Lucy Morgan, a Florida journalism legend, dies at 82 in Tallahassee

Gun Rights

In a political town where professional reputations can be made with a few fleeting victories, Lucy Morgan was a genuine legend for more than four decades of hard work, shrewd political instincts and total dedication to the public’s right to know about the money, backroom deals and power plays that Florida government runs on.

As the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times, back when it was known as the St. Petersburg Times, she knew everybody of importance in the Capitol. She was respected as a fair, tough, accurate reporter who was widely admired, feared or disliked — sometimes all three — by governors, lobbyists, lawyers, legislators, academicians, Cabinet officers, members of Congress, campaign managers, judges, cops and government administrators big and small all over Florida.

Morgan, 82, died Wednesday, Sept. 20, in Tallahassee due to complications from a fall, a family spokesperson said.

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Aside from journalism honors that included a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, Morgan was known as a mentor for countless women in the profession. Her career began in an era when female reporters, if hired at all, were generally consigned to the features sections and had to prove themselves repeatedly to be taken seriously in newsrooms.

She broke big stories regularly and made herself a known brand. “Lucy’s calling… Lucy had a good piece in the Times this morning… They worked for Lucy last session…” were references readily understood in downtown Tallahassee.

Away from the job, she was known for her weakness for animals, especially cats, and her taste in opera. She was also an enthusiastic participant in the annual Capitol Press Corps Skits, in which reporters spoof the politicians they cover.

Born in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Oct. 11, 1940, Morgan married a football coach at 17 and had three children. Divorced and living in Crystal River by age 25, she was a voracious reader, which led to a fabled career in reporting.

An editor of the Ocala Star-Banner was looking for a “stringer” — journalese for a local correspondent paid per-story — and asked a librarian for recommendations in 1965. She said there was a woman in town who’d read practically everything on the shelves, so the editor knocked on Lucy’s door.

Ol’ boys around the courthouse took a casual, down-home approach to what would become Florida’s vaunted open meeting and public records laws in those days. Some city commissioners had a little rump session about firing the police chief, and Morgan got wind of it. Her story was not the sort of thing local officials were used to in those days, but Morgan made them get used to it over the years.

At the Times, her stories about drug dealings along the Forgotten Coast and central-north Florida were newsroom legends. 

Sometimes the public officials whose corruption or incompetence she exposed fought back.

In 1973, working for the then-St. Petersburg Times, Morgan was charged with contempt of court for refusing to name sources of information she reported on a Pasco County grand jury. She faced hard time, but the late Sandy d’Alemberte, who later became president of Florida State University, took her appeal to the Florida Supreme Court — and won not just her own freedom, but a victory for the First Amendment.

“These contempt proceedings were not brought to punish violation of a criminal statute and were not part of an effort to obtain information needed in a criminal investigation,” the late former Justice Joseph Hatchett wrote in State v. Morgan. “Their purpose was to force a newspaper reporter to disclose the source of published information so that the authorities could silence the source.”

In 1985, she earned journalism’s highest honor. She and colleague Jack Reed were awarded the Pulitzer for investigative reporting for uncovering corruption in the Pasco County sheriff’s office. Their work cost the sheriff his job in the next election.

While in St. Petersburg, she married a Times editor, Richard Morgan, who survives his wife. In retirement, the couple of 54 years divided their time between Tallahassee and a mountain home at Cashiers, N.C.

Even after retirement, Morgan remained active, writing occasional major stories for the Times and lending her expertise in broadcast interviews and educational programs. She also wrote occasional columns for the Florida Phoenix, a progressive-leaning online news site in Tallahassee.

Morgan had a knack for getting big shots to tell her things.

The late FSU President T.K. Wetherell was House appropriations chairman when he confided to her that he’d tucked $1 million into the 1990-91 budget for restoration of “Silver Beach.” There is no such place. Wetherell used the budget line as a cash stash when House members asked him for favors, collecting IOUs from his colleagues by parceling out $50,000 here and $100,000 there for hometown projects.

She wrote it up, resulting in an Ethics Commission complaint against Wetherell (it was dismissed) and an inside look at Tallahassee horse trading.

For much higher stakes, Morgan shined her light on a $32 million appropriation slipped into a transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 legislative session for the new First District Court of Appeal building, a gaudy palace south of Tallahassee that could make the Florida Supreme Court look like a garage. Morgan went through hundreds of e-mail messages to document how the money was quietly concealed in the unrelated transportation package.

“She worked only from yellow legal pads … she always walked around with one,” recalled Steve Bousquet, who worked with her for many years. When she retired, Bousquet recalled finding yellow notepads crammed in file cabinets all over the bureau.

Bousquet, who succeeded Morgan as Times bureau chief when she retired in 2004, is now opinion editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Another time, a rental car company hosted the House Regulated Industries Committee at the old Silver Slipper, for a lavish banquet on the eve of a key vote for a bill affecting its business. Morgan found out and wrote about it to show readers how wheels got greased in those pre-gift ban days. 

The cozy conflict between favor seekers and decision makers was a favorite topic for her. Ron Book, one of the Capitol’s most influential lobbyists, described in a 2012 NPR profile how Morgan was no more deferential to the lobbying corps than she was with the officeholders.

“She has been known to walk over and simply open up my pocket and take the paperwork out of my pocket,” Book said. “You see that I’m holding my notebook closed.”

Morgan replied, “Look, I have made him look so important, he makes millions doing it.”

Reactions pour in from around Florida

“Lucy and I were almost always on opposite sides of issues but respected each other.” — Marion Hammer, the long-time Tallahassee representative of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association.

“Florida has lost a legend and an icon. Journalism has lost a hero. Many of us have lost a mentor and friend.” — Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief.

“She was a mentor for so many reporters, particularly young women. She was incredibly generous with her time and her expertise. She was just this giant. She modeled for us how to be the toughest journalist in the world but also to be one of the kindest and most generous humans. She took care of her people, always.” — Joni James, former Tampa Bay Times reporter and Now VP of system communications for BayCare Health System in Clearwater. She worked with Lucy, hired her and worked together about 10 years.

“Surrounded by women she nurtured, with the love of her life – this is how she would want to be remembered. I wouldn’t be the woman, journalist, writer I am today if not for Lucy Morgan, my second mama, my beloved mentor, my friend. She leaves a huge legacy – and a huge hole in my heart. Rest in power, Lucy – I will always always thank you and always always love you.” — Kati Schardl, former Tallahassee Democrat journalist.

“She was an enormous encouragement to all of us. She would tell us war stories about people trying to poison her cat and going through her garbage, trying to scare her off a story. Everyone loved that. She was absolutely fearless, the most fearless person I’ve known.” — Diane Roberts, FSU English professor, Tallahassee author and opinion columnist, who knew Lucy since her days on the board of the Florida Flambeau in the mid-1980s.

“Lucy mentored dozens – maybe hundreds – of journalists over her decades spent reporting. She was generous with her time and her attention, and made everything more fun. We all learned so much from her. She was a loyal friend, a trusted confidante and a hilarious storyteller. She was an especially bright light to women in journalism, and she spoke truth to power.” — Julie Hauserman, longtime Tallahassee reporter.

“The speaker couldn’t have been more clear:  ‘If Lucy Morgan calls, take a message, do not talk to her, get off the phone as fast as possible, and call me.’ That was the clear message this then 21-year-old took home from the 1996 Florida Democratic Party’s campaign manager bootcamp — in fact,  it is literally the only thing I remember from those two days… Driving the fear of God into each of us kids wasn’t without merit – after all, Lucy, the then Tallahassee bureau chief of the state’s largest newspaper, wasn’t just any reporter.  She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and had even gone to jail to protect a source in a story.  Her bio reads like a prize-fighter’s resume of defeated foes though in Lucy’s case, it was the careers of bad politicians that hung on her wall. “ — Steve Schale, longtime lobbyist and strategist.

This is a developing story, check back for updates.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat columnist, who joined the paper in 1985 and was inducted into the Florida Press Association’s Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2017, alongside Lucy Morgan, who was inducted in 2014.

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