Tom Harris: Journalist for Justice
Tom C. Harris joined the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) as a copyboy in 1923 at the age of 14. His mother had taken him to the paper asking the manager if they had a job for “my son.” At the time, Tom was still in high school and wearing short pants, or what was known at the time as knickers. The manager introduced Tom to the staff as the new copyboy and then deadpanned, “He says he wants to be editor of the Times.”
Tom Harris’ big break at the Times came two years later. He was the only one available to cover a gruesome murder in which an 18-year-old killed both his parents. His story made the front page and he was promoted to police reporter. One of the Times’ staffers also rewarded him by buying him a pair of long pants. Years later when the staffer retired, Harris bought him a new suit. Eventually Harris also graduated from St. Petersburg High, where he also worked on school publications. For him, this was no great activity as by then he had already been the Times city editor for over a year.
In 1929, at the age of 20, Harris married Patricia Brock who was the Times woman’s page editor. They had three children, Peggy and Tricia who are twins, and later Sharon.
Tom’s daughters, Peggy and Sharon Harris, in particular remember their family Christmases. “We lived in a two-story house. No one could go downstairs until everyone was up. Daddy often stayed at work until one or two o’clock in the morning, even on Christmas Eve. We hung our stockings. On Christmas morning, our Dad would tease us saying that Santa hadn’t been there yet when he got home. He would then go downstairs and peek into the living room and say, ‘Yes, Santa was here.’ We had a Lionel toy train that was always put out for Christmas. The train would never stay on the track. As soon as Christmas morning festivities were over Daddy would be off to the office.”
All three daughters later worked in journalism and publishing. Peggy became a copy editor and reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News. Tricia (Mrs. William T. Burgin Jr. of Wayne, Pennsylvania) was a book editor at Barnes and Noble in New York City. Sharon became a software developer for Hachette Publishers in Paris, France.
While Harris greatly loved his family, he also loved the Times, where he affectionately came to be known as ‘TCH.’ He worked all the time, sometimes 20 hours a day. Over lunch, he might catch a part of a movie and a hot dog at the nearby Florida Theater. Dinner was often at the nearby Poinsettia Hotel, also called Simpsons. His friend and cartoonist Wally Bishop, creator of Muggs and Skeeter, once wrote of him, “Possessed of an uncanny memory for names, faces, places, and facts, Harris over the years became a walking encyclopedia of memorabilia concerning St. Petersburg and its citizens.” Bishop also noted, “the activities of an entire city passed through his office… and he constantly kept check on the nation and the world as well…”
Above all Harris had a nose for news. An example was his expectation that the country would be joining the Allies against the Nazis in World War II. Peggy remembers being at home when she and her mother heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Tom was asleep upstairs and they quickly woke him with the news. Of course he immediately left for the paper. Tom had expected that something was about to break, and had pre-planned a front-page banner two weeks before Pearl Harbor with the word “WAR” emblazoned across a third of the front page.
Over the years, Harris worked his way up in the Times. He became city editor at the age of 17 in 1926. In 1933, he was named managing editor (at age 25, the youngest managing editor in the nation), and in 1941 executive editor. He became general manager and executive vice president in 1961. He had a highly personal, informal management style. Sometimes large organizations like the Times have leadership which is directed either inward or outward – ‘inside leaders’ who primarily focus on the internal workings, and ‘outside leaders’ who primarily focus on relationships and partnerships with other organizations in the city and beyond. Nelson Poynter, who assumed effective management of the paper in 1938, was that outside leader, traveling a great deal, particularly attending to the Times affiliate the Congressional Quarterly in Washington, DC, and during World War II serving as deputy administrator of the US Foreign Information Service. Tom Harris was primarily an inside leader. Nelson Poynter was popularly known in St. Petersburg as the Times ‘owner,’ and Tom Harris as the Times ‘editor.’
In the 1940s, Harris helped lead the paper from organizing news on the basis of what stories were considered to be most important, to what is known as ‘departmentalization’ or the categorizing of news by topic (national, local, business, etc.) In the 1950s, he helped lead the effort toward ‘enterprise writers,’ journalists specializing in a subject area such as society news, police activity, local government, and the like. He worked hard to convert the Times from the old letterpresses to offset, cold type, and color photography. The Times was one of the first dailies in the world to switch to cold type. He was very proud of the new presses. “Daddy would give tours of the plant at midnight, which was when the presses were operating,” said his daughters.
Harris studied Spanish in high school and maintained an interest in all things Hispanic throughout his life. His daughters noted: “Daddy loved radios. We had a radio in every room. He loved Cuban music and Cuban cigars. He traveled to Cuba many times in the 1920s and ’30s. Daddy loved going to Ybor City in the 1930s and ’40s. Birthdays were often celebrated at the Columbia Restaurant or Las Novedades.” He made yearly ‘vacation’ trips to various Latin American countries. ‘Vacation’ is in quotes because he used these sojourns to interview Latin American leaders, as well as ‘persons on the street,’ and file reports back to the Times on his experiences including earthquakes and coups. In 1958, he was sent by Nelson Poynter on a 10-week trip to Latin America to do in-depth reporting.
In the 1940s, the Times ran a comic strip designed to help children learn Spanish. This was likely Tom’s doing. He was very internationally minded, hosting visiting journalists from places such as Japan, South Africa, and Turkey. He possessed a particularly strong interest in fostering closer relationships between the United States and neighboring Spanish-speaking countries, as did early Times editor and part-owner William L. Straub. When Nelson Poynter became editor in 1939, Poynter also embraced the idea of partnership with Latin America and this theme was pushed nearly to the level of a campaign. At one time, the Times gave extensive coverage to Latin America, hiring noted journalists such as Bill Landrey. On one occasion, Harris saluted Latin American newspapers as “the bulwark in the fight against dictators and communism south of the border.” Harris was a force in the newspaper industry along with Nelson Poynter. He was president of the Florida Associated Press, a director of the national association, and chair of the Freedom of the Press Committee for the Inter-American Press Association.
In 1949, four young African Americans – Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin – were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman near the town of Groveland in Lake County, Florida. (The story was recently memorialized in the best seller Devil in the Grove.) At the time, the Ku Klux Klan was well-established in Lake County and it initiated a wave of violence against African Americans in which two of the defendants were shot, killing one. The surviving three were beaten in jail and convicted by an all-white jury. They came to be represented by Thurgood Marshall, an attorney for the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund and later Supreme Court Justice.
Norman Bunin, a 26-year-old copy editor at the Times took an interest in the case, subsequently writing a multi-part exposé which developed many leads indicating the innocence of those convicted. Marshall was able to get the US Supreme Court to overturn the convictions of two and order a retrial. One of these was subsequently shot dead in cold blood while being transported by the sheriff, Willis McCall. The surviving defendant was again convicted and sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted to life by Governor LeRoy Collins and was released from prison in 1960.
Marshall had contacted Tom Harris at the Times to solicit the paper’s support in petitioning the governor for a pardon. The Times ran a number of editorials calling for justice. All of the accused were posthumously exonerated by the legislature in 2017. After the governor commuted the sentence of one of those convicted, a grand jury was convened in Lake County to revisit the entire matter. One of its actions was to personally rebuke Tom Harris for “smearing the good people of Lake County and its law enforcement officers” through the Times reporting and editorials. Harris had a history of righting wrongs in the criminal justice system. As a reporter in 1926, he was instrumental in securing the release of two men who had spent two years in prison after they were wrongly convicted of robbery. He once said this was his greatest satisfaction as a journalist.
Tom Harris retired from the Times in 1968, but not from journalism. He immediately assumed the position of executive editor of El Mundo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. One of his initiatives there was the establishment of a summer training school for journalists. He remained in that position until 1975. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he was invited by the Times to write its history. When he died in 1985, the history was not finished. The unfinished typed manuscript is in the University of South Florida special collections.
As Sharon Harris put it, “Daddy never lost his nose for news, always looking forward to tomorrow’s news. He was a very kind man with an innate sense of justice. He saw journalism as a way to do justice.” Peggy Harris added, “He felt very strongly that a free press was essential to democracy.”