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His passion and fearlessness made Florida a better place

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published January 8, 2006


It's not easy to write this: Martin Dyckman is retiring this week after almost 47 years at the St. Petersburg Times.

Some snarly souls, including the politicians who curse his name, will rejoice over the news, but Floridians who believe government should be open, ethical and compassionate will miss his passionate voice. Martin is more than a first-rate journalist; he is first and foremost a concerned citizen who cares deeply about his state and his country. To him, journalism is, at its best, a form of public service.

Martin's decision to retire marks another serious loss to Florida journalism, coming as it does after the retirement in November of St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Lucy Morgan, a 37-year veteran of the paper, and the death last year of Gene Miller, the legendary Miami Herald reporter who freed innocent men from death row. No question about it, Florida is a better state because of the journalism of these fearless three.

I asked Martin to describe his philosophy of journalism. He said he had never really thought about it, but "if I had to define it, it would be to attempt to report, as fully and fairly as possible, anything and everything that would help the public hold their government accountable."

And that is what he did for nearly a half century, first as a relentless investigative reporter and later as a thunder-clap editorial writer and columnist. In Tallahassee, the seat of state government where Martin has been based since 2000, his eye was on the sparrow, much to the regret of any legislator who tried to slip something by the public.

Even at the end of his long newspaper career, he has more energy, passion and a deeper well of outrage than reporters half his age. He really does care. Over the years his editors kept advising him to "lighten up a little." He never did.

Mike Richardson, one of Martin's former colleagues on the Times editorial board, wrote recently that he found only one fault in Martin's reporting and opinion writing over the years - he failed to register as a lobbyist for good government.

"In public life," Richardson went on, "I've never known a more ardent and articulate practitioner of investigative and advocacy journalism. He changed Florida with his work in the early 1970s exposing a corrupt Supreme Court and despicable state Cabinet. Justice would have awarded him the Pulitzer Prize any one of four years."

Martin never won a Pulitzer (he deserved one), but he earned his share of other awards. The prize he says he values most is the 1984 Florida Bar Foundation Medal of Honor Award that recognized his work in exposing two great scandals, one in the state Supreme Court and the other in Florida prisons. The award has gone to such Floridians as former Gov. Reubin Askew, former American Bar Association president Chesterfield Smith, and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Gene Miller was the only other journalist to receive it.

Martin considers his unraveling of a corruption and ethics scandal on the Florida Supreme Court in the early 1970s to be his most important work as a reporter. His bloodhound reporting resulted in the resignations of two justices, one of whom was disbarred, and the near impeachment of a third.

In one of his biggest stories, Martin reported that two justices accepted a secret draft opinion from a telephone company lawyer who was working the back halls of the court after it had heard arguments in a case potentially deciding whether the public or the stockholders of regulated utilities would pay then-Gov. Reubin Askew's new corporate profits tax.

As Martin recently recalled, "Justice Joe Boyd got cold feet and flushed his copy down a toilet in "seventeen equal pieces' but Justice Hal Dekle used his to write what was to be the court's opinion until law clerk gossip alarmed the court and the chief justice told Dekle to rewrite it."

The court scandal created a climate for judicial reform that led to passage of a constitutional amendment to take the appeals courts out of elective politics. As an editorial writer for more than two decades, Martin was a staunch defender of the independence and integrity of the state judiciary that has come under political attack in recent years.

Knowing Martin, he will not confuse retirement with idleness. This fall, his biography of Florida's greatest governor (Floridian of the Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins) will be published by the University Press of Florida. And he's already planning his next book, on the Florida Supreme Court scandal.

We hate to see him go, but Martin leaves with our gratitude, great respect, deep affection and best wishes. His voice will be missed on our opinion pages. His colleagues, meanwhile, will strive to keep his light burning bright in the Times' editorial window. If it grows dim, I'm sure Martin will be the first to let us know.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is gailey@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 7, 2006, 00:22:02]


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