Covering the State
by John Evans
John Evans grew up in St. Petersburg and by the mid-1950s worked part-time after high school for Nelson Poynter at the St. Petersburg Times. Evans was assigned to a separate bureau the paper maintained to cover news around the Gulf Beaches. He was hired from that position by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service when the agency realized that scientific efforts had failed to halt outbreaks of the Red Tide...but public relations might mitigate the fallout to the tourist economy. Evans was the first field information officer in the history of the Service, which had at the time only one other person in communications, author Rachel Carson, who was busy writing Silent Spring.
In the late 50's, Evans was hired by WTVT as Pinellas County bureau chief, and not long before the arrival of news director/anchor 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 didn’t have time to write cues and detailed notes for
inclusion with the film, I’d 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 week’s stories were saved and on
Saturday I’d 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.
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, I’d go
cover it. On the way to work one morning, I saw a fellow in a
bosun’s chair hanging from the top of the flagpole that rose above the
copper-plated dome of the Capitol.
Not long after
Crawford’s arrival, he thought we should become the first station in Florida
to go after stories in the nation’s 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, I’d fly up to
Washington and WKY would sent its chief cameraman. We’d stay at
Crawford's friend Frank McGee’s house “for old time’s sake” and he’d
let us into the NBC studios in off hours to “borrow” film or whatever else
we’d 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 hadn’t 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.
Don’t let anyone
tell you Crawford Rice wasn’t 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 week’s worth of trips were cheaper
than if we’d 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 Lee’s 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.
I’m 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 didn’t 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.
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