Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Ruth: Farewell Leland Hawes, my mentor and friend

He might have been among the last of the great two-digit typists. But Leland Hawes' index fingers could crank out copy faster than an old Associated Press teletype machine.

Leland Hawes was that sort of journalist — quick, concise, efficient. A pro's pro.

Since Leland's death May 18 at age 83, the tributes to his life and character have come in a cascade of love and admiration from his too-many-to-count friends and colleagues, of whom I am proud and honored to be one of them.

As we go through life most of us are lucky to have the opportunity to have even one mentor to guide us in the early, awkward stages of a career. I was particularly blessed in my cub reporter days at the Tampa Tribune to have the sometimes gruff counsel of my first city editor, Dave Watson, and later the understated, elegant guidance of Leland Hawes, who was my editor during my stints as a film, and later, television critic for the paper.

It's been said that journalism is actually the first draft of history. And that's true.

No one straddled the roles of journalist and historian more ably than Leland. A lifelong resident of Tampa Bay, Leland knew every nook and cranny of the community's history — its mores, its sins, its charlatans and its saints.

And while Leland was always gracious with his time, patient with his prodding and, yes, stubborn with his standards, he also represented something of a quickly fading breed in today's newsrooms — the go-to guy with the encyclopedic institutional memory.

Newspapering is a young person's game. You need young eyes and young legs to chase the day's stories. But you also need that veteran soul somewhere in the newsroom to provide background, context, nuance and, sure, even a little bit of gossip to leaven young reporters' understanding of the story they are trying to tell.

Leland was Tampa's institutional memory. It's a crown jewel he offered the Tribune and it also helped to craft the mission of the Tampa Bay History Center when it was created.

The praises being heaped on Leland in recent days are quick to note how beloved he was by all who knew him. That's largely true, too. But not entirely. And herein is perhaps the lasting lesson he left behind, at least it is to me.

There was a time — thankfully brief — when Leland was displaced as the features editor and relegated to an obscure post in the newsroom. It had to be grating at this stage of his career and his stature to be replaced by a complete dolt.

He never complained. He could have quit. But that's what the confederacy of dunces wanted. Instead Leland bore the humiliation as a badge of honor with grace and good cheer and the inner knowledge he would survive the infestation of terribles. And he did.

It was an object lesson in life, that over the course of a career bad things sometimes happen. But these, too, shall pass if you are persistent enough, if doing what you love doing is more important than caving in to silly people.

There are many reasons to do this job. Great stories, great subjects, great fun. Newspapering is indeed a license to perpetual adolescence.

And then there is the incalculable fringe benefit. I once got to work for Leland Hawes, a mentor and a friend. It doesn't get much better than that.

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