions and five presidents — Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and the first Bush. I arrived in Washington in time to get a bite of the Watergate hearings. I witnessed the signing of the Camp David peace accords by Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin, with a beaming Jimmy Carter standing between them at a ceremony on the North Lawn of the White House. A few years later, I watched Ronald Reagan roll out the red carpet for the Evil Empire's Mikhail Gorbachev on the South Lawn. Summitry was in the air.

I covered Carter's trip to Germany to greet the American hostages Iran released minutes after Reagan took the oath of president. To his credit, Reagan had the grace to ask Carter, defeated by the voters and humiliated by the ayatollahs, to undertake this trip as his personal emissary.

I tagged along with China's foremost leader Deng Xiaoping on his historic visit to the United States. His itinerary included a stop at a Texas rodeo, where the bantam-sized communist in chief donned a 10-gallon hat that made him look ridiculous, rode a stagecoach into the arena and ate barbecue. Later, I traveled with George H.W. Bush on his first foreign trip as president. We stopped in Tokyo to attend the funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito before going on to Beijing where Bush met with Chinese leaders, who hosted us at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People. In Moscow, I was part of a group of visiting editors who devoured bowls of Russian caviar and swilled vodka at an extravagant dinner inside the walls of the Kremlin.

These travels, especially if you were part of the press pool traveling on Air Force One, were great adventures and often good stories. But the most important story of my lifetime was also the most personal — the civil rights upheaval in the South. Covering that story brought this Southerner face to face with the evil of racism.

A few days after graduating from the University of Georgia, I reported for duty as an intern reporter in the Atlanta bureau of Newsweek magazine. A day later, I found myself covering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led a civil rights march across Mississippi. I got my first taste of police tear gas that summer and found myself dodging rocks and bottles hurled by snarling white racists in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered and buried under an earthen dam outside of town.

More than four decades later, I am retiring a few days after Barack Obama, an African-American, is set to make history by accepting the Democratic nomination for president on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream'' speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capital.

From King to Obama — I can't think of better bookends for my career.

My ride on magic carpet comes to end 08/23/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 30, 2008 5:35pm]
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