Virginia Ellis and the Florida Press Corps
Post # 155, Bob McKnight's Florida Commentary
When I describe the Florida Legislature in the '70's and '80's as the "Golden Age," I am not just talking about the Legislators. I am talking about the staff, the lobbyists and yes, the press as well. There was just a different culture then--if you were a part of the lawmaking process, you had a responsibility to meet a standard set by many before you--Dick Pettigrew, Marshall Harris, if you were a Legislator. Marjorie Turnbull and John Phelps set the standard for the staff. Dick Jones and John Roberts set the standard for the lobbyists. And if you were part of the respected Press Corps then, Virginia Ellis of the then St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) was among the very best that set
standard. Sadly we just lost Virginia only recently.
I remember very well Virginia calling me in 1977 asking for an appointment for what was called in the press, a "weekender." I was in the House of Representatives serving with a small group of members supporting the Speakership of Hyatt Brown (D., Daytona). The powerful Speaker then was supporting his life long friend Ed Fortune of Pace, so we were underdogs. Speaker Don Tucker was so powerful that he was the only Speaker to have served as Speaker for two consecutive terms. Since I was the only member of Brown's team from the 22 member Miami Dade delegation, I was important to Brown.
Virginia asked to interview me after an all night clandestine effort by the Brown Campaign to force a vote in the House for Speaker. Tucker opposed it, but we secured written pledges from over half of the eligible members, including some of Fortune supporters. It became page one, top of the page in the Florida Press because it was carried out in total secrecy, which made it red meat for reporters like Virginia Ellis.
The event was tagged, "The Attack of Entebbe," by Brown with a picture of the famous raid in Libya, taped to Brown's office front door. Virginia asked me to describe it, and I somehow used an expression of my Mom in describing my clothes as a kid, "We were members of the Legislature running around after midnight in our dungarees and sneakers getting votes." It became a headline and picture in Florida's newspapers. Brown became the Speaker later that day.
Virginia was attractive, smart, but tenacious. She joined some of the very best reporters then--Martin Dyckman also of the St. Pete Times, Bob Shaw, Bill Mansfield, and John McDermott of the Miami Herald, Hank Drane of the Florida Times Union, John Van Gieson and Tom Fiedler of the Orlando Sentinel, David Powell of the AP, Sam Miller of UPI, Ray Starr and Mark Ives of Florida Video News Network , Mike Vasilinda of Capital News Service, and Bib Willis of PBS. I am unable today to describe how unfortunate it is that we do not have the protection of these fine stewards of the 1st Amendment to our Constitution today.
Virginia, Rest in Peace.