More than 50 years ago, as a hurricane headed for Tampa Bay, the St. Petersburg Times newsroom met to hash out plans.
Bob Haiman, then managing editor, chose a handful of reporters to head into the storm. Get rain gear, he told them, cash, gas and tell your spouses you’ll be gone for several days.
Another team would stay in the newsroom, he explained, and transcribe reports over the phone.
Get organized, Haiman told his staff. Florida’s best newspaper had to do the best job.
He headed back to his office feeling pretty inspirational when a city hall reporter knocked on the door.
Do you know what you just did? the reporter asked with a sweet smile. You just put together two teams. The one heading into the storm is all men. The one staying behind is all women.
I’m one of your best reporters, am I not? the reporter continued.
She was, Haiman agreed.
Then why am I not going out in the storm?
That reporter, Virginia Ellis, built a career out of being underestimated. She led statehouse bureaus in Texas and California, sniffing out the dirty deeds of crooked politicians and uncovering wrongdoing that led to real changes. But she started that work in her home state of Florida.
Ms. Ellis died in Sacramento, Calif., on Dec. 24 from multiple health issues, including a stroke and cancer. She was 77.
By the time Ms. Ellis joined the St. Petersburg Times in 1967, a few women were covering hard news, but they weren’t allowed to cover presidential campaigns.
She and another reporter complained, said Robert Hooker, who sat two rows over, and editors listened. Before heading out on the campaign trail, an editor took Ms. Ellis aside with a warning.
Don’t do anything to embarrass the paper.
In 1973, she took on another institution that wasn’t making room for women — state government. Her name was on a short list for a spot in the Times’ statehouse bureau in Tallahassee.
Martin Dyckman, then the bureau chief, got a call from an editor in St. Pete.
“I don’t want a skirt in Tallahassee,” that editor said. “I want a fella.”
Dyckman explained there was a law against that, plus “the male politicians would underestimate her just like you did, and she’ll kill them.”
Ms. Ellis wasn’t the only woman in Tallahassee, but she was one of just a few.
“I just remember good old boys hugging you, patting you, trying to get you in their offices. ‘Just sit on the couch by me, and we’ll talk,’ ” said Mary Ann Lindley, then covering the capital for The New York Times’ Florida group.
At 5′10″, Lindley thinks she held her own with the politicians. Ms. Ellis, on the other hand, was petite, always well-dressed and oozing with Southern charm.
“She really could wrap a lot of those guys around her finger playing innocent,” Lindley said. “‘What’s going on? I don’t understand?’ And they would just fall for it.”
In Florida, where Ms. Ellis became the Tallahassee bureau chief, she also led the investigation of insurance commissioner and state treasurer Tom O’Malley, who ended up in prison on corruption charges. She later served as bureau chief of the Dallas Times in Austin, Texas, where she helped uncover appalling conditions at nursing homes and among the mentally ill in the state prison, which both led to reforms. She then joined the Los Angeles Times and went on to serve as the Sacramento bureau chief. There, Ms. Ellis exposed corruption by California’s insurance commissioner, who resigned. Her work won two major journalism awards.
“If you look at her reporting and you talk to people who worked with her, it’s filled with stories of politicians and powerful people who were disarmed by this sweet, kind woman into revealing something damaging about themselves that ended up on the front pages and destroyed their careers,” said Ms. Ellis’ son, Barry Schnitt.
As a teenager, he could relate. When his mom questioned him about his shenanigans and the details got murkier, “she would keep pulling on those threads.”
Ms. Ellis pushed at one door after another until they opened, and she wasn’t just pushing for herself.
In 1973, Lucy Morgan, another woman covering hard news, was sentenced to three months in jail for a story about a secret grand jury report on an investigation into Pasco County government.
Then, the Times had a nepotism rule that meant two full-time employees couldn’t be married. Because of it, Morgan, who was married to another Times employee, was working 38 hours a week.
Ms. Ellis called Times editor Gene Patterson and sarcastically asked if he could figure out a way for Morgan to go to jail part-time, too.
That case went to the Florida Supreme Court, where the Times prevailed, establishing a limited privilege for journalists. And the newspaper issued an order abolishing its nepotism requirement.
Morgan, who later led the statehouse bureau for 20 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in 1985, credits Ms. Ellis for that shift and for creating a path for other women to follow leading not just statehouse bureaus but newsrooms.
Ms. Ellis was sweet, relentless and showed the men in charge that women deserved to be there.