JULE McGEE STORY Continued...
BIG 13 IS ON THE SCENE
THE UNIVERSITY OF WTVT - TAMPA CAMPUS
Jule finally made it to WTVT, but some nagging doubts about his ability to meet Channel 13 standards brought him a few sleepless nights. "Can you imagine this guy from Roberta, Georgia, coming to Tampa having never set foot in a university and having to get his degree from the University of WTVT?" asked McGee. “There was so much about the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County that I didn’t have a clue about…but I wasn’t about to tell anybody. None of us reporters at that time wanted to go back to the shop, write up the story, and get a scowl or questioning look from Hugh Smith…who read every word of every news script before he went on the air with them. I was up against all these polished journalists...I had a phobia of being wrong or misunderstanding something in a meeting regarding the issues and operations of Tampa and the county…something that was happening under my nose."
CHANNEL 13'S COLOR COMMUNICATION CENTER
NEWS DIRECTOR RAY DANTZLER (CTR) TAKES SOME COPY FROM REPORTER HUGH SMITH
Fortunately, Jule found that the city's officials were open to having their brains picked. “I had great news contacts at City Hall: Logan Browning, the city comptroller, Jack Varn, an officer and attorney at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, J.G. "Babe" Littleton, chief of police, and Henry Williams, city attorney," said Jule.
Williams, an antique fixture in local government, was considered a caricature-type figure who knew everything that was going on but talked about it in metaphors, drawing from his childhood days living in South Tampa and dodging floating objects like “short, brown logs” as he swam down the Hillsborough River near downtown. "I pressed Henry to tell me if I was getting it right and he did," recalled Jule. "Like Forrest Gump’s mother, he always had a simple way of saying things so I could understand. His help was priceless.” Williams and McGee would drive every Wednesday to the Brandon What-A-Burger and talk about what was happening at City Hall. At that time, there wasn’t much to see during the 25-minute trip between Tampa and Brandon except trees and brush. Brandon was still a backwater town that was years away from the building boom resulting from Disney World and the Crosstown Expressway.
"Chief Littleton was kind of a country boy like me. He and all my friends at the City had an interest in me and didn’t want to see me fail. Oh, and I don’t want people to get the idea that I was passing everything I did by my friends at City Hall because that definitely wasn’t the case. On complicated matters I was unsure of, yes. But most of the time I was able to handle my stories quite well alone, without consulting anybody. Once I arrived at the station with a story it would be right on…thanks to some great guys who watched out for me."
NIGHT AND THE CITY
Jule’s first year at WTVT saw race riots in Tampa and St. Petersburg. It was summer and it was hot. There was a lot of tension in south St. Pete and when Jules' newscar got a flat tire in a troubled neighborhood, a police sergeant (named “Powell”) watched over him to ensure his safety during the repair.
The big action in Tampa that summer was at the Central Avenue business district just north of Cass Street and along North 22nd Street in the vicinity of Lake Avenue - the area known as the College Hill section. Jule marched alongside Mayor Greco through blighted minority neighborhoods accompanied by dozens of police in riot gear and other members of the press. Suddenly, the TV lights became targets for gunfire. Everyone dodged the bullets and some ran for their lives. Pulling themselves together and determined to prevail, the reporters and officials progressed southwards from Lake Avenue toward Columbus Drive in a show of force.
Hundreds of rioters tore through Central Avenue, looting and burning down dozens of businesses. On orders from the mayor, Tampa police did not take any offensive actions during the melee. And Jule caught it all on film as yet another experience in “the basic course at the University of WTVT.”
GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT
Jules next big story came in early 1968 during a statewide teacher strike. One quiet night while Jule was covering the Pinellas County Classroom Teacher’s Association, its members voted to return to work along with the rest of the teachers across the state. Jule broke the story for the entire state and was shortly thereafter promoted to cover Tampa City Hall. Tampa City Hall and the people surrounding it became the professional home for McGee, at least for a while. The City had the youngest mayor, Dick Greco, in the country.
Not long after that, Tampa experienced a big garbage strike. “It was the first time I ever started a story on the six o’clock news that ran seven minutes,” Jule remembered. “We were over on Clark Street west of Dale Mabry where the trucks came out of the yard. All the press people were there: Bruce Witwer, a Tampa Times reporter who years later became managing editor of The Tampa Tribune; Tony Hamilton, who was with Channel 8; and Tony Zappone, who was everywhere for everybody at the time.”
“We were at the front gate when the union leader, Jesse Epps, came up to me and pointed out people who had decided to work through the strike. He ordered me to take film of the scabs. He didn’t know who he was talking to. I told him to go run his picket line and I’d run my camera. The police chief at the time, J.G.“Babe” Littleton, overheard me, came over, smiled as he patted me on the back and we became good friends after that.”
WHO SAYS THAT NEWS COVERAGE CAN'T BE ARTISTIC?
JULE GETS A LOW-ANGLE SHOT OF A GARBAGE STRIKE
“Witwer, Zappone, Hamilton, myself, and some others who covered City Hall were over at Mayor Greco’s house on Davis Island for a casual get together when he got a call that the police had busted union leader Epps for something…don’t remember what. Somebody had tipped off the police that Epps was up to something. Greco told us about it and we all ran for our cars. We got to the scene just in time to get some great pictures of him getting arrested and being put into the paddy wagon. We all took our stuff into our respective newsrooms and went back to the Mayor’s house and rejoined the party in progress. That was a good day.”
GETTING BY (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS)
|There wasn’t a lot of money in reporting for Tampa Bay television but people helped each other get through the hard times. Jule found himself in his own personal money pit at 8529 Iris Avenue in Largo, the home he and Millie moved into upon arriving in Pinellas County for his job at WLCY-TV.||
JULE AND FAMILY in 1968
“One winters' day, every built-in kitchen appliance went bad…all at once,” Jule said. “The range, the refrigerator…not many people had dishwashers back then. Even the washing machine went out, everything-all at once! Somehow the guys at Tampa City Hall found out what happened and they knew I didn’t have a dime to replace anything…nothing to even cook on, you know.”
“Logan Browning, my friend and the city comptroller, walked me over to the old First National Bank just a few blocks from City Hall and introduced me to some friends there. He co-signed for a loan, I think it was around $2,000, which was big money in those days."
“When I got home that day I took an axe and tore out every kitchen appliance, ripped them all up and carried what was left to the junk yard. Then I went out and bought everything new."
Dick Greco, Sr., who was the Mayor’s dad and owner of a hardware store in Ybor City, was able to locate an oil heater (hard to get in winter) for Jule and provide someone to install it almost immediately.
Jule concedes that “today there would be no way” he could partake of the generosity of government officials he was assigned to cover for a television station. “I was 27 years old. My wife made $75 a week. I made $120 a week. We had one child and another on the way. Those people got me out of a big bind. They were good people but I know they didn’t expect anything in return. The idea that I would slant a story because they had been kind to me….NO WAY! I made sure they understood that and they surely did.”