Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jack Nelson -- RIP

Jack Nelson, reporter

Camp Connell, CA -- Democracy lost a friend when Jack Nelson passed away at age 80 this week.
Jack was a newspaper reporter, the type that movies should be made about. Honest. Tough. Uncompromising. Caring.
He hated dishonesty, particularly in public officials, and spent his long productive lifetime trying hard to make sure the public knew the facts of every situation so they could judge for themselves who deserved to be elected, or not.
Eulogies will be in the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, but here is a brief picture of the Jack Nelson I knew.
When I was a 20-year-old reporting intern at the Atlanta Journal, Jack had just won a Pulitzer Prize for the Atlanta Constitution, then our rival newspaper. The prize was for reporting on abuses at the state-run mental hospital, a series of stories that got sleazy officials fired and won better treatment for sick people under government control.
Jack took time to meet and be supportive of the younger reporters, and spent an afternoon or two over beer across the street from the newspaper answering our questions about how good reporting was done. When he suspected voter rolls were faked in one Georgia County, he took the voter lists to the local cemeteries where he found a lot of dead voters. Despite threats to his personal safety he wrote stories about crooked sheriffs running speed traps to catch Florida-bound tourists, complete with hidden speed limit signs and cash-only fines.
When I went back to school for my senior year studying journalism, a handful of had the nerve to write and ask him if he could come speak to a new chapter of the student journalism association. Jack got into his car and drove from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa, made the requested speech, and encouraged our small group. He made it clear he was just a hard-working reporter who wanted to dig out and tell the truth.
He spent a long rewarding life doing just that.
Jack left the Atlanta newspapers to be the Southern-based writer for the Los Angeles Times, and later Washington Bureau Chief.
A decade after our first meeting, I was a bureau chief covering the announcement by George C. Wallace that he would make a run for President of the United States when Wallace stopped in mid-speech and said something like this: "Why all those pointy-headed bicycle-riding college professors think my campaign is not important, but there in the back of the room is Yankee reporter Jack Nelson from the ultra-liberal Losss Angell-ese Times writing down every word I say!"
Jack, a native Southerner who knew Wallace for the hypocrite he was, just smiled at the Alabama governor, took his notes, and went back to write another straight-as-an-arrow story about what the ex-governor said and did, without a hint of his own feelings.
He didn't tolerate hypocrites or fools, but he let the truth tell the tale.

We're all better off for having know Jack and benefited from his work.

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