Covering the State Capital
John Evans grew up in St. Petersburg and worked on and off from high school for Nelson Poynter at the St. Petersburg Times. It was the mid-50s, and Evan's beat was a separate bureau the paper maintained to cover the Gulf Beaches. He was hired from that role by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service when that agency decided science wasnt going to quickly halt outbreaks of the Red Tide, so they would try PR. Evans was the first field information officer in the history of the Service, which had at the time only one other person in communications, Rachel Carson, who was busy writing Silent Spring.
Evans returned to WTVT as Pinellas County bureau chief, and not long before the arrival of Crawford Rice, was offered an opportunity to create a bureau at Florida's state capital. In his own words, Evans describes the early days of WTVT's Tallahassee bureau.
"That dandy trio of Bob Olson, John Haberlan and Gene Dodson convinced News Director Dick John that we ought to have a bureau in Tallahassee, since to do so would make us first in the state, and so, since I had bureau experience, I was elected and shipped off. The state made space available in the Capitol in those days for the handful of reporters and stringers who covered state government, but there was none available when I arrived. I made a deal with Assistant Attorney General Charles Tom Henderson, who provided bill drafting services for the Legislature, to trade me space in return for my work as a bill drafter. Although this was extra, unpaid, work, it was a bonanza because I got advance information on most major pieces of legislation being developed.
We built a little studio, with backdrop of the old Capitol Building, and did interviews and feature pieces which along with day-to-day governmental coverage, were, as Hugh described in the later days, rushed to the one afternoon flight from Tallahassee to Tampa. We had no teletype, fax or other the communications we take for granted, so if I didnt have time to write cues and detailed notes for inclusion with the film, Id get on the phone with Cy Smith or other of the newsroom stalwarts and dictate enough information to let somebody make sense of what we had sent.
During the peak periods of Tallahassee interest, all the weeks stories were saved and on Saturday Id fly down to Tampa and spend the afternoon putting together a political highlights half hour that aired from 7:30 to 8 in the evening. I would bring added material and longer interviews and process the film and then edit it in a mad dash to get things all together before air time. Unfortunately, the busy newsroom often forgot to tell me during the week when the processor ate a roll of film or I had messed up in shooting it, so timing was all guesswork. I hosted the show from a simple set in the studio, so it was possible to ad lib around whatever we had glued together to make it all come out on time.
With Crawfords arrival in 1958, the scope of activity increased. If there was a train wreck, murder trial, race riot or rattlesnake milking contest north of Ocala and between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Id go cover it. On the way to work one morning, I saw a fellow in a bosuns chair hanging from the top of the flagpole that rose above the copper-plated dome of the Capitol. With the help of several other news people, I inched out on the roof and got a line around the base of the pole, running a microphone up the painter on the flag halyard. I hit pay dirt with the first question: Whats the hardest part of your job? He never missed a beat: getting paid when I finish. With answers like that to nearly every question, the climb on the hot and slippery dome was more than worthwhile, and story was eventually used on The CBS Evening News With Douglas Edwards.
Not long after Crawfords arrival, he thought we should become the first station in Florida to go after stories in the nations capital. He sold the Gaylord brass on the idea that we could combine the resources of the stations to serve the needs of each, and so, when we could find a story that would have interest in Oklahoma City, Montgomery, and Tampa, Id fly up to Washington and WKY would sent its chief cameraman. Wed stay at Crawford's friend Frank McGees house for old times sake and hed let us into the NBC studios in off hours to borrow film or whatever else wed forgotten to bring.
Roy Leep enhanced his reputation as a forecaster by his several flights into the eye of hurricanes and tropical storms, but his introduction to that was memorable. He and I flew from NAS Jacksonville into the eye of a good-sized hurricane with 160-knot winds that was just northeast of Bermuda. The Navy Hurricane Hunter aircraft in those days were Lockheed Constellations, whose wings flapped in buffeting winds enough to make them on film look like a bird in flight. In and out of the hurricane took about 18 hours, and for Roy, they were long ones. He hadnt learned the benefits of sea sickness pills at that point and his stomach went from bad to worse as the trip went on. The helpful crew decided we should take a look at a carrier that was maneuvering not far off Jacksonville in a heavy overcast. To give us a good view, they made a pass alongside the ship at flight deck level. We were both made Hurriphoners for having flown into the eye of a storm with 100+ mile an hour winds, a feat Roy repeated with medicated enthusiasm several more times over the years.
In 1960, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins was chair of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for president and vice president. WTVT was the only station to provide on-site coverage of the Florida Delegation by its own personnel. Crawford anchored coverage and I went along to do sidebars on state politicians. We were, of course, our own photographers and producers. After finding that the press facilities at the convention was less than luxurious, and that it was a hassle to get from our downtown hotel to the site, we simplified things greatly by getting a local lab to make an enlarged photo of the convention floor from one of the network anchor booths and mounting it in our room. After the opening festivities we were on hand as Governor Collins had his moment in the limelight, and we covered the rest of the convention by interviewing delegates at their hotel caucus sessions and then pontificating like Huntley and Brinkley in front of our set as we followed the convention on local TV and enjoyed room service.
Dont let anyone tell you Crawford Rice wasnt an innovator! He even arranged for the same cab driver to take our film to the airport and see that it got special handling. A weeks worth of trips were cheaper than if wed had to deal with different people each day, and saved either of us from having to go in person.
Summer was slow in Tallahassee and, even in those days, WTVT liked to economize. As a result I had a wonderful time the two summers of my employment by coming down to Tampa and working as replacement for various vacationing staff members. The best time was the period when I filled in as the morning news anchor during "Good Day," as part of Ernie Lees unforgettable shows. One morning as I was laboring through the report on the prices of feeder and stocker steers, I allowed to the camera that I had no idea what a feeder and stocker steer was, and asked viewers to tell me. The next day at about 5:30 a.m. we had an assortment of livestock trailers with most any kind of animal you could name parked at the curb to educate me. That was the start of what later became a very popular feature with the outdoor set.
Im pretty sure it was the primary election of 1960 that WTVT became the first station in Florida to computerize election returns. In those days, before two party politics became the norm, most major election contests were decided in the primaries. The station procured a giant punch card sorter and reader that ran half the length of the studio, into which were to be fed numbers phoned in from precincts all around the Tampa Bay area and totaled in the blink of an eye. Crawford, Joe Loughlin, and a bevy of reporters were to provide the running commentary, but it was decided that to have a little contrast to all this high tech wonder, some old-style politics should be introduced. And so, in a corner of the studio, an old country store flat was erected with a cracker barrel and a couple of orange crates placed before it. For a few minutes each hour, I was to interview former Florida Governor Fuller Warren, a larger than life old school politician who is best remembered today for having gotten fences mandated along our highways, drastically reducing the death toll of people and livestock from late night collisions.
We had a big pitcher of orange juice before us and were going to greet and talk with various local politicians as time permitted, all primed to proclaim our major leap forward into the new world of computerization. And it would have worked that way had not two things happened. First, Fuller, who was known as something of a tippler, liberally spiked the orange juice. Second, the punch card reading computer took to shredding instead of counting the return cards, throwing that aspect of coverage into some chaos. This meant that not only did we run a little later, but that Fuller and I got a lot more air time than anyone had contemplated.
The photo above shows us at some point in the evening as the orange juice went down and the candor of the conversation went up with the blood alcohol level. Toward the end we were working hard to keep the former governor from telling our audience just what @#$#%^&#$s some of his old political opponents really were or so I was told because I didnt remember a heck of a lot of it, even after the hang-over subsided.
Not long after that, Farris Bryant, who had been elected governor in that primary, asked me to become his press secretary and special assistant. Having just had the pleasure of beating out the long-time editor of the Tallahassee Democrat to become the first electronic journalist elected president of the Capital Press Club of Florida, I was high on politics (less harmful than spiked OJ) and accepted, leaving WTVT with a an education that I draw on to this day and a lot of great memories.
BIG 13 gives our sincere thanks to John Evans for his chronicle of the Tallahassee bureau.
To Return to NEWS MENU CLICK HERE