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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Horance G. "Buddy" Davis, Jr. was interviewed by Jean Chance on January 27, 1992.
C: I thought we would talk about one phase of your career, specifically the period that
was highlighted by the announcement in 1971 that you were the winner of the Pulitzer
Prize, the most coveted prize in American journalism, in editorial writing. What was the
subject area, and how long had you been writing?
D: I started writing for the Gainesville Sun as a moonlighting proposition in the fall of
1962. I did not write extensively--that is, maybe three or four times a week--until 1967
when... my son was approaching the age of eighteen, the draft age, and the Vietnam War
was going on. Until that time I had written exclusively on local topics and on state topics. I
really did not feel very qualified to write about anything larger than that. So that inspired
me to begin writing more frequently.... So around 1967 I began to acquire a lot more
information and research materials from magazines, etc.... I would say from 1967 until I
ceased writing--editorials, that is--in 1985 or so, I probably wrote 98 percent of the
So the two factors that got me into extensive writing were the Vietnam [conflict], which I
was disturbed about, and having adequate facilities. I had to do all of this at home. I did
nothing at the University of Florida; [the University] had nothing to do with this. They [my
work with the University and with the Gainesville Sun] were two completely separate
The issue that led to the awarding to the Pulitzer Prize was school integration. The
[U.S.] Supreme Court, of course, over a long period of time had been edging the South and
everybody into integrating the public schools. This had been going deplorably slowly.
Gainesville and this area, Alachua County, was probably more advanced than most, in
fact, by permitting blacks, if they wished, to go to white schools.
But suddenly (I believe right before Christmas of 1969, if I remember correctly) the
courts ordered integration essentially over the Christmas holidays. [That] is what it
amounted to. It was a very short period. The Sun had supported this all along, so it was
not shocked or surprised, nor did it require any editorial change at all [when this occurred].
C: My recollection-- about 1963 and 1964--is that you used to write letters to the editor.
That early period, prior to 1963 and prior to your becoming an editorial writer, were you
not someone who sent letters to the Sun?
D: Absolutely. I irritated them very much with the letters... I criticized such things as
space spent [on frivolous stories]. A great deal of space [was allotted to trivial matters]....
During my long association with the Gainesville Sun we had periods of estrangement, and
I would quit. Since it was more of a hobby with me... than anything else, I could afford to
quit. I had a livelihood other than that. Unfortunately, I quit during the [Barry] Goldwater
campaign [for president in 1964]. I was very frustrated by that particular campaign, so I
wrote a complete series of letters. If I remember right, they were satirical. They pretended
to support Goldwater, but they really made it rough. They pointed out what would happen if
he were elected: we would be in war. I signed them Spartacus. Since Ed Johnson [editor,
Gainesville Sun, 1963-1985] and I had a relationship, and I had written editorials for him,
he permitted that pseudonym, which in later years would not be done. So we had a series
of camouflaged anti-Goldwater letters.... It reminded me a great deal of a college paper
prank more than anything else.
C: Now, after that period, 1963-1964, when racial tension was so great in this
community, can you describe events and what was happening? My recollection is that
there were sit-ins and efforts to desegregate the theaters and the restaurants, for
D: When the Cowles chain acquired the Sun and I started writing editorials, I... in effect,
reversed the editorial position--if they had one--on the race issue. That was in the fall of
1962 and then 1963. Well, that fallout was just amazing. I learned later that the
newspaper cancellations up in the north end of the county were just tremendous. But to
the credit of the Sun's management, they never said a word to me. I did not know that
there was such a negative reaction.
There was a great deal of local anguish. I remember a letter to the editor by the wife
of a very prominent local political figure. She wrote, "Mr. Pepper, what have you done to
us?" It was a very, very negative reaction. Knowing what I know now, you see, I would
have eased into it and accomplished the same thing in a year or two instead of overnight.
However, you should remember that the editorials in 1963 won two national awards:
they won the Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award and the Sidney Hillman Award,
which is a very prestigious national award. So we did this courageous thing. We lost
circulation and probably a lot of the readership. That probably was not a wise way to do it.
Let us put it that way....
C: Were there threats to the newspaper at that period?
D: I have a hard time placing the years, but we got slapped on both sides. The
segregationists on the right wing were always on our back, and then, of course, the radical
black movement moved in. They even had a publication called the Flaming Spear. They
did not think the Sun went far enough. I remember one group--Jomo, I think they called
themselves, from St. Petersburg or Tampa--said they were going to come up here with
baseball bats. I remember writing an editorial welcoming them, saying that we had the ball,
and that we would play ball with them.
But there were threats, yes. There was ...a time or two when I did worry about two
or three things. I went outside and put a lock on my fuel tank because I was afraid
somebody would put a match in it. You worry about those things maybe when you should
not worry, but the Sun was under attack by both sides. Of course, the black side tended to
be more violent. During some of the really bad times, like in 1968 with the Martin Luther
King slaying and all that, you did not know to whom to address editorials. When they are
burning the town down, you wonder, To whom do I write? An arsonist is not going to read
the paper. But then I said, "Well, if I can write something the black preachers would read in
the pulpit, maybe then I can reach them." You begin to think in terms like that in an effort to
reach an audience that will do some good.
C: You mentioned talking about who is going to read this [and] to whom do I address
this. When you sit down to write an editorial, a column or opinion piece, what goes through
your mind doing this kind of writing?
D: Well, the first thing you think is you want it read. That is something that I do not think
many editorial writers think much about, unfortunately. I was primarily concerned with
being read. Another thing you had to do is make up your mind. This business of either/or,
which is also a favorite device, [is just poor editorial practice]. What you try to do is look
down the road and say: "This thing is going to end up this way, or it should end up this
way, regardless of how radical it looks from where you sit now. This thing would end up in
this direction, so why not go ahead and make that jump rather than being pushed into
it.".... So you make up your mind and be decisive. Of course, this is what many people
objected to the Sun about: It was too dogmatic, too decisive, and did not make allowances
for everybody's thoughts and so forth. [Having that kind of foresight and] being read are
the two factors.
Another thing I believe in is thoroughly researching an editorial. I did not believe in
simply rewriting the news because I felt that the reader would be acquainted with that. And
I did not think they were interested in an anonymous opinion, oddly enough. I thought they
could be persuaded with a factual presentation. I probably put in more research on
editorials than anybody that you can imagine....I did it by reading obscure publications--I
mean, publications to which most people were not exposed--and, frankly, by stealing a
great many ideas from publications people had never heard of or knew nothing about. I
also kept extensive clippings....
C: Would you describe the climate of newspapers in terms of their opinion pages during
this time? How did the Sun fit in with newspapers of this day?
D: I was extremely disappointed with most papers. The Miami Herald I did not follow
very closely because we got an early edition. Papers like the Tampa Tribune, Florida
Times-Union, and the Orlando Sentinel were just totally behind the times. The only paper
in Florida as far as I was concerned that was really up on the times was the St. Petersburg
Times.... I think for the times those two papers, with possibly also the Daytona Beach
Journal, were the most progressive papers in Florida. Some of them were just absolutely
disgraceful. I forget the name of the old man who ran the Orlando Sentinel, but it was a
really, really bad newspaper. The editing and the cut lines were racist and anti-
intellectual. They were against colleges, against kids. ... That paper, of course, under the
University of Florida graduates, thankfully, has come many, many, many steps since then
and is a much better paper.
C: In the late1960s, how did the community react to this ultimate order by the Supreme
Court to desegregate?
D: The community did not want to integrate. I think we can say that. I remember reading
and using in an editorial a statement by a member of the school board in Dade County, I
think. He said: "When I was a kid I was bused past black schools. I do not see anything
wrong with busing kids to schools." I took quotes like that. Here was a white Southerner
who said there was nothing wrong with busing students. Busing was the key word, of
course. I took things like that and puffed them up in editorials to say, "Here is a
Southerner, raised in this milieu, a responsible official in a big county, and look at what he
We had bad role models like Claude Kirk [Jr., governor of Florida, 1967-1971]. On
the other hand, of course, Claude Kirk made a very, very great instrument for an editorialist
like me. When a guy wants to make a jackass out of himself and threaten to stand in doors
and push U.S. marshals out, when he pulls a George Wallace, you can really stay on him.
I remember Kirk visited the kids here [in Gainesville] one day. There were mistakes
made [in the local desegregation process]. We know there were mistakes. One of the
mistakes made here was the order to close Lincoln High. Lincoln High had a football team,
a band, with esprit [de corps], with everything that a high school needed. [It was] black.
[The order to close it was done with] the white assumption that white people would not
attend a black school, so school officials closed it. Well, the blacks started vandalizing their
school. They had a little riot or whatever, and there was a little tear gas down there. Kirk
was in town, and I wrote an editorial [in which I said I] was hoping he smelled it. It gave me
a way to get into this topic very well....
Somewhere pretty early in the 1960s, I think it was, the blacks began to agitate
primarily because they wanted to get into the theaters. We had a few pushes and shoves
down there where white people would be on the sidewalk trying to get through, and they
would give a black a shove into the gutter and one thing or another. It was pretty hot.
Active in this was a very sensible black leader, Charles Chestnut, the young Chestnut. He
is now on the [Alachua County] School Board. He was a leader of moderation, of
progressive, non-violent activity. I remember he was the first black I had ever come into
such close contact with since I was a boy. We had him speak to our professional society.
That sort of thing was unusual in those days, to have a black talk to a white group. Finally,
somebody got around to asking the crucial question: What do you want? [laughter] It had
not occurred to anybody before that time, see. So that made them [the blacks] think a little
They sat down and made up ten [demands]. They chose to call them demands,
which was probably a mistake. [There were] ten demands, and one of them was admission
to the theaters. So what? That was what the scrapping was over. Another was so
sensible: can we have a school crossing guard on 6th Street where all the black children
have to cross the street to go to school? That was one of the so-called demands.
Gainesville, in its wisdom, had never built a white swimming pool.... We had two
swimming facilities; one was Glen Springs, which was a private facility and you paid to get
in, and the other was a [city-built] black swimming pool over in east Gainesville. So the
blacks had a swimming pool; the whites did not. That is the whole story. So one of the ten
demands was to integrate the swimming pool, and I wrote an editorial saying, "Oh, the
blacks are going to give us a swimming pool!" [laughter] There were some things like that
which made it very, very interesting to be writing during that period.
C: Did you like to use satire and humor to make a point, and was that something that
you tried to build in to your editorials?
D: Yes. I was an admirer of Harry Golden, and I subscribed to the Carolina Israelite as
long as he published it. From the time I started teaching in 1954 until he folded that
publication I took the Carolina Israelite. He was a master at that sort of writing....
C: You have been interested in history and religion, dating back to your college days.
How do you think that colored your perspective, philosophically, as a writer?
D: I think the ethical message in the religion courses was valuable for providing a
perspective [for] getting out of the narrow provincialism of Christianity. After all, we were
exposed to Buddhism, Hinduism... and the whole bit. You realize that there are certain
parallels, certain ethical messages, that are common. That gives you sort of a
cosmopolitan feeling about religion.
[Regarding] history, I did rely a great deal upon my work as a reporter in state
government before I came here. Also, beyond history I felt like I had credentials to be
progressive on race and similar matters because I was a product of this area. Now, that is
not exactly history, but the fact that no one could accuse me of being an intruding northern
foreigner or whatever I thought gave me a little more credentials to write. Of course, I was
accused of being a Communist and everything else, but there was no validity to that....
C: When did you first realize that Ed Johnson (the editor of the Sun) or the
management of the Sun considered putting together a collection of your editorials for the
D: I did not know that Ed had put this package together.... I do not know how many of them
[editorials] there were--seven or eight--but it was only a fragment of the editorials that dealt
with race. I do not think I even knew anything about it until Ed said something to the effect
that we had ... survived the preliminary judging, along with the Washington Post. When he
told me that, I said, "Well, we will not go any higher than that." [laughter] That is an honor.
That is pretty good. That is all I knew.
Then Ed called me some day in May and invited us to his house for drinks... and he
gave me a copy...of A History of Florida [by Charlton W. Tebeau], and Ed had written an
inscription in it about winning the prize. I did not tell anybody. I just could not believe it; I
guess I refused to believe that situation.
The next day, which was to be the announcement, he called in the morning and said
that I should come down there to the Sun, and I refused.... I said, "No, I am not going to go
down there and hang around and be embarrassed." Finally, he called me and said: "OK. It
is on the wire. You can come down." ... by the time I got down there they were already
drinking champagne out of paper cups and celebrating.... I accepted telephone calls from
the AP and I guess the UPI, but I did not accept any from broadcasting. [laughter] Not a
I think you should realize... that I was told that there was a petition circulating among
the faculty of the College of Journalism to rein me in. I do not know what it proposed. I do
not know whether it recommended [to] the dean that I be forced [to quit writing for the
Gainesville Sun]. I had obeyed all the rules, by the way. I filed the extra employment forms
and all that sort of business because I knew if anybody ever wanted [to], boy, they would
go after me. But I understand there was a petition going around to force me to quit
writing....So you can imagine, with this petition going around, the impact of the Pulitzer
Prize upon that group.[laughter] I understand the petition stopped dead in its tracks. I never
saw it, I did not know the approach, I did not know who signed it....
C: What other topics were subjects for your editorials?
D: [May 4,] 1970, remember, was [the killing of four students by National Guard troops
during a protest against the Vietnam War at] Kent State [University in Kent, Ohio]. Kent
State shocked me so much when it happened that I came in and wrote a hard-hitting
editorial. I made automatic assumptions. I automatically assumed that whoever put bullets
in those rifles would be hauled up, court martialed, piled in prison, or something. I
presumed that the soldiers would be discharged. I assumed all sorts of things because my
contact was with the students. I sided with the students. After all, I had defended Vietnam
demonstrations and that sort of thing, anyway....
C: How were your relations with President Stephen C. O'Connell [President of the
University of Florida, 1967-1973]?
D: I got along very well with O'Connell. I think O'Connell understood media, but he
was offended sometimes. I was offended by his continued membership in the Gainesville
Golf and Country Club, which was segregated, and [in my editorials] I did not let him forget
it. I was forced into that for another reason, too, in that the Gainesville Chamber of
Commerce was a member of that club, and public money was sent to the chamber to
promote the city--county money and city money. I said, "This does not make sense for the
city and the county to support an agency that belongs to a segregated club." Well, once
you take a position like that, then anybody that is a public figure and belongs to that club is
suspect, and he fell into that category. He dogmatically stated that he had a civil right to
belong to that club, which he did. But, of course, I made the point that from a public
relations standpoint it was atrocious. So I editorialized on that and stayed on his back.
You have to realize that on other occasions we defended him. I mean, he was
speaking on campus one time, and some kid jerked the cord of the microphone out. Well,
we deplored that sort of antic, so we were not above defending him, either. I think we
raised hell, though, about the arrest of sixty-six students in his office; we said, "This was
ridiculous." But then, of course, we applauded it when he would not sign a complaint or
whatever it was and let them out. They got off, anyway. [The reference is to a group of
black students who forced their way three times into President O'Connell's office with a list
of demands on May 20, 1971. The third time they were warned that their failure to depart
the office would result in arrest. Seventy-two people were arrested, including sixty-six UF
students. Since the demonstration was non-violent, the students opted for a two-quarter
probation instead of facing criminal charges....So it was a 50/50 proposition. We tried to
give him credit for what he did and knocked him around for what he did not do....
C: Can you describe any ways that you perceived that winning the Pulitzer Prize
changed you? Jack Harrison [Cowles Communication executive in charge of the
Gainesville Sun and other newspapers] predicted that winning the Pulitzer would change
D: My response was not if I could help it. I had been exposed to the journalistic big
shots....Anyway, I have been exposed to these people, and some of them who had the big
heads just simply did not impress me at all. I knew that I could exploit this opportunity and
pole vault into some other university.... I had that kind of tentative offer-type situation.
People would tell me, "When you want to change, talk to me," that sort of thing, which I
never let go any further. But when you are fairly content where you are and you do not
have any money problems and you get along with everybody [you tend to want to stay put].
Also, there were two strong factors involved in this whole thing. One was that in
academia, which is really where I spent most of my time, you have intellectual leeway. If
anybody stomped on you, you stomped back. ... You literally had no boss. I had tenure,
for example, and I could not get fired without due process. You did not feel like you were
run over, and you could survive things, you could get back at people, and you had
independence. So that was a great relationship. I never really [considered leaving the
University].... I turned down jobs where I would be under one person and would have to
obey their edict. ...
The other thing was the relationship with the Sun. I would write 350 or 360 editorials
a year or more... and at the end of the year I would find three or four that did not get
printed. That is all!... And no one was telling me what to write. Very infrequently was
anybody telling me, "Do this," or, "Do that," or "Let us take this position," or whatever. That
was an intellectually free-wheeling situation. So why would I want to go to a new college
and break in somebody and start all over again?....
Then another thing is that you have to realize that this was a moonlighting job. I
started at $7.50 per editorial, and we would have a falling out and I would quit. Harrison
would take me back, and I would "jaw" him up (if that is a proper word) about $5.00 or
whatever. At the time I won the Pulitzer Prize I think the arrangement was--I do not know
why it worked out this way; it did not make much sense--that for the first fifteen editorials I
got $17.50 each, and for any over fifteen I would get $22.50. Another thing is that I never
spent any of that money. I invested it in stock, and as a result of that I have a hell of a lot of
stock right now. Anyway, I did not spend it at all.
Then shortly after I won the Pulitzer, the New York Times bought Cowles
Communications [properties, and with it] the Gainesville Sun.... [Arthur Ochs] "Punch"
Sulzberger [publisher and chairman of the New York Times Company] showed up, so we
had lunch with Punch Sulzberger. He told me at lunch, "I never bought a paper and won a
Pulitzer Prize at the same time,"...Anyway, as a result of that, he was so embarrassed, I
think, that he put me on the payroll for a salary....
C: How about the faculty and the administration--not just in the college, but starting with
the college and then throughout the University?
D: Well, what happened right away--Rae Weimer [dean emeritus, College of Journalism
and Communications] told me this--was that Steve O'Connell said: "We are making him a
distinguished alumni this year because he is not going to get it for any other reason. He
never is going to do anything else." [laughter] So they named me--not the college, now;
this was the whole University--a distinguished alumnus of the University. So I was proud of
that. That was nice, and I went up and got a little plaque for that....
C: After the Pulitzer Prize how did your writing change, if at all?
D: I do not think it changed. When I really felt cramped was [in 1985] when I quit writing
editorials and started writing [a] column. That took a change in pace that was tough for me.
And then there was a new management on the Sun that would not back me up. And the
minute you do not have backing ... I always said that Ed had the courage of my
convictions. Ed was a flack catcher. If he let it go by him, he stood up for it. The minute
we got a new publisher in there... and I did not get the backing that I felt I needed, things
went to pieces..... Whenever we got in a dispute with anybody, which as you know I run
that kind of a column, he took the other side. That was so alien to me that I could not take
it, which is why I quit writing.
END OF INTERVIEW