Nelson Poynter’s 1978 obit: ‘I’ll haunt you like the devil’ if my wishes aren’t carried out

June 15, 2018

Times' Nelson Poynter dies at 74

Nelson Poynter, chairman of the board of The St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent, died Thursday night.

The 74-year-old publisher who was renowned nationally for his editorial independence and his innovative journalism became ill in his office moments after he saw one of his dreams for St. Petersburg come true. He had helped break ground Thursday for a new St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida and then had received a plaque honoring him and the Times Publishing Publishing Company for being instrumental in bringing the campus here.

He was admitted to St Anthony's Hospital and died at 10:16 p.m. of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Poynter's insistence on quality in publishing and on independent ownership of newspapers created in St. Petersburg two newspapers that are generally ranked among the best in the United States.

HE AND his late wife Henrietta founded and he served as chief executive of Congressional Quarterly Inc., the Washington news and political research organization that specializes in congressional coverage, and later added its sister Washington publication, Editorial Research Reports.

In St. Petersburg he founded Modern Graphic Arts Inc., a commercial printing company.

He also founded and served as chairman of the board of trustees of Modern Media Institute, a St. Petersburg educational institution that is chartered to meet journalism education needs not being met by existing institutions. Its students use The Times and Evening Independent as working laboratories.

Poynter willed the voting stock in the Times Publishing Company to Modern Media Institute. In an article about him in the current issue of Fortune magazine, Poynter explained his desire to leave his newspapers under professional direction and to assure their continued independence after his death.

IN A 1975 memorandum to Eugene Patterson, Times editor and president, Poynter characteristically left instructions for this day. “Most newspapers overplay most deaths of newspaper people,” he wrote.

“Let's not do this in my case. A one-column head, no comment or a bunch of silly tributes. And it's a one-day story.

“You know, of course, there will be cremation, no funeral or memorial service of any kind, no requests ‘in lieu of flowers.’ You might include that I have observed no one really likes to go to a funeral. I am trying to be considerate of my friends who might come to my funeral by having none.”

Poynter's widow, Marion Knauss Poynter, said she would of course honor his wishes in this respect.

Poynter's 1975 memo added:

“IMPORTANT in the story is to emphasize there'll be no change whatsoever in the Times Publishing Company at a result of my death. I'll haunt you like the devil if the above it not carried out. Just live up to the Standards of Ownership thereafter.”

Poynter wrote and publicly declared 15 standards of ownership on Aug. 6, 1947 when he completed buying the controlling stock in the St. Petersburg newspapers from his family. They included his vows not to sell to chain ownership or form a chain; to achieve financial stability in order order to maintain a strong editorial policy; to hire above-average staffers and to pay above-average wages; to provide decent pensions and share the newspapers’ profits with their staffs, and never to permit voting stock in the newspapers to scatter.

“The staff and the readers now know that their newspapers will not be sold when I die,” he added in 1974. “The job ahead is to extend those goals for still better quality and service.”

AT THE university ground-breaking ceremonies Thursday, Poynter had heard himself praised by Chester Ferguson of Tampa, a member of the board of regents of Florida’s university system, as a person who had done as much for education as any citizen of the state. Only last Sunday Poynter received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of South Florida with a citation saying, “Your readers know the excellence of your newspapers, but they may not understand that you inspire your employees to maintain your own high standards in their daily work and that they produce the best newspapers they can because that is your goal.”

Poynter had joked to Times colleagues after lunch Thursday that he could scarcely get accustomed to such praise after all the years of combat and controversy he had been through with the Times and Independent.

A Hoosier born in Sullivan, Ind., Poynter’s courtliness and courtesy combined with an uncompromising determination to take liberal editorial stands in a conservative community and an iron will to run an efficient and profitable business as well as a humane one. An article in The New York Times described him as “tough as a railroad spike.”

HE WAS graduated in 1925 with a BA degree from Indiana University, where he dueled with the Ku Klux Klan as editor of the student paper and took a master’s degree in economics from Yale in 1927.

In 1958 he received the Distinguished Alumni Service Awards given by Indiana, and he received honorary doctorates from Stetson University College of Law in 1962, from Florida State University in 1970 and from Eckerd College in 1973, in addition to the doctorate awarded to him by the University of South Florida in 1978.

Poynter was an Associate Fellow of Silliman College, Yale University, and post honorary president of the Society of Professional Journalists/Sigma Delta Chi.

He worked for Scripps-Howard and several other publishers in cities ranging from Tokyo to Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., serving in both editorial and business capacities.

AS DEPUTY to Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan during World War II he helped to activate the U.S. information agency that founded the Voice of America.

In 1938 Poynter became general manager of The St. Petersburg Times, then owned by his late father Paul Poynter. He added the title of editor a year later. In that year the paper had a circulation of 17,581 as compared to the most recent six months’ Sunday circulation of 250,000.

After his wartime service he returned to buy the controlling stock in The Times from his family. And under his direction The Times has won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and other awards ranging from a National Headliners Club prize to a citation for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri.

Poynter’s favorite slogan, in speech and print, was that St. Petersburg and the West Coast of Florida should be “the best place in the world to live,” and he committed his newspapers to the pursuit of that goal in all areas, including campaigns for good government at all levels.

HE AND his newspapers championed many causes, not all of them popular and not all successful, but all of them vigorous and plainspoken.

Poynter was known as a fighting editor but Florida Trend magazine commented that his personality was incongruous — that he was “one of the warmest and most charming of men” and yet he was one of the toughest of crusading editors.

Under Poynter The St. Petersburg Times was one of the first newspapers in the South to come out strongly against racial segregation. Long before the 1954 Supreme Court school decision, Poynter’s opposition to injustices to blacks had been bluntly expressed.

Exposure of questionable conduct by Florida Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and Pinellas County elected officials were a part of Times enterprise, inspired by Poynter’s philosophy that every community deserves good government and that it is a newspaper’s responsibility to expose bad government wherever and whenever it can.

In the late 1930s Times stories and editorials led to a refunding of county and city bonds covering boomtime debts, which were creating difficulties for local governments statewide.

In subsequent years, Poynter’s influence was felt in Times campaigns for two-party politics in Pinellas; a “Who Gave It, Who Got It” law to regulate political campaign spending; low-cost public housing, including St. Petersburg’s Jordan Park; state and local programs to help the elderly; the Central and South Florida Flood Control District; state regulation of private utilities and development of Everglades National Park.

HE WAS credited by then-Gov. Fuller Warren with having been a principal influence in the state’s construction of the original span of the Sunshine Skyway in 1950-54.

And Thursday night Gov. Reubin Askew telephoned The Times to say Florida “has lost a great man.”

Poynter played a key role in interesting the federal government in the funding of experiments that led to a process for concentrating citrus juices that revolutionized the citrus industry in Florida.

In his “best places to live” philosophy, he emphasized educational opportunity. He was a prime mover for the establishment of Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College, the expansion of the Stetson University College of Law at Gulfport, and finally the location, at Bayboro Harbor, of a branch campus of the University of South Florida.

The citation that accompanied the award of Stetson’s honorary doctor of letters degree, read: “Whether reporting at the community level or commenting on the national scene, you have proved yourself accurate in observation, truthful in representation, unequivocal in controversy and selfless in your devotion to the American tradition of liberty under law.”

IN 1954, Poynter established the Poynter Fund, a charitable trust honoring the memory of his late father, the purpose being to finance projects enhancing educational opportunities for young people dedicated to careers in journalism.

A prime activity of the fund has been to award annual scholarships to students pursuing careers in journalism and who have been selected for summer internships with The Times and Independent.

In 1972, Poynter, through the Poynter Fund, awarded $500,000 to his alma mater, Indiana University, for a project aimed at bridging the credibility gap between the citizenry and the institutions of American democracy.

The university was challenged to find answers and suggest solutions to what Poynter called “this vast erosion of confidence in the credibility of our leaders and virtually all of our institutions — the church, schools, industry, banking and commerce, government and the communications media.”

Nelson Poynter was born on Dec. 15, 1903, the son of Paul Poynter, then publisher of the Sullivan Times, and Alice Wilkey Poynter. His mother, who lives in St. Petersburg, survives him. Also surviving are his wife Marion; his sister, Mrs. Eleanor Jamison of Sullivan, Ind.; two daughters, Mrs. Sally Taggart of Weston, Mass., and Mrs. Nancy Feaver of Vancouver, British Columbia, and three grandchildren.

Nelson Poynter recalled, “There never was any question what my career would be. Journalism was in my blood from childhood.” After his father bought The St. Petersburg Times in 1912, Nelson doubled as a carrier and cub reporter while still shy of his teens. His first story in The Times was about Tony Jannus, the pioneer commercial aviator, in 1914.

BEFORE he came to The St. Petersburg Times, Poynter was editor and publisher of the Clearwater Sun and the Kokomo Dispatch; advertising and business manager of the Washington Daily News, editor of the Columbus, Ohio Citizen and business manager of the Minneapolis Star.

Beginning in 1935, he began buying stock in The Times from his father. His first job at The Times (1938) was general manager but a year later — 1939 — he became editor and by 1947 had become The Times’ majority stockholder. He became president of The Times Publishing Co. in 1953, on his father’s death, and chairman of the board in February 1969, a post he held until his death.

A year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 8, 1940, Poynter was called to Washington to help develop better press facilities for Latin America, under Nelson Rockefeller. With the late Karl Bickel, then president of United Press, he became codirector of the U.S. Communication Bureau’s press section, charged with responsibility for improving newspaper press and picture facilities among the American republics, to counter Nazi propaganda there.

In the summer of 1941, he was chosen by the late Gen. William J. Donovan, as one of his deputies to help activate the new office of Coordinator of Information. In this job he organized the Foreign Information Service (FIS), which started the government’s overseas short-wave radio network, the Voice of America. As part of his duties, he opened a Hollywood office, when the film capital’s producers requested local liaison with official information services in Washington.

But his greatest years came in his building of The St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent into nationally recognized newspapers, committed to the communities they, and he, served.