Southern People

When Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times reporter and former Washington bureau chief, died at 80 on Oct. 21, 2009, obituaries ignored his early career. Aside from dutifully noting that he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for a series of articles in The Atlanta Constitution on abysmal conditions at the state mental hospital at Milledgeville, his obituaries said little about the dozen years during which he grew into the dominant reporter in Atlanta. This was true even of the obit in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

We suggest that in an odd and no doubt unintended way, this was itself a sort of embedded tribute. Winning a Pulitzer in Georgia at age 29 would for most newsmen mark the “prime” of their careers. For Nelson it was merely the beginning of a prime that lasted another half-century.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Jack Nelson
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Jack Nelson

In 1965, when he moved on from covering corruption, crime and incompetence in Georgia, Nelson became a leading chronicler of the civil rights movement, along with Gene Roberts and Claude Sitton of the New York Times and several others. When the Los Angeles paper moved him to Washington, he broke some of the foundation stories of the unfolding Watergate scandal.

But there was an earlier Nelson. One of us (Bentley) worked with him for seven of the 12 years Nelson wrote for The Constitution. Nesmith, who joined the staff in 1964, knew him as a colleague for only a few months. For both of us, and for the entire staff of The Constitution in those days, he defined what good journalism can be.

Jack Nelson was 23 and not long out of the Army when The Constitution brought him from Biloxi, Miss., to Atlanta in 1952. The Constitution in those days was a good, though small, morning paper in a five-county metropolis that would not reach a population of a million for six more years. On hot nights, the newsroom windows along Forsyth Street were opened to catch a breeze.

Like most Southern papers, The Constitution and the afternoon Journal were written for white folks, leaving coverage of black news to the much smaller Atlanta Daily World. Constitution editor Ralph McGill had evolved into a rare Southern liberal and, in 1959, winner of the paper’s second Pulitzer. (The first was the 1931 Public Service prize for uncovering a City Hall bribery scandal that led to indictments and convictions. Most of the stories were written by City Hall reporter Herman Hancock.)

Nelson’s Atlanta mentors were old guys in their 30s or early 40s. They had been shot at during World War II and matured earlier than most generations. Assistant managing editor Tom McRae had been a combat correspondent and managing editor for the Mediterranean edition of Stars and Stripes. Calvin Cox lost his twin brother a mile away during the Battle of the Bulge. When the train carrying Calvin home to Greenwood, Miss., stopped briefly at Atlanta’s Union Station in 1945, the former infantryman got off and applied for a job in the nearby Constitution building, two blocks south on Forsyth Street. McRae was Jack’s final managing editor and Cox his final city editor in Atlanta.

Born dirt-poor in Alabama and reared in Mississippi, Nelson respected his elders. He did what he was told when city editor Howell Jones or night city editor Ralph Bugg gave him an assignment. He helped when there was an overflow of obits or when told to write the first edition weather short or just answer a ringing phone. Grownups did what was needed.

He also showed how a pro on the move can raise the standards of a newspaper staff for the rest of their careers. Nelson’s Pulitzer was for reporting under pressure of deadline. The state mental hospital in Milledgeville was one of the biggest anywhere and might have been the worst.

Nelson’s stories started strong, despite opposition from medical groups angered that a mere reporter dared to question doctors. He got little support from competing journalists, print or TV. As he started to run out of material, he discovered that a nurse performed major surgery at the 12,500-bed hospital because none of the 48 physicians was available. None of the doctors were psychiatrists, and some had drug and alcohol problems. Black patients suffered from neglect even more than whites.

The ability to dictate a story from notes, complete with punctuation – “period, close-quote, new graf. . . ” – was an admired skill among reporters in pre-computer days. Former Constitution editor Eugene Patterson – writing an Internet tribute opened by Nelson’s family at scoopnelson.wordpress.com – recalled that Nelson was eating lunch one day in Milledgeville when a member of the local medical society “barged up to his table and belted him in the jaw.” Nelson had been a Golden Gloves boxer as a teenager in Biloxi, but he held his temper. Patterson wrote that Nelson “stood up, walked to a phone and called in the story.”

It was Bentley who did the typing, first on the main story – which Nelson dictated with cold precision – and then a short piece on the one-sided fight. On the sidebar, however, he dictated through clenched teeth and needed a little help. He was fuming. His jaw hurt.

Throughout his Constitution career, Nelson regularly joined colleagues after hours in a seedy beer joint in an alley across from the Atlanta papers’ Forsyth Street building. He was always the same guy, worried mostly about whether his chief competitor, The Journal’s John Pennington, was working on something he didn’t know about. Pennington was the reporter whose coverage of voting irregularities saved Jimmy Carter from defeat in his first political race beyond Sumter County.

It was an electrifying time for beginners in the news business 50 years ago. Editors and writers hungry for the latest developments in Nelson’s Milledgeville campaign or other strong stories paced the newsroom like tigers hyped on adrenalin, freed for the moment from essays on agriculture or the final days of Ike’s White House. Politicians hated us. The Klan hated us. Doctors hated us. It was a worrisome but wonderful time in the newspaper business.

(Disclosure: One reason for the exhilaration was that our major competition was The Atlanta Journal, a powerhouse of superb editors and reporters. One day Nelson or others would drive the news. On another Pennington would find “THAY IS NO GOD” scrawled on a prison wall. The competition in Atlanta lasted for decades and served our readers well.)

Nelson’s stories, along with McGill’s Page One columns and Patterson’s editorials, were at the heart of it. From “marriage mills” along the Florida-Georgia line to illegal gambling parlors in Savannah to police bribery schemes in Atlanta and truck-stop brothels in Rome, Nelson fed the machine.

The administration of Georgia’s race-baiting governor, Marvin Griffin, ended pockmarked with scandals exposed by Nelson and others.

Years after leaving office, Griffin had a few drinks with journalists and remembered those days.

“Jack, do you know what I used to think to myself every time I had a press conference in the governor’s office and I’d see you coming through the door with that damn notebook in your hand?” Griffin asked.

Nelson said, “No, Governor, what was that?”

“I’d think, ‘I wonder what that beady-eyed son-of-a-bitch has got on me this week.’”

Griffin’s use of the term “beady-eyed” was evidently an off-hand effort to describe the piercing and often indignant stare that symbolized Nelson’s sometimes overpowering interviewing techniques. As Nesmith was told by another reporter a few weeks after joining The Constitution staff, “Jack takes this stuff personally. He is personally offended by wrongdoing.”

Remer Tyson, a former Constitution political writer who went on to cover politics for the Detroit Free Press and Africa for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers before retiring in Zimbabwe, recalled being assigned a desk adjacent to Nelson’s when he joined the Atlanta paper.

“I marveled at the answers he could get to questions over the telephone,” Tyson recalled. “I also came to the conclusion that Jack was smarter than me and most other people in the city room. He was affable and fearless, with a feeling for people who needed help the most and couldn’t protect themselves.”

Tyson also recalled that Nelson did not win every fight.

“On one assignment, he went to a corrupt south Georgia county to investigate a story about the son of the sheriff shooting to death some poor soul and never getting charged with anything,” Tyson said. “Jack came back with a story — fully attributed to named sources — that amounted to prima facie evidence that the sheriff’s son had got away with what we called cold-blooded murder.”

But a newspaper lawyer, hearing Nelson’s draft read over the telephone, pronounced it libelous because the sheriff’s son had not been charged with a crime.

Although that was the whole point of the story, managing editor Bill Fields took the lawyers’ advice and killed it. Lawsuits are expensive even if you win.

“The next day Jack put on the newsroom bulletin board a big black headline he had printed in the back shop,” Tyson said. The headline read: SHERIFF’S SON GETS AWAY WITH MURDER, As told by Jack Nelson. Under the headline he hung a couple of yards of blank paper.

Few knew when Nelson’s 12-year career at The Constitution ended in 1965 that Fields had fought – unsuccessfully – for a substantial raise for Nelson after his Pulitzer.

Retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Minter recalled that Fields hurt his own career in his closed-door battle with the paper’s top management. He spoke of it only privately, but he had tried, Minter said.

Nelson’s colleague and friend Gene Roberts told a memorial service audience in Washington’s National Geographic auditorium that Nelson was the best reporter of the 20th century. But Jack also had a sense of humor and laughed about the silly stories that sometimes get into newspapers. This was one of his favorites:

Space aliens were everywhere in the mid-1950s. As midnight approached on July 7, 1953, three young men from Cobb County reported to the police that they had seen two space critters jump into their disc and zoom away, leaving one alien on the highway under the wheel of their truck. They brought the deceased being to The Constitution newsroom. The night city editor called in Avondale Estates veterinarian Milton Thome, who pronounced the beast “not of this world.” The presses running the final home delivery edition were stopped to add the story to the bottom of Page One. The story spread around the world – on what is now called the media — like a saucer on high test.

In a follow-up the next day, The Constitution’s Katherine Barnwell wrote that two of the Cobb guys turned out to be barbers and the other a butcher. One bet the others ten bucks that he could get his name in the newspaper. He won, but it cost him a $40 fine for blow-torching a highway to fake a saucer scratching off. The shaved monkey, which had been painted green and its tail removed, is preserved in a large jar of formaldehyde in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime museum. The names of the Atlanta monkey hoax trio made the papers several times and may be studied for eternity by space aliens viewing today’s Internet from afar.

Jack, who glowered only at bad guys, recalled the story as he lay dying at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was still laughing.

For more:

On C-SPAN.ORG, the Jack Nelson Memorial, a 142-minute video of a tribute from friends led by Eugene Patterson, Gene Roberts and Terry Adamson at the National Geographic auditorium in Washington.

Or select scoopnelson.wordpress.com for tributes to the former Georgia journalist.

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Jim Bentley and Jeff Nesmith

Jim Bentley joined The Constitution in 1958 and served as a reporter, assistant city editor, night city editor and city editor until leaving to join the Tennessee Valley Authority as director of information in February 1979. When offered a job as the first Cox Washington news editor, he jumped at it. He retired at the end of 1993 and moved with his wife, Pat, to Jekyll Island, Ga.

Jeff Nesmith was hired by The Constitution in the mid-1960s. He was a prize-winning reporter, held several editing jobs, married fellow reporter Achsah Posey and moved north to the Philadelphia Bulletin. When the Bulletin crumbled, the Nesmiths moved to Washington, where Achsah was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter and Jeff rejoined Cox in the Washington bureau. He won numerous journalism awards, including a Pulitzer, before the Internet stole the classified ads. Their granddaughter is the most important visitor to their home in Alexandria, Va.