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Off with their heads

For almost 40 years, St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan targeted folks doing something stupid, embarrassing or illegal in Florida. A lot of them are happy she'll soon be knitting more and needling less.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published November 13, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - "Hey, Lucy!"

A lobbyist driving on College Avenue shouts at her from his Jeep.

"You doing something bad?" she hollers back.

"No, ma'am!"

"Tell me something I'm not supposed to know."

"Not me, Lucy."

In Tallahassee, nobody calls her Ms. Morgan, or Mrs. Morgan, or even "that Lucy Morgan," though she knows some folks describe her as "The Bitch."

She is just plain Lucy. Perhaps it is the spectacular drawl that goes back to her Mississippi roots that invites informality. Or the fact she sometimes is observed knitting doll clothes for her grandchildren - while listening to testimony at a murder trial. Anyway, Lucy doesn't object to "Lucy." Nor does she mind being addressed as "darlin'," "sweetie" or "honey."

"Ah have always liked to be unner-ahstimated," she says in a raspy voice that sounds like she has been munching acorns. Subtitle: Lucy is happy when somebody important underestimates her, when somebody thinks she is not as smart as she actually is. "To be a Southern woman in a cap'll full of good ole boys is an advantage. When they fand ayout A'hm serious it's too late."

Princess with a poison pen

If Lucy were a character in a Puccini opera it would have to be "Turandot." Lucy loves opera, Puccini especially. Frankly, Turandot is her kind of gal. Turandot is a fetching though calculating princess who over the years has lured many a prince to his doom.

Lots of princes have tried to win Turandot's favor. But the femme fatale enjoys toying with her suitors. She tells her latest beau she will marry him if he can provide the answer to three trick questions. A prince who answers wrong is not sent packing - he is beheaded.

In Florida, where Lucy retires this year after nearly four decades of reporting for the St. Petersburg Times, lots of politicians, lobbyists and sheriffs begin massaging their throats nervously the instant Lucy starts asking questions.

They know Lucy's pen indeed is as mighty as the sharpest of swords.

Want to see some heads?

In 1982 she was Pulitzer Prize finalist for exposing a drug-smuggling ring in Dixie and Taylor counties that resulted in 250 people going to jail, including government officials. In 1985 she and another reporter, Jack Reed, won the big enchilada for investigating big problems in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Her Pulitzer hangs on an office wall.

For two decades, she has headed the paper's Tallahassee bureau, covering governors, legislators, judges, sheriffs and lobbyists, including some who actually intended to make the state a better place. Not all of them, of course. Frequently she caught a dunderhead doing something stupid, embarrassing or illegal and felt the need to tell her readers all about it.

Cue up Turandot on the CD player!

Off with their heads!

"I would rather have an enema than be interviewed by you," Jack Latvala, former Republican senator from Pinellas County, once barked after a trying day.

"There was once a great Green Bay Packer offensive guard named Jerry Kramer," says Democrat Bob Graham, the former governor and U.S. senator. "He was asked about his coach, Vince Lombardi. Kramer said, "Coach Lombardi treated all his players democratically. He treated us all like dogs.' I would say Lucy was a very democratic reporter."

A scary quote. Lucy always liked Graham. She thought he was that rare, honest public servant.

She is going to miss him, though perhaps she won't have to. Her reign might be over, but she aims to work part time for the newspaper, maybe do an investigative piece or two, nothing terribly big, though heaven knows what she could turn up. Perhaps she will get a chance to put the straight-laced Graham on the hot seat one last time.

Hell's bells.

She ain't dead yet - she is only 65. A few drops of poison must be left in that trusty old pen.

Underestimate at your peril

"Hey, Alan," she shouts to an insurance lobbyist whose ear is glued to his cell phone. "You doin' somethin' bad?"

He grins and nods in the affirmative.

"You want to confess?"

He grins and nods no.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Lucy mutters, ambling away.

A walking contradiction, this Lucy woman. She is the wife of an old-fashioned guy who owns what might be the last flat-top haircut in the state. Mother of four grown children, grandmother of eight with one great-grandchild, she can cuss like a cowboy with hemorrhoids. Then she quietly gets back to her knitting.

She has seen operas all over the world. Pavarotti is her favorite. Loves ballet, too. She is glad she got to watch Baryshnikov in tights. "Nice tush," she says.

She is a wine connoisseur who eats with elbows on the table. She likes to be the center of attention and frequently interrupts whoever else has grabbed the spotlight. "Lucy, let me finish," her husband says calmly.

A shopaholic, she loves buying new clothes when her husband isn't paying attention, though she inevitably dresses casually, part of her "go ahead and underestimate me" strategy. She shows up at work in a modest blouse and stretch pants tugged over her farm woman's sturdy frame. No heels, just sneakers.

Walking with a limp, surrounded by an intoxicating cloud of Estee Lauder, she is breathless while hobbling up the hill toward the state House and the people's business.

So innocent and huggable! Lucy, why aren't you home baking an apple pie?

Duck! For God's sake, duck!

"Look," she has been known to advise a self-important rookie senator. "You don't have to be a horse's ayass You can be straight with me."

Perhaps he is too shocked to reply just then. No matter. Sooner or later he will learn about his responsibilities, his reason for being, and answer Lucy.

"Lucy was relentless," says Rob Hooker, a Times deputy managing editor who worked with Lucy on her celebrated stories in west-central Florida in the 1980s. "She has wonderful people skills, the uncanny ability to get people to talk to her and tell her things they shouldn't have."

Nervous evildoers tapped her phone and pawed through her garbage looking for dirt while she investigated them. They followed her car and threatened her - anonymously, of course - over the phone at midnight. They scared her children and grandchildren. They put out a bumper sticker: "Screw Lucy Morgan." They menaced her sources; sometimes Lucy felt compelled to meet sources in a Belk Lindsey department store in New Port Richey. While Lucy tried on clothes in a changing room they'd pass crucial information about the Pasco County Sheriff's Office under the door.

In 1973 an ambitious district attorney wondered where she was getting information about corruption in Dade City and dropped a subpoena on her lap.

"I would go to jail rather than reveal a source" was Lucy's credo.

A judge sentenced her to eight months because she wouldn't tell.

"I was prepared to go to jail," she tells people now. "I thought I might finally get some serious reading done."

At the bookstore she purchased the complete works of Lord Alfred Tennyson, the Victorian poet best known for The Charge of the Light Brigade.

"Just always wanted to read him," she says.

Alas, the Florida Supreme Court ruined her chance for some absorbing reading. Overturning her sentence, the court also granted reporters at least a limited right to protect sources.

Starting at the bottom

She was born on Oct. 11, 1940, in Memphis but moved to Hattiesburg, Miss., before blowing out even a single birthday candle. Her mother Lucile divorced her father, Thomas Alin Keen, an alcoholic, when she was a baby. Lucy credits her personality, and her success, to being raised by a strong mother, grandmother and aunt.

"Mother never remarried," Lucy tells people. "She had a serious suitor once, but she always said she had never met a man to whom she would cede her closet space."

Her mother ran a pharmacy, listened to opera, sang in the choir, once chased a purse snatcher and regularly booked passage on tramp steamers bound for the South Pacific. She took pride in her two smart daughters, Kay and Lucy.

Kay got a doctorate in psychology from Harvard.

Lucy graduated from high school.

"Mother was disappointed when I got pregnant and got married at 17," says Lucy, who never finished college.

She married a coach and moved to Crystal River. The marriage failed after nine years and three children.

"It wasn't a good situation," Lucy says. "I was a single, stay-at-home mom with three kids under the age of 6 and negligible work experience."

One day an editor from the Ocala Star-Banner called. He was looking for someone to cover news in Citrus County.

"She was looking for a part-time reporter and got my name from the local librarian who told her I read more books than just about anyone else. The editor figured that a good reader might be able to write."

She could.

Sometimes, at a midnight fire, Lucy showed up accompanied by her three toddlers.

Lucy loved firefighters. She loved cops. They were sweet on her, too.

"It wasn't like it is today," Lucy says. "I'd be at the scene of an arrest and a cop would yell, "Lucy, grab the handcuffs and give 'em to me."'

Occasionally a male officer asked her to check on a female inmate lying passed out in a pool of vomit in the drunk tank.

"It was actually a lot of fun."

When chaos, order collide

Lucy was hired at the St. Petersburg Times in 1967. Her first boss was an old-fashioned guy who wore his hair in a flat top. He was Richard Morgan, perhaps the most detail-minded editor in the history of the company - the kind of manager who handed an anxious reporter three excruciating pages of instructions on her first day of employment. Instructions typically might cover the 480 official minutes in the workday and suggest the reporter sleep close to the phone in case she was needed to cover a fire.

Their marriage, in 1968, had to be kismet. She thrives in chaos. He is all about order and stability. "Lucy has the patience of a lit firecracker," he says on his way to making the bed while wearing pajamas that look suspiciously like he might have ironed them.

In 1979, when her teenage son Al was killed in an auto accident, Richard was a comforting presence. After all, one of his children from a previous marriage had been killed in an accident, too.

Today they live in a sprawling five-bedroom, north Tallahassee home surrounded by pine trees, camellias and azaleas.

Lucy, who learned many lessons from her mother, allows her husband one little closet. "You ought to look in her closets," he whispers. "She's like Imelda Marcos. I've never seen so many shoes. What does she have, 75 pairs? One day I'm going to count those shoes."

"We will stop talking about my shoes and my closets this minute," Lucy orders from across the room.

At 74, Richard is retired and looking forward to Lucy staying home, if only because he needs help with the housework. He is among the few people on earth who regularly has the courage to tell Lucy things she does not want to hear. Recently he was delighted to send her an e-mail pointing out an embarrassing spelling error in one of her stories.

They share their bed with two Siamese cats, Lewis and Clark. Shellshocked lobbyists who have been grilled by Lucy ought to listen as she babytalks those spoiled cats. On the den wall hang 30 photographs, paintings and weavings portraying felines.

Patrolling the state Capitol, visiting offices, Lucy knows who is a cat person and who is not.

"Jeb sleeps with a Siamese," Lucy purrs, though hopefully she only has his word for it.

Even so, she says she has frequently been disappointed by Gov. Bush's desire to conduct the people's business outside the presence of reporters, namely her.

"I felt like you put me over your knee and spanked me," he complained after an especially critical story.

Sounding exasperated, he now says, "We still haven't figured out where she gets all her sources."

One time Lucy cooked him supper at her house. She has a good recipe for chicken amandine.

The source, not the story

With retirement pending, she is worried about the future of journalism.

Sometimes reporters are too quick to confront, too quick to chase the "gotcha" story. Lucy prefers quiet investigations. She prefers to examine public records and read the fine print - before dropping the guillotine blade.

"You don't want to shoot rubber bands," she says. "When the time comes you want a loaded gun."

She tells young reporters to value a good source more than a good story.

One of her best sources ever was an alcoholic named George, who mopped floors at the Pasco County jail. He liked Lucy because she always stopped to chew the fat. "You treat me like a human being," he told her.

He often called her with tips he had gleaned from eavesdropping at the Sheriff's Office.

"The sheriff one time got tired of the leaks and made everybody on his staff take a lie detector test," Lucy says. "Everybody but George."

One Christmas George knocked on her door carrying a jar of his grandmother's jelly. George had long hair and a rough demeanor, but Lucy wasn't afraid to welcome him into her home.

"The trouble with reporters today is they avoid people like George," she says. "A good reporter should be comfortable with all kinds of people - not just people exactly like them. If you don't want to talk to someone like George you might as well be an editor."

Friends, lobbyists and opera

In a few weeks Lucy will officially yield her job as Tallahassee bureau chief to Steve Bousquet, a veteran political writer. He says he is nervous about replacing a legend.

She is nervous about it, too, though not for the same reason. She says she won't miss counting paper clips, but fears being out of the loop.

Last spring senators named the press gallery after her. She can't imagine not sitting in her regular chair next time the Senate is in session. How could state government go on without her?

Well, she still has a few days left.

In her office, she is listening to a selection from a Verdi opera, "Libiamo, ne lieti calici," the drinking song from La Traviata. Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker have such beautiful voices! As she listens, head bobbing, she quietly is investigating the lives of lobbyists.

Lobbyists like her - "I have some good friends who are lobbyists" - but mostly they fear her.

The late Dempsey Barron, a hard-drinking senator, enjoyed telephoning Lucy whenever his office was overflowing with lobbyists. "Come on over for a chat," he'd say.

When Lucy arrived, lobbyists scurried out of the office like cockroaches fleeing the bathroom light.

"Until later," not "goodbye"

Five years ago she shattered her right ankle in a fall. In January, when she is officially retired, she plans to submit to surgery No. 8, this time at Mayo Clinic.

When her bones knit, she hopes to do a little part-time work. There are a few people who need investigating. Also, she is considering writing a memoir.

She and her husband own a lovely cabin on a mountain in North Carolina.

Mountain cabins are isolated places. They are good places to think and to listen to opera and to pet cats and to knit doll clothes and to drink wine and to write memoirs.

Of course, a mountain cabin is a perfect place for serious reading.

Lucy still has that Tennyson collection she hoped to read the time she was sentenced to jail for not revealing sources.

One of his famous poems was A Farewell.

Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea

Thy tribute wave deliver:

No more by thee my steps shall be,

For ever and for ever.

Flow, softly flow, by lawn and lea,

A rivulet then a river:

Nowhere by thee my steps shall be,

For ever and for ever.

But here will sigh thine alder tree,

And here thine aspen shiver;

And here by thee will hum the bee,

For ever and for ever.

A thousand suns will stream on thee,

A thousand moons will quiver;

But not by thee my steps shall be,

For ever and for ever.

* * *

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

FURTHER READING

- Orange Journalism: Voices from Florida Newspapers, edited by Julian M. Pleasants, University Press of Florida.

- Women on Deadline: A Collection of America's Best, edited by Sherry Ricchiardi and Virginia Young, Iowa State University Press.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT LUCY

At Times Lucy Morgan's foes and fans were synonymous. A few words of shock and awe:

* * *

"Lucy Morgan has played a lot of important roles at the St. Petersburg Times, but none more important than this one: reporter. Of all the journalists on this very talented staff, nobody was more likely to break a good story than Lucy."

- Paul Tash, editor, CEO and chairman of the St. Petersburg Times

* * *

"Lucy Morgan made the state of Florida a better place to live and the St. Petersburg Times a better newspaper. She took young people under her wing and brought them along at the same time she scared the pants off politicians with something to hide. I have never known a reporter who was better at ferreting out facts."

- Andrew Barnes, former chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times

* * *

"It is said the worst thing that can happen to someone in state government is getting a message that Lucy Morgan is on the line."

- Darryl Paulson, University of South Florida political science professor

* * *

"We always returned her phone calls right away."

- Jill Chamberlin, former press secretary for Gov. Bob Graham, D-Miami

* * *

"When I first met Lucy, I was a newly elected sheriff and she had a fresh Pulitzer from her expose of the corruption (of a sheriff in Pasco County). I watched the other sheriffs of Florida moving around her as if they walked through a room in a manner strikingly similar to the way a school of fish moves around a passing shark."

- J. Allison DeFoor II, former sheriff of Monroe County and current vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida

* * *

"She was the only reporter I ever lied to - and she caught me. I never did it again."

- Prentiss Mitchell, insurance lobbyist, Tallahassee

* * *

"I always compared Lucy to a cannon on a ship. You always wanted to make sure she was pointed away from the boat. It was wonderful that she was on our side - most of the time."

- Former Times executive editor Mike Foley and current University of Florida journalism lecturer

* * *

"I hope you don't get shot in my circuit. It'll take way too long to question all the suspects."

- State attorney Jerry Blair, Live Oak

* * *

"Some would call it guts, some would call it integrity, but I think everybody . . . knows why politicians keep talking to Lucy, no matter how she skewers them. It's called fear."

- Bill Cotterell, Tallahassee Democrat reporter

* * *

"I don't think there has ever been anybody who hasn't said she wasn't fair. But goodness help you if she was on your trail."

- Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville

* * *

"You are the biggest pain in the ass in Florida - something every one of us should be grateful for. If it wasn't for you we would probably steal the silverware."

- Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua and candidate for governor

* * *

"You look so harmless knitting."

- Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden

* * *

"You have always had a great nose for bull---- and have thrived in a target-rich environment. On behalf of all the B.S. artists in this capital city, thank you for retiring."

- Steve Wilkerson, cable television lobbyist, Tallahassee

* * *

"I actually consider her a friend, but don't tell her. It might ruin her stellar reputation with most of her peers."

- Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Miami

* * *

"I just wanted to say I always trusted what you said. I never doubted your word and always abided by what you wrote."

- Ruth Futo, 85-year-old newspaper reader, Brooksville

* * *

"No journalist I've known excelled Lucy Morgan in common sense, character and commitment to the public's interest. Nobody is indispensable, they say, but it's hard for me to imagine how the Times can do without Lucy."

- Eugene Patterson, editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times