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Veteran journalist Tom Rawlins remained true to his craft

The St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent reporter and editor died Saturday at 81.
Tom Rawlins was a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent. He passed away Saturday at age 81.
Tom Rawlins was a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent. He passed away Saturday at age 81. [ STAFF | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2020
Updated Dec. 22, 2020

At the Rawlins family dinner table, meals began with two things: a prayer and a running joke that the conversation to come was off the record.

Tom Rawlins was a dogged newspaper reporter for decades. He spent nearly all of them at the St. Petersburg Times and the Evening Independent, owned and published by the now Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg. At the end of his long career, he worked in management for the company, ironing out the details that made journalists’ jobs run smoother.

“He was just a reporter,” said his daughter, Beth Rawlins, 58. “It ran through his veins.”

Tom Rawlins, pictured about six years ago
Tom Rawlins, pictured about six years ago [ LUKE URBINE | Courtesy of Beth Rawlins ]

Tom Rawlins died Saturday at the age of 81 . He returned to Pinellas County last year after nearly two decades of retirement in Colorado. Rawlins dearly loved the mountain home he and his wife shared.

During his career in the Tampa Bay area, he launched the Times’ bureau in Clearwater and oversaw news in north Pinellas County. Rob Hooker first met Rawlins in 1971 when he began working for the Times as a reporter in that Clearwater office. Though Rawlins wasn’t his boss, he said they worked together often.

“He was a real cheerleader for us and advocate for our work in dealing with the editors downtown,” said Hooker, who is now an adjunct instructor teaching journalism at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Tom Rawlins was a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent. He passed away Saturday at age 81.
Tom Rawlins was a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent. He passed away Saturday at age 81. [ FRED VICTORIN | St. Petersburg Times ]

Rawlins began reporting at the student newspaper when he attended Mississippi College in the late 1950s. But he wasn’t a journalism major — he graduated with a degree in history and political science. It was there he met his wife, Shirley, who died in 2016.

Later in life, he served on a national board of accreditation that reviewed coursework for journalism students. However, he was always proud to say he’d never taken a journalism class. He retired as a senior editor at the Times, where he helped write ethics guidelines that led the paper into the digital age, his daughter said.

“Tom was old school in the best sense of that word,” said Paul Tash, the chairman and CEO of Times Publishing Company and the Tampa Bay Times. “Someone with a commitment to the discipline and rigors of the craft.”

Tom Rawlins was a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent. He passed away Saturday at age 81.
Tom Rawlins was a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent. He passed away Saturday at age 81. [ STAFF | St. Petersburg Times ]

Outside of the newsroom, Rawlins was a devoted member of Central Christian Church in Clearwater for many years. He sometimes sang in the choir and grew a beard every year for the Nativity scene. His daughter said the principles of feeding the hungry, healing the sick and embracing the poor were how he tried to guide his life.

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Upon retirement in 2001, Rawlins moved to Buena Vista, Colo., a rural area with about 2,000 residents. There he and his wife noticed the lack of accessible health care. And if there were doctor’s offices around, residents couldn’t afford it.

Using his reporting skills, Rawlins made calls to secure a space and his wife, a registered nurse, organized volunteers. The two established a free clinic called the People’s Clinic of Buena Vista, which operated until around the passage of the Affordable Care Act, his daughter said.

“He had the most unerring moral compass of any human being that I have ever met,” Beth Rawlins said of her father. “He always knew the right thing to do and he had an iron will to get it done.”

Tom Rawlins

Born: Oct. 10, 1939

Died: Dec. 19, 2020

Survivors: His sister Darlena Kelly, of Tucker, Ga.; his children, Patty Rawlins of Tampa; Andy Rawlins of Clearwater; Beth Rawlins of Clearwater, her husband Paul DeFazio, their son, Devon DeFazio of Buellton, Calif., and their daughter, Mia DeFazio of Clearwater.

Service: Rawlins asked for a celebration of life at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Buena Vista, Colo., which will be held sometime after the pandemic.