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PHCC scholarship honors St. Petersburg Times reporter extraordinaire Lucy Morgan

The trees are tall, the buildings modern. Fresh-faced young people stroll across a campus bridge, amused to see large turtles sunning on the bank.

This place is alive. Concerts, plays, sporting events, art shows — all the things that make colleges cultural centers of their communities.

Lucy Morgan took it all in Thursday evening as she strolled from president Katherine Johnson's office to the gym, where she was in for a big surprise. This isn't the college Lucy remembers, not by a long shot. But the college sure remembers her.

Back in 1972, Lucy was an A student at the New Port Richey campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College, which had received its charter five years earlier but conducted classes in rented facilities — hardly the digs you see today in New Port Richey, Brooksville and Dade City. She also was busy raising three young children and working full time as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.

Nobody made her seek a degree. I can tell you one thing I've learned over more than 30 years around this woman: nobody makes her do anything. Lucy started having children at age 17 and simply had not been able to continue her education beyond high school. But now she was determined.

How determined? About the time she was balancing all these work-family issues, a Pasco prosecutor tried to have her jailed when she refused to reveal her sources for stories about corruption in Dade City.

This is where the legend began. In a 40-year career with the Times, Lucy would not only beat that foolish prosecutor, she would expose corruption in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and become the first woman to earn the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. She would use her amazing reporting skills to show how drug smuggling was the chief industry in Dixie and Taylor counties. Her stories helped send 250 people to jail, including several muckety-mucks. They also earned her enormous trust from honest law enforcement officers around Florida.

Lucy would become one of the most famous journalists in Florida, running our Tallahassee bureau for two decades before retiring in 2005. Even then, she would continue dropping bombshells as a senior correspondent. Gov. Jeb Bush named her to the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate renamed its press room after her.

You can see why PHCC was eager to give Lucy its first-ever Distinguished Alumni Award, which is why she came back to her old stomping grounds the other night. She had been told about the award in advance. What she didn't know is that our publisher, Marty Petty, would announce a Times scholarship in Lucy's name that will give $2,500 to a student each of the next 10 years.

I must say, it's fun to see somebody put one over on Lucy. It doesn't happen often.

Lucy hasn't lived here for years, but she began the tradition in the Times bureaus of putting a critical eye on government. In 1977, Lucy's husband, Dick, hired me to work in the New Port Richey office after I got fired from a little paper in Brooksville for writing things some of the good ol' boys didn't like.

Lucy was already a star, and here I was all of the sudden sitting a few feet away. Dick, the meticulous, organized editor, would walk by Lucy's desk and just shake his head. She would dig through the rubble for the sign that said, "A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind."

She covered everything but excelled at courts. She knew the law better than most lawyers. Judges around here still talk about her with respect. Of course there are other people who cuss her, which only makes her smile. Some are the folks who used to pass out the bumper stickers that have become collector's items: "Screw Lucy Morgan" and "I do not believe the St. Petersburg Times."

Lucy was fearless in reporting on the Sheriff's Office in the mid '80s, even as shady characters followed her car and staked out her house. She had already endured worse, including death threats, the previous year while blasting the Dixie and Taylor drug trafficking stories over our front pages.

And when that former Pasco sheriff, John Short, sued the Times for libel, he not only lost but a jury went a step further to proclaim that what Lucy and reporter Jack Reed wrote was true.

I was privileged to have a front-row seat. Lucy Morgan is truly a distinguished alumna, as the new plaque at PHCC proclaims. But she is much more in our business. She personifies courage.

Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast editor. You can reach him at stevens@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 869-6250.

PHCC scholarship honors St. Petersburg Times reporter extraordinaire Lucy Morgan 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 1:05pm]
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