Interviewee: Ron Sachs
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: August 19, 2003
P: This is Julian Pleasants. I'm in Tallahassee, Florida, and it's the August 19, 2003.
I'm talking with Ron Sachs. Ron, tell me where you were from originally and
where you grew up.
S: I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. I went all through public schools there.
The first time I ever left home was to attend college at the University of Florida in
the fall of 1968. [I had] four wonderful years.
P: Why did you decide to go to the University of Florida?
S: They had a great College of Journalism. I knew from the get go that I wanted to
go into journalism. I could barely scrape together enough money to go
anywhere, but I got a partial scholarship from Sigma Delta Chi out of Miami and
they made it possible for me to go to [the University of] Florida.
P: Sigma Delta Chi is a journalism fraternity?
S: It's a society of professional journalists, yeah.
P: When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
S: I wanted to be a journalist ever since I was a kid. I worked on my elementary
school newspaper, my junior high school newspaper, editor of my high school
newspaper, and I just loved the business. I loved the idea of reporting news.
[During] my senior year in high school in Miami, the teachers in Florida went out
on strike, in the spring of 1968, and the only teacher I had left in school was a
P.E. coach, who was my study hall teacher. I asked for permission from the
principal to go down to Miami Marine Stadium, where the teachers were
gathering to meet and confronting Governor [Claude] Kirk [Governor, 1966-
1970]. The principal declined to let me go, so I went anyway. I was suspended
from school for two weeks, but I got my story. It was just a very interesting time
to be a high school student because it looked like we weren't going to graduate
on time because of the strike. Then my journalism teacher scolded me when I
was bitching to her about probably not graduating because she was out on strike.
She pretty much just said, how dare you, I'm out here for you. [She said], I'm out
here for books and better classroom conditions, not for a salary for me. That's
when the journalist in me kicked in and I decided to go cover the story. I didn't
intend to get suspended in the process, but I did.
P: You had, after that point, a series of conflicts with administration, let's put it that
S: Yeah, that was maybe a little hallmark of things to come.
P: It's very interesting. I talked with Claude Kirk about that event, and you can
imagine his perspective on all of that.
S: Sure, well he's rewritten history a couple of times. I was there and saw him
come in by hydro-foil. The teachers basically made a determination they weren't
going to boo him or heckle him. They showed him respect, but they clearly won
the issue because the special session legislature resulted in a better funding
formula for Florida schools. They were victorious, but Governor Kirk remembers
P: Absolutely. When did you first decide you wanted to go to work on the Alligator?
S: Well, it's interesting you ask that because my freshman year I wanted to focus on
school, but I went by the Alligator offices at the Reitz Student Union to visit. I
think I wrote maybe a couple of guest columns my freshman year, but during my
freshman year the editor of the Alligator was a guy named Harold Aldrich, I recall.
In the spring, fraternities deliver invitations to their girlfriends and dates for their
annual fraternity weekends. I was playing tennis near the Graham area dorms
with a black student who was another freshman, from Tampa, his name was
Fred Reddy. He's now a cardiologist, a very respected one. [He was made] head
of the Hillsborough Medical Society a couple years ago. He's a big guy and we
were playing tennis, and the Kappa Alphas were delivering their fraternity
weekend invitations. They do that by dressing in Confederate uniforms, at least
they did then, getting on horses, and riding across campus delivering their
invitations to their girlfriends. Freddy and I finished our tennis game and we were
walking back to our dorm, and a group of three or four of these KAs on
horseback were just sort of semi-galloping toward us. When they saw him, in
particular, and me, they stopped their horses and they basically pointed the gun
at him and fired blanks at him, or at least fired the guns. It was kind of a
threatening [and] obnoxious thing to do, and they used the word "nigger" and
whatever epitaphs they sent his way. I was so outraged by it that I went down to
the Alligator office and I went in to see Harold Aldrich. He didn't know me that
well, but I told him the whole story of what I had just seen and that the Alligator
ought to write an editorial about what a terrible thing it is to keep that kind of
tradition alive in such a negative way. He kind of smiled and condescended to
me that I didn't understand that this was just campus humor by that fraternity and
that I'd learn to understand. He declined to do an editorial about it, so I asked
him if he would let me write something about it. He said yes, to his credit, and I
did. I guess I wrote a four or five hundred word long letter or guest column or
whatever it was, and it appeared in the Alligator.
P: This would have been 1970?
S: No, that would have been in the spring of 1969 [because] I started in the fall of
1968. So help me God, a day or two after it appeared, somebody put stick pins
in my dorm door at Reid Hall and burned a paper cross on my door. Fred Reddy,
who was extremely tall, maybe 6'2 [or] 6'3, and I am not extremely tall, said, well
you should come sleep in our room, he and his roommate's room, for a couple of
nights. So I did; they threw a mattress on the floor and I slept in their room for a
couple of nights. It kind of made me feel like if something I wrote could cause
that kind of reaction in somebody, then maybe I needed to write some more. So,
I started getting involved in the Alligator as a part-time reporter. I guess [during]
my sophomore year I got more deeply involved, and then in my junior year I got
extremely deeply involved. That's when the Baugner case happened.
P: Were you officially hired by somebody? Who decided to put you to work as a
S: I think the guy that really gave me the most inspiration was Sam Pepper.
P: He would have been the editor then?
S: He was the editor his senior year, my junior year. That's when I really became
deeply involved. I was a reporter my sophomore year. I guess my junior year he
made me the assignment editor. I was the assignment editor as the fall school
year began in September of 1970. I assigned myself that story about the
hanging in the county jail because I really was interested in finding out what
happened and there really wasn't anyone else around. I used my limited
authority to say, I'll do this story. Do you want me to talk about that?
P: Let's wait. What I'd like to do if we can is just go through the generic questions,
then I want to spend quite a bit of time on that story. When you went to work,
was there a process people went through who joined the staff? Were they hired
by the editor? Was there a publications board that had to approve it?
S: No, I think it was kind of based on just expressing an interest and having a
willingness to show up and showing that you had the ability to be consistent in
showing up, and reliable in handling stories.
P: In other words, they would give you perhaps an assignment that was not very
difficult, to see if you could do it and bring it on time, and then you would get
more difficult assignments as you went along?
S: Right, and it's kind of a daunting challenge to be a young person and come in to
the newspaper office and ask for the opportunity to write, but I don't recall them
ever turning anybody away in my era there. If somebody had an interest in
working at the Alligator, generally they had an opportunity. Before I became
editor I remember it was not a real stringent process.
P: When you were there was there a faculty advisor or somebody who gave some
guidance to the Alligator staff?
S: I recall a faculty advisor much more when Allen Whiteleather arrived, Allen K.
Whiteleather. I remember even his middle initial. I don't recall having any
dealings myself with a faculty advisor before that because nothing I did
generated much controversy when I was writing little piddly stories my
P: Once you became editor, obviously, that changed.
S: Well, my junior year I think it changed somewhat [because I was] working on
stories like the jail hanging and then the Tom Sawyer Motel. I don't know if
you're aware of that one. We had stories about the Tom Sawyer Motel in
Gainesville that had a racist policy of charging black customers more than white
P: No, but I would like to follow up on that, that's a good story. Now while you were
there, how did you on the Alligator staff interact with the permanent staff at the
S: I think that I felt like older reporters there took an active interest in saying, hey,
how are you, if you need anything [let me know]. I mean [they would] show you
the way around. It was the era of cut and paste in the newspaper business. I
remember glue pots were a big part of the newsroom, those little aluminum posts
sticking up from them and the brush. I just remember feeling comfortable pretty
quickly because people who were juniors and seniors, or even grad students,
made you feel comfortable. You did not feel intimidated about asking a question.
P: How about the career staff? Was Ed Barber there yet?
S: Ed was certainly there with the student publications. [He was] not somebody I
dealt with that much before my junior year because he was the business
manager, as I recall, of all the student publications. I do remember knowing
more and more about him as regards to the financial support of the Alligator, the
sale of advertisements, and such.
P: What about the power and influence in the Board of Student Publications?
S: I don't recall [anything about the power and influence of the Board of Student
Publications]. Again, I think at my low level initially, I just labored in happy
relative anonymity. I didn't know much about the administration of the
newspaper [and] I wasn't involved in news meeting. I just did my job, which was
the occasional news story in my sophomore year.
P: I don't want to get too [far] ahead of ourselves and don't want to get too involved
in the story, but I know that when you were getting ready to publish the abortion
information the Board of Student Publications ultimately approved that decision.
So obviously they were fairly heavily involved, when you were editor, with some
decision making. Is that correct?
S: Yeah, the board was involved, as I vaguely recall, before I became controversial.
[The board was also involved] in the selection process for the editor for the next
term, perhaps for the yearbook editor, and there was the literary magazine, I
think it was called the Talisman. I don't really recall what it was called, [but] the
literary magazine. I did not have any dealings with them, and I don't recall any of
the more veteran members of the staff talking much about the Board of Student
Publications. I think day to day, to my knowledge, it didn't impinge or infringe on
our ability to just go ahead and gather news.
P: What was the relationship, when you were editor, between the Alligator, student
government, and Blue Key?
S: When I was editor, a very good friend was student body president, Don
Middlebrooks, who is now a federal judge in Miami. He was pretty key to the
whole abortion issue, as you may know. I would say my relationship with student
government at the highest level was very good because he was a very good
friend. I knew him then, as I know [him] now, to be a man of just impeccable
integrity and honesty. I just had great faith and trust in him. I think we covered
student government fairly. If anything, I might have had a bias towards student
government because of my fondness for him.
P: Did you have the same attitude towards Blue Key?
S: Blue Key I probably didn't have as healthy an attitude toward. I had respect for
the organization as this revered bastion of leadership on the campus. I think I got
tapped into Blue Key late in my junior year or early in my senior year. When I
went to my first tapping ceremony with Steve Uhlfelder, a former student body
president and now still a dear friend, and Don Middlebrooks I was appalled at the
tapping. [I was appalled that] this organization I was so proud to be a member of
[had] the horse trading that was going on and [that the way] people were
selected had very little to do with their actual credentials, it seemed. I mean, they
had to have some credential I guess to even be considered, but in terms of the
final decision making during my first tapping, it was kind of like we'll trade you
two of these for one of these. I was murmuring this to Steve and Don, who were
more familiar with it having been in longer than me, and at some point I got up
and gave, for me, an impassioned little speech about how distasteful I found this
process. [I said] that I thought it was an honor to be tapped into Blue Key until I
attended this tapping ceremony and then saw there was no great honor to it at
all. I said, I resign, I really don't want to be a part of this. Don and Steve all
walked out with me and echoed their indignance at it all and we marched out of
there feeling pretty righteous that we basically didn't want to be a part of that
process. I say this with amusement because I love these two guys, but years
later I was up here in the mid 1970s working for Governor [Reubin] Askew
[Governor, 1970-1978] and Don was his general counsel and Steve was the
general counsel for the Department of Community affairs. We're having lunch
one day and one of them said, hey, are you going to Gator Growl? This is five or
six years after I quit Blue Key when I was a senior in college. I think I even
turned in my pin or something. The other one said, yeah, I am. It occurred to
me, well how do they have all this information? I said, well, how are you guys
going to all that stuff, how do you know about it, how do you get tickets? They
said, well Blue Key mailed it to us. I said, well we quit Blue Key
They cracked up laughing and said, well that was just for a night Ronnie. The
funny thing is that Blue Key will hunt you down no matter where you were. So
apparently I'm still on the roster because I still get mail from them. I've never
attended a Blue Key function since, except when I worked for Governor Askew
and went to the banquet there at the gym because there was some big-deal
politico speaking. But I was kind of amused by that. I didn't really get actively
involved in Blue Key. My one attending event was that tapping, and that was my
P: It's interesting talking to Phyllis Gallub and Tom Julin. Their relationship with
student government and Blue Key was vastly different from yours. They
apparently were in conflict all the time, and the student government, whoever
was the president, was upset and thought the [Alligator] unfair in their coverage.
They seemed, in a typical sense, to be in conflict with the fraternities, student
government, and Blue Key. They saw themselves as representing "the rest of
the student body."
S: [That's] interesting.
P: Your experience is a pretty strong differentiation between some of the other
editors and their experience.
S: Yeah, I think if I didn't know who the president of student body was and didn't
have confidence that this was a trustworthy individual, I might have been much
more skeptical. I can tell you that I believe we had a good reporter covering
student government. I was in charge of the editorials, so we had a managing
editor who kind of ran news assignments. Because I was friendly with the
student body president, I tried not to put myself in the path of being the day-to-
day manager of the news of student government.
P: When you were editor, Gary Grunder was managing editor.
S: Yeah, that's correct. Again, I would weigh in when I wanted to, but I tried not to
do that because Don was my friend. But I think we covered Don well and fairly.
P: While you were editor, did you have any pressure put on you, because you're
dealing with some pretty controversial issues? You're dealing with civil rights,
you're dealing with abortion, you're dealing with reform of the jails. Did you have
pressure put on you by any alumni or legislator or journalism professor?
S: Never, not once. Not once did I recall [being pressured]. [I] got a pile of hate mail
over the abortion thing, I mean nasty stuff. My parents got some nasty hate mail,
frightening some of it. [Some of it] likened me to the son of the devil, which even
on my worst day is probably not true, and I've had some bad days. Nobody from
[the] alumni [pressured me]. The only conflict that ever resulted in confrontation
and serious disagreement was over the abortion issue. Our coverage of civil
rights, even this discrimination case I'm referencing at Tom Sawyer Motel [didn't
receive pressure from the school]. I would say, and I'm trying to freshen up my
memory as we're talking about this, I would say the issue about black student
enrollment was probably the one where we frayed our relationship with the
administration in a different way, but at a level equal to what we did over the
abortion issue. That was not during my senior year, I think that was actually
during my junior year.
P: Yes, I think you covered that story.
S: Steve Uhfelder was student body president and sixty-six black students were
arrested. I think the administration was not thrilled with our coverage of that, not
just that incident, but that whole issue.
P: Let me go on ahead and I'll get back to that. When you look back at your work
with the Alligator, how did that experience affect your later career? I know that
you worked at the Miami Herald for a while and then for governors Askew and
Chiles and the Education Association.
S: I actually have no question in my mind. I can get pretty emotional about this, but
my experience at the Alligator shaped my entire professional life. I would think
the best training any young journalist could possibly have is the training that I and
hundreds of others have received at the Alligator about working collegially, about
working on deadline, about dealing with the very thorny issues of the day. Just
the best education I could have received for what I chose to become was at the
Alligator, not at the College of Journalism, frankly. I received a grand education
at the College of Journalism that was theoretical more than anything, but the
practical education of what I was learning in classroom in the Alligator newsroom,
out on the streets, and on the campus was something they should have charged
me for. They paid me to work there, but they should have charged us. It was
that stellar, that outstanding. Honest to God, I could almost tear up when I think
about what it means to me, because to this day I have vivid memories of what I
did there. I draw upon those experiences every day in what I do now. Every job
I've ever held since college is a tribute to the Alligator because I was able to
stretch and apply my skills in so many different ways. I think I've worked in more
aspects of media than most of my contemporaries from my undergrad years. In
fact, today I have a hard time using the phrase public relations. Even though I
own a public relations firm, I tell my staff, which includes several former
journalists, that we are in the private practice of journalism, which is kind of how I
stomach it in some ways. All the skills that I have today are an outgrowth of skills
I acquired as a college student. In fact, while I look back at some of the stories
you have there in that bundle and see ways that I, today, could write more
smoothly, maybe change the structure of the story, the most exciting way to start
a career in journalism was to work at the Alligator. The story about the man who
was found hanging in his jail cell was about as spectacular a story as I ever got
to cover in my professional career. It was just that meaningful. [It] showed me
then, as a student, what I've always believed to be true before I went to UF and
when I got out, that being a journalist, being a reporter, is one of the best ways to
weigh in without being an advocate to some of the most important issues of our
day, by illuminating people about issues.
P: How important would it be for someone working at the Alligator to be a journalism
S: [It was] not as important as I thought when I was a student. I think an English
major would do well, a history major, a political science major would do well.
Clearly it would be hard to work at the Alligator if you don't have some basic and
innate writing skills. I had honed [my skills] somewhat before I came to the
Alligator by working at my high school paper, my junior high paper. I had a high
school journalism teacher who was as good or better than any professor I ever
had in college. I had her for three years. She told us on the first day of my
sophomore year, working at the high school newspaper, [that] the only three
things that matter in this business are [to] be accurate, be on time, and be
interesting. Those are still true today in everything I try to do and in everything
I've ever done in a journalism related job. I think you have to have an interest
and you have to have a basic ability to write. You can train people on reporting
structures and writing techniques, but if they don't have some flare and intense
interest to begin with, it's not going to happen.
[break in tape]
P: Let me expand on that idea of being accurate and being on time. What else
makes a good reporter?
S: Well, I think you have to have a powerful curiosity. Without becoming an
advocate, you have to have a sense of justice. I think you have to have a very
strong sense of justice and fairness because so much of reporting involves fairly
portraying pitched battles between powerful interests, or the powerful against the
not so powerful. There are often times more than even two sides of a story. So,
I think you have to have a deep curiosity, a strong sense of fairness, and an
interest in contributing to your community and country by illuminating people's
background about issues.
P: What was your reaction to seeing your first story in print?
S: [It was] the same reaction I had, but on a magnified scale, to when I saw my first
story in print in junior high and high school. Just seeing that bold faced name, by
Ronnie Sachs, [that] is what I was at first at the Alligator, was damn exciting. I
would read those stories and, like any young journalist, think, well damn, there's
probably never been a better story written, no matter if it was about overdue
books at the library or not. It was just exciting. It felt like a great distinction, a
great honor, to have your name in print attached to a story where you had
reported and written something. Again, from the earliest days it wasn't really
about the significance of the story, because there are a lot of stories that aren't
nearly as significant as what's on the front page. To be a part of something that
big and that important is the same feeling as I got in the Miami Herald newsroom
when we were working on a major story and there were thirty reporters and
editors involved in a plane crash or in a hurricane. There's no feeling like it. It's
the same thing as being on a team that's pulling together and everybody is doing
their part. It was very exciting. I was very proud to be associated with the
Alligator even in my early days there.
P: I want to get into detail later, but in that same context it must have been quite a
thrill to become editor. In an interview with Jack Detweiler he said, particularly
when you were editor, that you actually had as much power, or more power, than
Steve O'Connell [President of University of Florida, 1963-1973], partly because
the positions you took were supported by other newspapers. Do you think that's
a fair statement?
S: Well, I got goose bumps hearing you say that because I have great respect for
Jack Detweiler. I didn't really ever sit and ponder, well gee, I've a lot of power,
I'm the editor of the Alligator. I do think I felt a very strong sense of responsibility
that had been imprinted on me by people at the Alligator I had worked with
before I became editor. You pay attention to the guys and gals who were editor
before you [and] you aspire to that position if you think you have something to
contribute. Sam Pepper [and] Phyllis Galub, in particular, those two who were
editor before me, I had great respect for them and I saw how serious they were
about the job even as we were having fun in the newsroom. [I saw] how serious
they were about what the job meant. I had a deep and intense ambition to
become editor because I had spent so much time at the Alligator and I put so
much stock in how important it was to me to help shape my skills to go into this
career that I coveted.
P: Let's talk a little bit about the process of putting the paper out. When you were
editor where was it printed?
S: It was printed, as I recall, in Ocala. I don't even remember the name of the
printer, but he became a part of the abortion controversy if you are familiar with
that. We can go into that. It was a paste-up job in the backroom there at the
third floor of the student union. It was a cut and hot wax. I recall that one of my
duties as editor, I was not the primary person, was to come in and help read
pages. To this day I still very rarely look at advertisements in newspapers. I
used to resent the advertisements in newspapers because I didn't work on the
business side, but clearly, the fact that there are advertisements are the reason
there is space to have news. I had an under appreciation for the importance of
the advertisements and did not really read them. I didn't consider proofing the
ads was something I wanted to spend time on when I came in to read pages.
You probably don't know this story, but my senior year as editor, a controversy
that was far less significant than the abortion information controversy was [that]
in an advertisement there was a pub in town that catered especially to law
students called the Bench and Bar. I think there was a woman named Judy
Miller who was one of the proprietors there. Every Wednesday or Thursday night
they had old time movies on the wall and they had an ad that promoted the fact
they had free movies and nickel beers or whatever. I got a call from President
O'Connell before the abortion controversy, which was fairly early in my
editorship, because I did not proof the ads. Some smart ass paste up artist
student, in the big, forty-eight point headline, or larger, of the Bench and Bar ad
where the headline was supposed to be screaming "FREE FLICKS" had run
together the L and the I in flicks so that it appeared to say "FREE FUCKS."
President O'Connell called me about the "FREE FUCKS" ad to ask me what was
up with that. I remember flipping open the newspaper on my desk in the Alligator
offices and then seeing it for the first time because he called my attention to it.
Obviously it became the big smile of the day for students across campus. I had
no good excuse except that it was a mistake and a paste up error. I had a pretty
strong talk with the paste up staff later that day. In the meantime, I can tell you
this, that evening the Bench and Bar was packed.
P: It was packed at least out of curiosity, right?
S: It was packed, yes sir.
P: Describe the situation when you were getting the paper out. Obviously these are
students who are going to class and are doing this part time, but there's a
tremendous amount of pressure because you've got to get the paper out.
Describe the process you went through every day to meet your deadlines.
S: Well, we had a couple of news meetings a day. I can remember a couple of
primary news meetings a day. There would be an early one in the day when we
had the managing editor, the editor, and a couple of copy editors, and the sports
editor and [we would] do an early planning meeting. [We would] decide there,
what kind of wire stories were the big stories of the day globally and nationally.
Again, at that time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Alligator wasn't just the
campus newspaper, it was the primary source of information for many, if not
most, of the students on the campus. Many students did not subscribe to a
regular newspaper [and] many students did not have a TV or cable to see
television news. So other than radio, WGGG, the Alligator was a primary source
of information for students. We really took very seriously the wire function of the
Alligator, even editing down to an inch or two national and world stories that
appeared in the paper. The local stories and the campus stories, I think,
obviously took a lot more of our focus because those were stories that were
being produced by our own staff. The assignment of those stories; some were
daily stories, some took more than a day; happened in that process, and the
managing editor, Gary Grunder, and copy editors were more directly involved
with reporters on that than I unless it was a really big story. There were a lot of
protests on campus for various issues, whether it was against the war or for civil
rights or for women's rights; there were a lot of high visibility stories.
P: It was a very volatile period, wasn't it?
S: Absolutely, I mean, even the ACCENT Program that brought great speakers to
campus, like I remember when Jane Fonda came. She actually gave a speech
in which she talked about American G.l.'s fragging, killing, their superiors who
were putting them in harm's way.
P: That turned out to be a correct story.
S: It was a correct story.
P: That was down by Graham Pond, correct?
S: Yes it was, but it was a front-page story that she was there, and she was fairly
controversial because she opposed the war. Frankly, watching that entire
movement grow on campus was amazing. It was reflective of what was
happening all over the country.
P: Then, there was Kent State.
S: There was Kent State, and the protests and services in solidarity.
P: While we're on that, you went to Washington?
S: Well I was going to tell you, the May Day Demonstrations is what it was called, of
1971, were intended to coincide with the one year anniversary of Kent State.
There was an attempt by college students all over the country to shut down the
bridges from Virginia and Maryland leading into Washington to kind of bring
Washington D.C. to a standstill on this one day. I had never been to Washington
except as a kid on a trip with Miami news carriers. I drove up there my junior
year with the managing editor of the Alligator, Ken McKinnon, photographer, I
think Tom Kennedy, and a couple other Alligator staffers. It was amazing. I was
there to cover it, basically, for the Alligator, and I was the lead reporter on the
story. At the HEW [Health, Education, Welfare] building there were protesters.
We were at the bridges [and] there was tear gas all over the streets. I remember
running through the streets of Washington to escape tear gas and running in the
other direction, right by me, is a guy I went to high school with. I remember
gagging back tear gas, stopping, and saying, hi Bob, how are you, and then just
hauling butt. At the HEW building police formed a circle around the protesters
and they were going to arrest everybody and they were taking them to RFK
stadium to keep them. I think I did a story that appeared on the front page about
the Alligator managing editor. I think it was a really poorly written lead, Alligator
Managing Editor Ken McKinnon and such and such and thousands of other
students were arrested on whatever day it was. It was unbelievable. The way I
avoided arrest was to pull out my reporter's notebook and my pen and to step up
hedge height to a wall that ran the perimeter where the police were. I just stood
on that wall looking down at the police and the protesters, feigning that I was
taking notes, and sashaying sideways until I got past the line of police. Then I
jumped down and ran to a phone and phoned in my story. Had I not avoided
arrest, there probably wouldn't have been any story written by an Alligator staffer
about the arrest of our own managing editor.
P: Describe the physical conditions of the Alligator office and the kind of equipment
S: We used manual typewriters. We had a teletype machine or two. Maybe [we
had] an AP and a UPI machine. We had a supply closet. It was a fairly small
newsroom. I mean, the editor's office was glass enclosed. I recall that, but it did
not go all the way up to the ceiling, which was interesting because of a prank
pulled on me once during my editorship. The managing editor's office was right
outside the editor's office. The newsroom was kind of a square with desks
around the perimeter and small work places for reporters. I remember
production was back behind that on the same floor.
P: So all of the pre-press was there?
S: All the pre-press was out in the newsroom, and then the wax machines and
typesetting. The type printed out of fairly primitive computers at the time. The
production boards were just basically angled wooden boards that the flats would
be put on. Our newspaper columns were waxed up, laid down, and pressed out.
It was a fairly intimate setting, there was no palatial office, but it was actually a
very nice building in the Reitz Student Union. [We] were proud to be there. It
was a nice place to be.
P: Everybody I've talked to described the actual putting out of the paper as rather
frenetic and sort of organized chaos. What was your assessment of that
S: We had some junior editors who made sure that the young reporters were getting
their stories. I would say it was probably a goal directed, haphazard production.
We knew what the goal was, we're not going to miss deadline, and there were
some processes and protocols established, but it was a very energized, if sloppy,
process. It was not precision like. This would be on a slow news day, so on a
big news day with a breaking story or some protest [it would be more chaotic],
but it worked. It actually worked. People did their jobs, people worked together,
and people stayed late if necessary to help out, but it always got done.
P: Did the Alligator staff party together and socialize together?
S: I think that most of my closest friends at the time were Alligator people, but my
roommates did not work at the Alligator. My girlfriend did not work at the
Alligator, and I had some balance that way. Pretty much, especially when I was
editor, every single day I was driven by, from the moment I woke up, what was
going to happen at the Alligator that day. I told this story to Ed Barber and a
couple of others. I think the college of journalism and its relationship to the
Alligator was not as slick as I would have liked when I was editor. I recall I had
Professor Ed Weston my junior year, the fall of 1970, for an advanced reporting
class. This is when the jail hanging happened. In late September 1970, I'm
covering the jail hanging story for the Alligator. For my JM402, Ed Weston [was
my instructor]. He was the make-believe editor of a nonexistent newspaper, and
as a student in that class you had to go to his office door and sign up for a story
off the so-called tip sheet. Well, I'm covering a real-live apparent murder at the
county jail, but I have this academic responsibility as a student. So by the time I
could get by the professor's office to sign up for a story, the only story left for me
to sign up for was about overdue books at the campus library. I remember
asking Professor Weston if he would allow me instead to submit my work on this
series of stories which were taking me far more time and required far more
journalistic enterprise and effort than a story on overdue books at the campus
library. He refused to count my stories on the Baugher murder at the county jail.
I intended to do the story on overdue books at the library, but I got so drawn into
this story for days and then weeks that I did not do the story on overdue books at
the library. In fact, I submitted some of the stories you have with you about the
hanging at the jail. Though he told me the stories were really excellent, he gave
me a zero on the assignment. The day I graduated from college, by the way, I
did not attend my graduation ceremony. Instead, I went over to the college of
journalism to respectfully but firmly tell him what a cheese head move I thought it
was by him to not give me credit for those stories. That actually was more
important to me now that I was a graduate, to express my displeasure at that one
decision he made, than to attend my graduation.
P: While we're on that subject, how did you manage when you were editor to
balance your responsibilities as a student and your responsibilities as an editor?
Everybody I've talked to was over at the Alligator offices all the time.
S: Very clearly my studies suffered because of it. [My grades suffered] not because
it was a load that could not be balanced, but because I imbalanced the load in
favor of the Alligator. My responsibilities, in my own mind, at the Alligator were so
important, so significant, far beyond the difference between getting an A or a B or
a C in a class. I knew I was going into journalism, I knew I'd get a job at a good
newspaper, and it was important to me to do a professional like job on that
newspaper, more so than having a high academic average. I wasn't trying to get
into grad school or law school; I was going to be a journalist. I had an
opportunity everyday to be a journalist or to be a very serious student. So I was a
very serious student of the newspaper business because I was working at a
newspaper. I recall my biggest academic disappointment. I had a very deep
interest in Jo Ann Smith's class, law and the press. That was one class where,
even if you're a good writer and reporter, you couldn't get by without going to
class, and I did not go to class enough to make a decent grade there. [In] my
entire major the most disappointing job I ever did as a student was in that class.
I regret it to this day because I would have benefitted from being a better student
in that class.
P: Let me go back to the interrelationship with the members of the staff. Did staff
members date each other? Did any of them get married?
S: Phyllis [married] Randy Coleman. It was an era with free love and such. There
were friendships that might have resulted in what would today, or before then, be
called one night stands or just friends getting together, but we did hang out
together for meals and for social occasions and parties. I think most people also
had a separate group of friends, but there was a real sense of bonding just as
deep as any fraternity or sorority on campus that you had if you remember the
[End side Al]
P: Do you keep in touch with many of the people that you worked with on the
S: Frankly no, I mean I run into them. I would liken this, Julian, to childhood friends
who you grew up with and who are frozen in your mind. Your attitude and
opinion about them, no matter what's happened to them since, is based almost
solely on the sense of solidarity you had as young people growing up in the same
neighborhood. I have an oldest friend who I hardly ever see and only speak to a
couple times a year who has been my best friend from childhood since I was
seven years old. Again, we're in totally different worlds and we know how to
reach one another and don't do it that often, but when we do, it's an immediate
flashback to the affection and friendship we felt as kids bike riding [and]
delivering papers together. We don't actively socialize together, but what I'm
saying [is] it's a friendship that's a lifetime friendship. I would think that you have
that feeling about people you worked at the Alligator with. A guy like Robert
Rivas. I don't even remember him when I was editor because he's several years
younger than I am. I know he had a great career at the Alligator, he's had a
distinguished career since, and without even talking about it we have a respect
for each other based on that fraternity of being an Alligator alumna. Sam Pepper
was the editor when I was a junior and allowed me to go work on the jail hanging
stories. I've only spoken to [him] maybe once in the last ten years, yet I have a
deep fondness for him based on me still looking up to him in my memories of
what a great role model he was to a young editor when he was editor-in-chief. I
bumped into Phyllis Galub at the Alligator Hall of Fame selection committee
meeting. I was overwhelmed with how pleased I was to see her. She looked
great. I remember fondly some practical jokes I pulled on her but [had] never
taken credit for. I told her, I finally confessed, to one that I had committed
against her when she was editor. It just is a special feeling that you have for
those people. When you go to one of these Alligator functions, like the Hall of
Fame induction dinner, it's a special treat to see people who, again, were not
necessarily my contemporaries. I came back to UF in the mid-1970s to teach for
a couple of semesters at the College of Journalism as an adjunct. One of my
former students is Dennis Kneale, who is managing editor of Forbes magazine.
Another one is Kathy Pellegrino, who became a lawyer after being a journalist
and is a major executive at the Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel.
P: There's quite a few, Phyllis and Tom Julin, that went into the law and quite often,
now, deal with First Amendment issues. That's a pretty good background both for
journalism and for communications.
S: Well there's not a better lawyer you'd could find on a First Amendment case than
one who had been a reporter at some point, or editor, even if it was back in their
college days. I think the same qualities that we spoke about a little bit ago, a
sense of fairness, a sense of justice, are what would propel somebody who has
been in journalism to want to go into law.
P: Let's talk about how you became editor. You indicated earlier that you had a
desire to do so. What process did you go through, and who actually made the
S: I have recollection of being interviewed by the Board of Student Publications.
For some reason I don't remember students in that process, although I think I'm
sure they participated because they were on the Board of Student Publications. I
remember being interviewed by a panel, people sitting at a table.
P: Was it open?
S: No, I don't believe it was open. I don't recall that there was an audience there. I
think I was the only one other than the panel in there when I was in there. I do
remember that I felt very good about the interview because I had worked so hard
as a reporter and mid-level editor. But in particular, the stories about the jail had
really been a very proud achievement, not just for me but for the Alligator,
because of what they led to. I thought that that was basically my leading edge
going into this process. I don't remember who else was up for the job.
P: You did have some other competition?
S: Yeah, there was always competition. You would be hard pressed to find any
season in a decade since or before where only one person would have an
interest in being editor of the Alligator.
P: When you were chosen, you were chosen for one term, is that right?
S: No, [I was chosen for] fall and spring quarters.
P: That did not include the summer?
S: No, I was done by the end of the spring quarter. We were on a quarter system
then, so it was two seasons or three seasons, you know fall, winter, and spring.
P: Did you ever have any confidential sources?
S: Yes, I did [have confidential sources].
P: How did you deal with them?
S: The two stories I recall that were most relevant to your question would be on the
jail hanging story, and number two, on this case of racial discrimination by the
ownership and management at the Tom Sawyer Motel.
P: If you were in a position where you had to divulge those sources, would you have
S: No, and I did not [divulge my sources] even then to the faculty advisor at the
Alligator. By the way, I remember Allen Whiteleather because he was a pretty
upbeat, positive guy who did not strike me as overly authoritarian, but the one
celebrated difference I had with him was over the abortion information series of
stories and issue.
P: Let's talk about this story about William Baugher, who was this twenty-five year
old drifter who was found hanged in his jail cell. How did you first get interested
in that story?
S: I remember being in the Alligator newsroom and listening late in the day on
September 22, 1970. I can tell you the date. We had WGGG piped into the
Alligator newsroom. Don Reed, the newsman, read a story about a twenty-five
year old man who'd been found hanging at the county jail. The sheriff's deputies
were calling it a suicide. It started out as a fairly routine thing and [we thought],
wow, that's pretty dramatic. We tried not to be the Gainesville Sun, but to cover
outside the campus, community stories. I think the Alligator did a great job of
covering stories about poverty, for example, in Gainesville, with some
enthusiasm and energy. I remember making a routine call to the jail after hearing
that radio story to find out the guy's name. I thought he was a student, which is
what propelled my first phone call. Basically I found out that he was in there for
possession of marijuana. I called up a roommate of mine, a good friend I went to
high school with from Miami. I said, Dennis, a guy was found hanging in the
county jail today, twenty-five years old, for possession of marijuana. I don't know
how long he was in there, but [it was] for possession of marijuana. Now, if you
were busted for smoking pot, would you kill yourself? This was a serious
question. He paused for a little bit and he said, no, I wouldn't kill myself, I
wouldn't have to. He said, my father would kill me. I think that jived kind of with
my own sense of things here. It certainly was a felony in Florida back in 1970 to
smoke even a joint of marijuana.
So I went do to the jail. I just kind of assigned myself the story. After hours it
certainly was beyond the deadline of the paper on September 22. The paper for
September 23, was going to come out probably without a story, or maybe with a
small story with the police story that he killed himself. I remember running into a
sergeant there. The sheriff's department had kind of put a clamp down on talking
to the press about this story, but to my advantage the sergeant I ran into that
evening, when I showed him my Alligator credential, did not put that on the same
par with a real newsman.
P: It's really not the press, right? [Laughing.]
S: Yeah, really not the press, which I would have argued about at some other point,
but it was serving me well that he took pity on me, a poor student newspaper
reporter. I think I asked the right questions and felt a little, in retrospect, like
Peter Faulk in Columbo, except he's really brilliant. In my case I just happened
to be stumbling through a good series of questions, probably not asked in the
right order. What I gleaned from this first interview was information about the
man's name, his age, where he was from, that he was not a student, and that he
had been arrested much earlier for possession of marijuana, smoking a joint on a
street corner in downtown Gainesville when a police officer drove by. Again, it
just seemed strange to me that a guy would kill himself. Having no familiarity with
a jail, I'd never been to a jail even to see one, I asked, in retrospect, a stupid
question. Was he all alone in the cell? I was told, no, there were three other
prisoners in there; they were all asleep when he did this. I found out the
dimensions of the cell, six by eight feet and such. I just started putting together a
basic set of facts. I had tried not to show my shock and surprise and excitement
about this set of facts, because clearly I was excited that this might not be
suicide. It just defied credulity in my mind.
P: As you reported, when he was hanging, his feet were flat on the floor.
S: Well, I interviewed the jailer who had found him also, a guy named Ronald
Hinson. I mean I remember this to this day, Julian. Some stuff just stays with
you. He described for me that William Baugher had had long hair, it was that
era, almost to his shoulders, and a moustache. He was found early in the
morning of the twenty-second, so he died sometime the twenty-first or early in
the morning, in the a.m. [Earlier in the evening that his body was found] his head
had been completely shaved and there were blood specks on his scalp. While
he was hanging from a sheet that had been platted into a rope from the top of the
cell door, when Ronald Hinsen found him his feet were flat on the ground. As a
young boy growing up watching my share of westerns, you know you always
figure a hanging is the trap door goes [out from under you] or the horse is
knocked out from under the bad guy or whoever is getting hanged and basically
your neck snaps. But I came to learn that you can die from asphyxiation from
having your feet even suspended just a fraction of an inch off the ground, if you
just can't touch. His feet being flat on the ground, it just occurred to me, as it
would anybody, how does that knock the life out of you? It doesn't.
P: Do you think then, and in retrospect, that this was a cover-up by the sheriff?
S: No, I don't think that. I think it was just sloppy investigative work from the get-go.
Nobody ever posed that question to me. I just took it for granted that they
missed it, that they wanted a simple explanation. I wouldn't call it a cover-up so
much as just sloppy police work.
P: It was really worse than that though. How could you have three people in that
small cell and not "observe" what went on?
S: Well, that was what I thought. They had all claimed to be asleep. So, I rushed
back to the Alligator offices. Oh, one other very important piece of information
was, and I think it was in that first story, I bluffed Ronald Hinson, the sergeant. I
said, what's the name of William Baugher's girlfriend. [I said], I know he had a
girlfriend to visit him. I had no idea that he had any friends or visitors at all, but I
hit pay dirt, because he did in fact have a lady friend who did visit him from time
to time, and they gave me her name. Her name was Marie Moran, as I recall.
P: That's correct.
S: I went with Tom Kennedy, an Alligator photographer, over to her house. We
found her address either in the phone book or some other way. I remember
saying to Tom, let's leave the camera in the car. [I was] trying to be sensitive that
this woman had just lost a friend or a boyfriend, and [I thought] let's go talk to her
and kind of get the lay of the land. I was certain she knew. It had been all over
the radio and TV. I'm pretty sure this was either the twenty-second or the twenty-
third, probably the twenty-third as we were trying to put together our stories for
the twenty-fourth. [I] knock on the door with Tom and she answers the door. I
hadn't really planned this and I said to her, hi, I'm Ronnie Sachs from the
Alligator, this is Tom Kennedy, we wanted to talk to you about Bill Baugher.
When I said that, almost before the name got out of my mouth, she smiled. She
said, oh, I'm so happy, because we're pretty sure he's going to get out next
week. I don't remember hearing what she said, but it became very clear she did
not know he was dead. I said, excuse us a second. We walked back down the
sidewalk to the car and Tom and I whispered. He said, let's just get out of here.
I said, no, it would be a bad thing to let her find out some other way, mostly
because I really thought it would be terrible that we knocked on the door and
then didn't tell her. I hated the idea of being the one to tell her, but I hated more
the idea of her finding out over the radio or some other way.
P: I understand that you actually called the Alligator to get advice on that. Is that
S: I believe we did. I don't even recall who I talked to. It might have been Sam
Pepper or Phyllis, but I think they counseled [me] to do [what I] thought was right.
Also, I'm fairly clear they said, we need a comment from her, which was an
editor talking. To this day those kinds of things are practical journalism, but boy,
they're hard to do as a human being. So I went back up and asked if we could
come in, and [we] sat down with her. I think the words I started with are, I'm
sorry to tell you this, but something bad has happened to Bill. Then I proceeded
to tell her that he had been found hanging and the police called it suicide.
Immediately she protested and cried vehemently that he would not do that and
that he was killed. [She said that] he had been complaining to her for a long time
about being beaten and abused by other inmates at the jail. Then she told me
more about the pre-sentence investigation and how he was likely to get released
pending sentencing, but probably wouldn't be sentenced to prison because this
process was fairly far along. I recall that she was so upset and we were so on
deadline that I did not feel comfortable leaving, but I also knew that we had to get
back to the Alligator offices to write the story. So I asked her to come with us,
which appears in retrospect to be the height of insensitivity. But I really did not
want to leave her alone, and frankly I just thought she was so important to this
story. I brought her with us and talked to her on the drive to the Alligator, talked
to her at the Alligator office. [We] calmed her down, got her some kind of
beverage, and I think she became very important in that initial story because she
disputed what the police were saying that it was suicide. The basic set of facts
seemed to throw into significant doubt this story that the establishment media
had swallowed. The Gainesville Sun did not seem to ask the same probing
questions that the Alligator was asking.
P: How did the investigation actually work out the fact that Terry Grub is the one
who had molested him and killed him?
S: Well, what happened, and this is a real testament to the power of the press, the
day the Alligator's first story appeared in the paper, and I'm pretty sure it's my
byline on that story, I got an anonymous phone call at the Alligator offices. You
asked about anonymous sources, protected sources. The call was from a young
man who had just been released from the county jail the day the story appeared,
saw the story, and said to me on the telephone I have information about William
Baugher's death. [He said], I didn't know his name, but I know he was being
tortured and even sexually brutalized forcefully, and I don't want my name used.
[He said], I'll talk to you. So I remember being actually scared because this was
so exciting. For a twenty year old kid this is big stuff. I remember telling my
editors where I was going to meet this man, but I did not tell them his name
because I didn't know his name. I met this man, and I do not recall his name to
this day, which is a real good job of keeping him anonymous even to myself
[laughing]. He was part of some local rock group and had a party at his house. I
guess there were drugs and alcohol involved, [and] some girl passed out and
aspirated, choked to death, on her own vomit. So he [was] put in jail over that
until it was cleared up. I don't know if ultimately he was charged, but what he told
me is during the few days he was in jail, in the same cell block as William
Baugher, is that there was a guy in that cell there that was brutal and had
brutalized him at razor blade point and shaved his head. [He had] committed
violence and sexual violence against him. I think that was our second day story,
the allegations [that this man made]. We asked the sheriff's department and the
jail and they did the dumbest thing you can ever do, which was to have no
comment. Then they treated us like they were treating the rest of the press. I
think that those first two stories really generated a lot of interest from the regular
press. I think the Alligator stories were getting picked up. The Gainesville Sun
was now starting to notice our coverage, and yeah, I do recall that the St. Pete
Times ultimately did a major story and credited the Alligator with turning this
investigation around. I don't recall beyond those first two stories, there were other
smaller stories, but those two were blockbusters on the front page. Sam Pepper
was very proud and was just a great editor to work with. I mean, I get moist eyes
thinking today about how he shepherded me through this very exciting story.
P: This is a pretty dangerous situation. This guy Terry Grubb had murdered one
person. This was a dangerous group of people.
S: [This was a] dangerous group. Interestingly, those stories, in particular those first
two, threw enough doubt on the police explanation of suicide that the state
attorney, to his credit, convened a grand jury to look into this case. They
returned an indictment or an information against Terry O. Grubb, who was an
AWOL soldier who had joined under age, lied about his age. The ultimate irony
of this whole thing is [that] I covered the trial of Terry Grubb later, not only for the
Alligator but for the Miami Herald I think, and he was convicted. My own sense
of justice was really conflicted because I had never attended a murder trial, so I
had no experience to compare it to. In watching the trial and listening carefully to
what the rules of evidence are supposed to be, I did not believe in my own mind
that the prosecution had proved that he did it. I knew he did it, I was just darn
certain he had done it, but I didn't think they proved he had done it. I think I
wrote an op-ed piece after the verdict about my own conflicted feelings about the
system of justice.
This is just a little footnote, Julian, but after I left the campus and graduated more
than a year later and went to work for the Miami Herald, I went to the state prison
once a year for the next several years to visit Terry Grub and interview him. I
was going to write a book about this case called the Hanging Party because he
had never really told his story. I needed to know that he did it. I never did write
the book; I wrote about three chapters of a book. Finally, on my third or fourth
visit to him in the mid 1970s, I had left working for Governor Askew [and] I was
teaching at the university in the fall of 1977, he finally confessed to me that he
had done it and he told me why. It was just so terrible a reason to kill somebody.
He had been brutalizing William Baugher, he had been holding that razor blade
point and sodomizing him. William Baugher at some point, and this came out at
the trial, wrote a note [saying], I'm in danger, please get me out of this cell. [He]
had passed it through the cell bars to Carlos Joyner, a trustee, an inmate who is
trusted enough to deliver meals. Carlos Joyner recognized Terry Grubb as such
a powerful, evil figure, that he, a few minutes later, spirited the note to Terry O.
Grubb that William Baugher had written. So Terry O. Grubb reads this note
written by his cell mate saying, I'm in danger, and feared that on top of the auto-
theft, grand-theft, [and] AWOL stuff [that] he was looking at, he might face some
assault charge. So his answer to this, this is criminal logic, was to commit a
murder and make it look like suicide. The really horrendous thing about this
case, if you have a sense of humanity, is that one of the reasons I could not
accept the verdict at trial was because the medical examiner testified that there
was no evidence that there was any struggle other than his shaved head with
blood specks; but no evidence that he had struggled against the death. If you
were being hanged against your will, generally you would pull at the noose or
something and it would leave little blood bruises called, I remember this from
thirty years ago, petechiae. There were none of those, and that always bothered
me. Terry Grubb finally gave me the answer, and that was that basically he had
so brutalized William Baugher, who had, at some point, given up on ever getting
out of that cell, [that Bill didn't struggle]. The TV set was set up outside the cell
block and Gunsmoke [television western] was on. The four guys were in the cell;
one of them was a child molester I recall, and one was a guy who bounced
checks I think; and there's an episode [of Gunsmoke] where there's an angry
mob trying to hang Doc Adams. Terry Grubb is sitting on his bunk, who's seen
the note that Bill Baugher has written, [and he] said, we're going to have us a
hanging party too. [He] started ripping up the sheet and platting it into a noose.
When he put it on Bill Baugher's neck, Bill Baugher did not resist. His spirit, I'm
assuming, was so broken, that he just stood there when Terry Grubb tied the
noose to the top of the cell door. The reason his feet were flat on the ground and
he did not die of his own hand, as Terry Grubb told me in the interview at the
prison, that he held his legs and pulled him out from the door so that Baugher's
body, while he's alive, was horizontal, and asphyxiated him. Terry Grubb told me
that he kind of blacked out while he was doing this and what broke him from this
death trance was that he smelled feces, he smelled William Baugher's body relax
and release its waste. That's when he just let the body go to a resting position,
standing. He went into his bunk, and the other inmates who had seen it as well
all pretended to be asleep until the body was discovered. He did earlier that
evening, before the note got written by William Baugher, shave his head with a
razor blade. When he did get down to whiskers [he] made cuts in his scalp. It
was just an appalling and horrible thing.
P: One aspect of this is that in your reporting you went back and demonstrated,
number one, the jail was way overcrowded, with poor ventilation, bad food, and
not enough medical care. Ultimately because of this, a grand jury met and
demanded that they build a new jail.
S: I think that the murder story triggered a deeper look by the Alligator into the jail
itself. What was amazing [is that] it was an opportunity to use what I was
learning in the College of Journalism and just do a search for public records. The
jail's own records and the courthouse's own records had copies of state
Department of Corrections inspection reports. [They] basically excoriated the
Alachua County Jail for a whole range of flaws and deficiencies, and pretty much
ordered that they be corrected. In most cases they were not. There was an
attitude that people in jail, I guess, didn't deserve a posh place [to live], but
Alachua County Jail then was anything but. Interestingly though, people who are
in a county jail, very often, are poor people who cannot afford a lawyer and are
awaiting trial. So it was a real miscarriage of justice at the front end of law
enforcement because the sheriff's department, which had a direct responsibility
for the jail, really was asleep at the switch knowingly and willfully about the
conditions at that jail. I think, as proud as the Alligator was about the Baugher
murder being uncovered, the conditions at the jail was a pretty significant story.
P: Let me ask you about what I guess would have been your most controversial set
of circumstances, and that was your decision to publish a list of abortion clinics
not in the state of Florida.
S: [They were] not clinics actually.
P: Okay, you tell me about it.
S: In the fall of 1971, early in my tenure as editor-in-chief at the Alligator, you have
to recall what was going on at that time. It was deep in the heart of the war in
Vietnam and the anti-war movement, deep in the heart of the civil rights
movement, and in the early stages of the women's rights movement. It was a
pretty volatile time with a lot of these issues, and [there were] very vocal
audiences advocating about these issues. As the editor, besides having a daily
newspaper, I tried to make sure that once a week we would do a major takeout, a
major in-depth story and related stories, side bars, about some critical issue. I
think it was in early October of 1971 [that] I determined that there was enough
controversy about the issue of abortion that it warranted an Alligator special
report. I recall that the main story was to be about women on campus that might
find themselves in a predicament of being pregnant and confronting this difficult
decision about what to do; being young, not married, and not ready to have a
child. The abortion laws in the various states were fairly divergent.
In Florida it was a very restrictive law that had been passed in 1868 that
prohibited abortion unless the mother's life was in jeopardy. I don't even know if
rape, I don't recall, was justification for an abortion, but the mother's life had to be
in jeopardy; that was one of the hallmarks that would allow an abortion. Anyway,
we assigned stories. We wanted to do a comparative side bar about the laws in
the various states. Then it occurred to me that it might [be] interesting to provide
some resource to people in a predicament and counseling. So I started to put
together a resource list side bar of abortion counseling services. One of them, as
I recall, was the Catholic Student Center, which was not going to be a place
where they had a doctor performing abortions. Several of them we gleaned from
nationally circulated magazines and they were truly counseling agencies. None
of them were clinics, none of them were a place where you could for an abortion,
but [they were there] for counseling. John Parker was a law student during my
editorship, and he wrote a very popular regular column on the editorial pages
called "Fluted Columns." John was a very lighthearted and very brilliant man, but
very lighthearted, and a marathon runner as well. When we were starting to lay
out the stories and John picked up on what was happening in that day's paper,
he came into my office and said to me, hey Ronnie, if you print this list of
counseling services, you're committing a felony under Florida law. I remember
laughing at him and saying, that can't be so, John. As a diligent law student, he
plopped out a law book and showed me Florida Statute, and I remember it to this
P: That's correct.
S: It was the brother/sister/companion law passed in 1868, the same year Florida's
anti-abortion law had been passed. [It] had language in it that I recall said
something that not only in the abortion statute could you not have an abortion,
but in 797.02, you could not hint, print, or advertise where someone could go for
an abortion. Now, an analogy to that would be, at that time and to this day
casino gambling is illegal in Florida, so it would be illegal for the Alligator or the
Miami Herald to write a story about Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, because you
can gamble there.
P: Excuse me, most of these referral centers that you had listed were out of state, is
S: Yes, they were. Frankly, we had a hard time finding much information on
deadline for where someone could go get help on campus, but I think the
Catholic Student Center was one of the ones we put in there so that there was a
local one. I think we put it on there knowing that it would at least give some
balance to the appearance that we were trying to promote abortion, because that
was not our intent. Anyway, I was incredulous when John showed me that law.
It occurred to me, my God, this law is 103 years old, and this law says we can't
print this list? That's ridiculous. Mr. Whiteleather became aware of this little
P: He was the editorial advisor?
S: He was the faculty advisor. Normally he was there in a short-sleeved shirt and
open collar. He was a pipe smoker and somewhat professorial, and certainly not
condescending. [He was] very collaborative and nurturing, but boy, his whole
demeanor changed when this came to his attention. He said to me, I cannot
allow you [to do this]. This was the first time he ever seemed to assert authority
over the process [of producing the paper] in my memory. [He said], I cannot allow
you to put this in the paper.
P: Ron, do you think was an issue that was a legal issue or a moral issue?
S: I think for Mr. Whiteleather it was about legalities. I think he was sensitive to his
own position that he was supposed to be our advisor, and he did not want to
formally be on the record advising us to do that. In fact he was very adamant. It
wasn't like he officially had to be against us doing this, but he privately told us I
think you should do it. He was just diametrically opposed to us doing it because
he felt a very strong responsibility at that point.
P: It would be hard for him to advise you to break the law.
S: Absolutely, and I don't fault him for that, but I disagreed with him. I don't know
who he called, [but he called] someone in the administration.
P: He called Lester Hale, who was then the vice president.
S: That's right, and [then] the process kicked in.
P: But now again, the Board of Student Publications approved that with a three to
S: Well, it was four [to] three. The process in such a dispute is that the Board of
Student Publications is convened. I don't recall, before or since, ever going to
them about any issue. I didn't set the process up, but I determined and I told our
staff [that] we're going to live with the decision of this board. If they tell us we
can't print it, we won't print it, and that will be it, we'll just move on. But I went to
the board and I made my case, and I removed myself from any control over the
coverage that the Alligator had about this issue. [I put] Gary Grunder in charge,
besides being managing editor, of every aspect about this issue, except the
editorials of course, which were still my province. I recall that on the day of the
vote, one of the faculty members did not show up to the meeting. I didn't think all
the students would vote for us because one of them was a Tri-Delt, and they just
weren't considered to be at the forefront of political thought on the campus. To
my surprise, it was a four [to] three vote to allow publication, all four students
voting for publication and all three faculty members voting against it. I don't think
Detweiler could vote because he was the chairman, he could only break a tie,
and there was no tie. I wasn't overjoyed or delighted, [but] I was pleased. It
wasn't like [it was] a huge victory; I thought we had the right to print it all along
because it was a law that obviously was anachronistic. In the era it had been
written it might have made sense, but it certainly didn't in the late twentieth
So, I went back to the office and then got a call from, I believe, Hugh
Cunningham, on behalf of President O'Connell, saying that the president wanted
to talk to me. I remember the president coming over to the student union and us
going down to the cafeteria and having a soda pop together. He sat across a
little table from me and he said, I'm sorry, but I'm going to prohibit you from
publishing that list. I expressed disappointment because I said, we submitted to
this process that you had asked for and we would have lived by the result no
matter what, why can't you? He said, because I'm the publisher of the
newspaper as the president of the university, and the university uses state funds
through a portion of tuition and I can't allow you to do this, it's a felony. I tried to
talk to him about the merits of why we wanted to do it and the flaws in the law.
P: This is really a First Amendment issue, isn't it?
S: It is to me. How can congress or even the state of Florida pass a law telling the
press what it can do? The fact of the matter [was that] I wasn't making the case
as a student editor, I was making the case as a journalist. I mean, I considered
that we were doing a professional job. The president was a former chief justice
of the state supreme court. [He was certainly] a lawyer far beyond what I ever
was going to be because I didn't choose to be a lawyer, but even if I had. He
said he just plain prohibited me from doing it and printing it in the paper. I do
remember that I decided to go ahead and do it anyway, I believe. I don't
remember though, Julian, if this was before or after the BSP vote, but we had it
dummied into the front page of the paper. The printer called me from Ocala at
about two o'clock in the morning and said, I can't do this because I might be
culpable on the same felony statute if I print it. So he allowed me to at least
quickly write something to explain why this white space was appearing in the
Alligator. I explained, this white space is here because we were about to commit
a felony and the printer wouldn't let us. So we basically explained in the white
space in the paper why the list wasn't printed. The president, either through
Hugh Cunningham or through his own phone calls, made me aware that I could
not do this. I basically went and met with my friend Don Middlebrooks, then
president of the student body, and told him about my frustration in not being able
to do this. He said to me, look, I agree with you. Oh, one point I want to make
with you is that Jean Chance, a very dear friend and a mentor [who] I never had
her for a class, [gave me] the most important lessons I [ever] got at the college of
journalism. She never told me what to do on this, but her ex-husband, but then
husband, Chuck Chance, offered to take my case. I was struck by the irony of
having my first and only felony case being handled by a lawyer whose name was
P: We talked to Jean about this and she said that several of you had met at her
house and discussed this.
S: We met at her house to discuss this, including Don Middlebrooks and all my
friends from the Alligator and student government. Jean said they did not want to
advise me to break the law. In fact, they encouraged me not to do this. They
said, this could be bad, you could go to jail for a year, you don't have to do this. I
listened to their sage counsel and then I said to all of them, I appreciate your
advice, but I think we need to do this or everything we're learning is just a sham.
[If] we find something like this that shouldn't even be on the books anymore and
let it go, then all the lessons that we're getting in the classroom don't mean
anything about the First Amendment. So once I told them I'd made the decision
we were going to do it they all were fairly pleased, but no one wanted to be the
one to suggest that I do it.
P: I think Jean and others thought that it really was a First Amendment issue and
admired you for having the courage to go ahead.
S: Well, I think they did not want to sway me. If I was inclined to do it, they were
very, very supportive and enthusiastic. I remember Don Middlebrooks offered
that he would spend $200 out of his own pocket to pay for the paper and ink
necessary for us to replicate these lists, the lists of counseling services, on a
mimeograph sheet, and that's what we did. We ran a mimeo sheet that I signed
my name to so that it would be very clear that I was responsible for this, not the
Alligator. I think we ran 23,000 copies off all night long at the student
P: This was like an insert into the paper?
S: It was a white sheet of paper and we just ran 23,000 copies imprinted with the
Alligator letterhead, masthead, and the list and my signature at the bottom. Then
I met with my staff with a pile of 23,000 copies of this abortion counseling list. I
said, look, this is not a democracy, this is a newspaper, but I've made a decision
that we should go ahead and offer this information to our readers. [I said], I can't
involve you in that by me telling you you have to do this, but the only way we can
get this in the paper is if we stuff it into the paper when it arrives at the drop
boxes on campus. [I said], I can't do it by myself, but I'm not asking you to do it.
[Then I said], I want to open this up to discussion. I'm very proud to say that it
was a unanimous decision by every member of the staff that they wanted to
participate in this felony. This was no conspiracy, this was just young people
juiced up with belief that the First Amendment meant what it said. So we divvied
up the stack of 23,000 copies of this mimeo sheet in book bags and stealthily
worked our way across campus and basically waited for the newspaper to arrive.
When it did [arrive] at the box you were at, you stuffed one mimeograph sheet
into every single copy of the paper so that every copy had this counseling list.
Later that morning, as the paper was being snarfed up across campus, it became
apparent that we had committed this felony. I got a phone call from Chuck
Chance saying that the state attorney's office had called him. Obviously they
had followed this controversy. This is a year after we broke the stories about the
jail and the Baugher hanging. He said that there was an information for my
arrest because I had signed the sheet and taken responsibility for it. They called
him to see if they needed to come down to the Alligator office to arrest me there,
or if I would turn myself in. I remember very clearly thinking what a disruptive
thing it would be to have deputies coming in the Alligator newsroom and
handcuffing me, though it surely would have been dramatic. So I went down to
Chuck's office and talked with him. I recall the walk from his law office to the jail
was a pretty short distance, but it was my first exposure to being on the other
side of press coverage, because somehow the press knew that I was about to be
arrested. Cameras [were] in my face and people [were] barking out questions at
me. I [was] now a target of news as opposed to a coverer of news.
P: You were on the perp walk.
S: Yeah, the perp walk. That's a very good phrase. Fortunately, I had the presence
of mind not to pull a windbreaker up over my face like some petty thieves or
mobsters do. I remember going into jail and the sergeant who I had interviewed
a year earlier was the guy who took me in. He joked, I think he was joking, as I
came to the counter to get fingerprinted and mug shot. He said, I knew we'd get
you in here eventually. He was clearly kidding, but it was not my favorite joke
given what had happened at the jail. I was fingerprinted and photographed for a
mug shot. I remember I was wearing a short sleeved yellowish alligator Lacoste
[End side A2]
I think I was wearing an alligator Lacoste shirt and a pair of jeans, and I'm
surprised, in retrospect, how long my hair was. I was arrested, and
because I had been a student in Gainesville for four years, I
seemed to be a fairly minimal risk for flight and they released me.
Chuck had arranged for me to be released on my own
recognizance. So I spent scant amount of time in the jail itself,
happily, by the way. As I was getting out of jail, within the hour I got
in jail, I was informed that President O'Connell was holding a news
conference in Tigert Hall and wanted me to attend. This is the very
hour of my arrest. I went to Tigert Hall after I was released and the
president was holding a news conference. All sorts of statewide,
and even some national interest, had been generated in the case
already. I remember him calling me up to the podium at his
conference room where he's holding this news conference and
putting his left arm around me and clutching my shoulder really
tight. It struck me as not an affectionate grab. He recounted,
accurately, our difference of opinion about the issue. The reason
he wanted me at the news conference, I found out, was to use me
as a prop basically. I was a human prop for the president because
what he told the reporters was that I had disobeyed his command,
he probably didn't use that word, not to publish the information. He
said that if I were convicted of the felony charges against me I
obviously would be fired as editor and removed from the university.
I don't remember if the word was suspended or expelled.
Then he surprised me by saying that he also was asking then attorney general,
Robert Shevin, to render [an] opinion. He was going to request an opinion from
the state's attorney general about whether he, as publisher of the Alligator, had
the power to exercise prior restraint over the newspaper's content, which is what
he attempted to do in this case. I'd never heard the president called publisher
before this dispute. He then said that if the answer from the attorney general's
office, though it was not binding legally [but] was merely an informative opinion
from the state's top lawyer, was that he did have that authority, knowing that I
already disobeyed the authority he had believed he had, that I would also be fired
from the Alligator and expelled or suspended from the university. I remember
thinking to myself, I didn't say it out loud, well gees, this is kind of like double
jeopardy, I kind of get screwed either way. If I'm convicted of a felony I'm going to
prison and I lose my job as editor, and if the attorney general gives the president
this opinion, I'm screwed too. So it seemed like I needed to win on both fronts to
be happy. The principle that was involved was very important to me, and my
ability to continue as editor was extremely important to me. Fletcher Baldwin
joined the case with Chuck Chance from the UF College of Law. [He] was a
constitutional law expert, as he is to this day.
From that point, what happened on campus was fairly interesting. All these
social issues were burning, and I remember that a women's liberation group
threw a flyer on campus that talked about that Ron Sachs obviously has a
greater concern for the First Amendment than women's rights. [They pointed out
that to me] this is not about women's rights, this is about the First Amendment.
They intended that to be a cutting commentary, and I took a step back and I was
kind of struck by the naivete of the flyer. They weren't opposed to what I'd done,
but they were opposed to the idea that I didn't do it to promote women's rights to
have an abortion [and] that I had done it on First Amendment grounds, which is
exactly what I did.
P: Let me ask you, what was your personal feeling about abortion?
S: My personal view of abortion, I think I was a product of the time, where I thought
it was a not great solution to a problem, but I did believe, when I heard all the
arguments, that in the early stages it should be within a woman's rights to control
what was going on within her own body.
P: Essentially you would have agreed with Roe v. Wade?
S: Yes, I would have [agreed with Roe v. Wade], but that really didn't drive this
whole issue. I was not on some soapbox championing abortion. As an editor, it
was an issue in Florida because Florida had such a restrictive law. There were
women all the time who were getting abortions in Florida, illegal ones that were
very dangerous, by people who would basically put up a shingle and would
provide this so-called service. We were driven more by a concern about the
issue, like any social issue you might cover. We were not on any kind of crusade
until we found out there was a law that told us as journalists that we couldn't
publish something. That changed our entire motivation, [and] then we actually
were on a mission to call attention to this bad law. But basically the women's
group was correct, it was a First Amendment issue [for us]. The irony of their
opposition was that if we did not have the First Amendment right to publish
information, then their issue would suffer, because women could not get good,
accurate information about where they could go for help. Anyway, I remember a
defense fund was taken up so some modicum of money could be paid to our
lawyers. It was paltry. Sigma Delta Chi up there helped raise it. My parents
were struck by the hate mail and phone calls they received, which was more than
balanced out by the fact that my name was uttered by Walter Cronkite on the
CBS evening news, which did a reader on the case. I was very pleased that
newspapers all across the country and newspaper people all across the country
wrote me letters or wrote columns and editorials in support of what we had done.
My greatest disappointment about the whole controversy was probably Buddy
Davis, who is very dear to me to this day. He was one of my professors. Every
year I was in college I had him for every class that mattered. Making an A in his
editorial writing class was my proudest academic achievement as a journalism
P: There weren't many.
S: Right. [It was] chin up, chest out, keep your lens clean, and don't take any
wooden nickels, was his way to close every single class. I love him. I went to
him during that controversy before we broke the law. As a professor/mentor he
spoke to me [and said], I was right, we were right, and that the law was a bad
law. [He said], it was flawed in the perspective of modern view, it shouldn't be on
the books any more. Never did he say to me I think it would be a mistake for you
to challenge it through the Alligator, never. In fact, if anything, he was very
encouraging that we were on the right track. I think there was a parallel case at
the same time of a Daytona Beach woman, Shirley Wheeler, and he did make an
opinion to me that this thing is probably going to get resolved eventually because
of Shirley Wheeler. I said, well, we're in the middle of it now and we can't back
down. But not once did he say to me, Ron, I think this is a bad idea, you
shouldn't do it; if anything, he was very encouraging.
P: That's interesting, because we talked to Buddy about that and he had it exactly
S: My recall is that he didn't tell me to do it, but he didn't tell me not to do it.
P: He said he thought it would be better to wait, number one, because it was
breaking the law, and, number two, it was being adjudicated through the Daytona
S: Again, he called attention to the Shirley Wheeler case. He did not tell me to go
do it. He certainly wasn't an enthusiastic advocate of that, but he never said to
me, I don't think you should do this. His word carried a lot of weight with me. He
told me I was right, he didn't say go do it, so I have a different recall on that.
Maybe it's because of my youthful enthusiasm. Maybe he just didn't directly
communicate to me what he was completely feeling, but I felt betrayed by this
mentor of mine when, in his role as the editorial writer for the Gainesville Sun, he
ripped me a new south-side. He wrote that I was on an un-aborted ego trip. It
hurt me deeply because I'm a guy who'd never been away from home until I went
to University of Florida and, to this day, I have great respect for Buddy Davis, and
I actually sought his counsel. He did not tell me not to do it. I knew we were on
solid ground. What he said to me when I told him how upset I was about it [was],
you need to separate the Buddy Davis you know as a professor from the hat I
wear as an editorial writer. I just thought he had not treated me fairly, because
he knew me personally, he knew I wasn't on some self serving, self promoting
P: Plus, as an editorial writer, he challenged the civil rights laws. His argument
always was in class, if you're going to write an editorial you've got to be tough,
you've got to take a strong position.
S: Right, and, again, I don't fault him for having a difference of opinion with me
about it, but he personally hurt me. I was taking responsibility for what I did, I
was facing some legal consequences, but I looked up to him so much. It didn't
change my attitude about him forever, my love for him goes far deeper than my
hurt and my disappointment at what he did, but I felt really betrayed by him
personally and professionally.
P: Now, what did Bob Shevin finally decide? Did he ever make a ruling?
S: It's late November [or] early December in 1971, we're about to go to trial, and
Shevin's opinion comes back. Shevin's opinion was researched and written by
Barry Richard, now known by all as America's lawyer, a strong Democrat who
was the lawyer for the George W. Bush presidential campaign and the dispute
over all the Florida stuff. [He was a] brilliant young man at the time, [and] a
brilliant older man now. He wrote the opinion, and I don't recall the specific
language, but I remember the thrust of the letter to President O'Connell, which
was not binding. It was, no, President O'Connell, you do not have the power to
exercise prior restraint over the Florida Alligator. [That] was a story that sent
shock waves through the college press across the country, because it was, while
not binding, the greatest encouragement and incentive that what we were doing
was important and that it was bullshit. Just by being president of the university,
and even though the university received taxpayer dollars in the form of a small
portion of the student activity fee, that that alone was not justification for messing
with the journalistic integrity of the newspaper.
P: Prior restraint is prior restraint.
S: Right. I didn't recognize President O'Connell as the publisher of the paper. No
one ever told me he was that before until he wanted to be. Clearly in retrospect,
and now that I'm older, I recognize that he probably was viewed by the law as the
publisher, but I'm just damn glad. When I see Barry Richard to this day on the
street in Tallahassee, I shake his hand and give him a hug and thank him for that
opinion. President O'Connell clearly was so pissed off by that opinion, which he
expected to be exactly the opposite, that he determined at that point that if he
could not control the Alligator about this one incident, he wasn't going to be
responsible for it. While Hugh Cunningham, and even Ed Barber, might argue
with you that in making the Alligator go independent it was his intent to see it
succeed, I had a far different impression as the editor whose decision triggered
the move to independence. It was not something we were excited about. We
were greatly fearful that it would be the death of the Alligator. To the credit of
staffs that came after me [it still exists]. I had very little to do with it except for
cheering them on.
P: Plus, O'Connell [knew] you were deeply in debt, some $90,000.
S: I heard Hugh rewrite history in a speech no one asked him to give at the Alligator
induction ceremonies last year. I almost wanted to stand up and say, bullshit,
Hugh, but I'm just too old to be the rabble-rouser I was in the same way. Clearly
this ad contract for the Campus Crier was some sustenance for the paper, but
clearly it was an almost overnight effort, even though there was a transition
period, to kill the Alligator. No one will ever persuade me otherwise. It might
have seemed paternal to some, even though I was on the staff, how the
university was helping. My view is that they did not intend for the Alligator to
succeed. They did not think it would or could. We went to trial on the criminal
charges shortly after the attorney general's office opinion. Frankly, all I had to do
was show up and sit there in the defendant's chair. The judge, I don't know if
he's still alive, is a hero to me, Benmont Tench. A year later [I] had him perform
my wedding ceremony to my first wife. He had freed me from one thing only to
enchain me to something else.
P: There's a lot of ironies to this story.
S: Yes, Benmont Tench's son is part of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as I recall.
Anyway, he ruled on the abortion information statute, 797.02, that it was in fact
unconstitutional, which had been our contention as non-lawyer practicing student
journalists from the get go, but our lawyers made a very compelling case about
why it was unconstitutional. Then our lawyers took the gambit of challenging
Florida's 103 year old, 1868 abortion law itself.
P: This is outside of your case?
S: No, this is the same hearing after the judge declared 797.02 [unconstitutional].
Apparently my lawyers were so imbued with enthusiasm for how good they were,
and they were great, they argued with the judge about the unconstitutionality of
Florida's archaic abortion law itself. In that same hearing where I was found not
guilty, in fact the law was found to be unconstitutional, Judge Tench struck down
Florida's abortion law.
P: That was 797.01, right?
S: Yes, and I remember Chuck Chance telling me that Alachua County was the only
one of sixty-seven counties in Florida that technically abortions were not illegal
from that day forward. I recall the attorney general's office entering the case not
on behalf of the state against me on the abortion law, but basically advocating for
a change in the abortion law, which the trial judge had done as well.
P: Now, was Whitworth the prosecutor?
S: Gene Whitworth was the prosecutor, yes. He also had been the prosecutor for
Terry Grubb when I covered that murder trial a year earlier. It was very strange
to be prosecuted by the same guy who did this murder case.
P: You go in and your jailer is the same guy that you talked to in the Grubb case
S: Oh, yeah, somebody could probably write that a lot better than I'm telling it, but it
was a little eerie.
P: So Gene Whitworth did not appeal this decision?
S: I think the decision was appealed. What I'm telling you is, I think that normally
the process, and a lawyer could tell you better, is that the attorney general would
enter the case on behalf of and on the side of the judicial district's state attorney,
but the A.G.'s office I think entered it on our side in terms of advocating that the
law be changed. I don't think it will be on my tombstone, but I'm proud that our
standing up for the First Amendment actually led to a saner look, in a more
modern time, at Florida's very, very restrictive abortion law.
P: What would have happened if you had been convicted and the appeals failed?
S: I would have gone to prison for a year. I recall the day I was arrested, I'm the
youngest of four children, and I remember calling my mother and father to tell
them that I was going to be arrested and I was going to turn myself in and what it
was about. I remember, as a twenty year old kid, advising my mother especially.
I said mom, you may get some calls from reporters. [I told her], I just want to tell
you, just be careful, because anything you say when you're talking to a reporter
could end up being in a story. My mother didn't really listen. The now defunct
Miami News was still operating then, and a reporter from the Miami News called
my mother. [My mother's] remarried name is Gray. [She said], Mrs. Gray, your
son has been arrested and blah, blah, blah, and he could face a year [in jail].
This woman really befriended my mother on the phone, so my mother just had no
guard up at all. To the question, what will you do if your son is convicted, my
mother is a typical Jewish mother and very dramatic, and she just blurted out, I
think I will stick my head in the oven. So that's the quote that appeared on the
front page of the Miami News, that my mother was going to stick her head in the
P: I could have almost predicted that.
S: [That] would have been painful, by the way, because we didn't have a gas oven,
but it was the symbolism. Julian, just very briefly, [there was an] avalanche of
hate mail that came in and there was some very supportive mail that came in. I
remember getting phone calls from women all over the country who wanted to
know where they could go for counseling about abortion or [where] to get an
abortion. I became, overnight, the resource [of abortion information]. This is
right after the arrest. But before the trial and the weeks that ensued, at my home
in Miami, my parents received such terrible hate mail. I saved a lot of it.
P: Were they supportive of your stand?
S: They were very supportive. I think they were surprised their son was embroiled
in the middle of this, but a year earlier I called my mother from the May Day
demonstration and told her I was up there where a lot of people were getting
arrested. I remember before hanging up, typical of a mother, she said, well if I
can't stop you from going just make sure you wear a jacket, because it's cold in
P: Wear clean underwear [laughing].
S: She meant a sweater or a jacket to be warm.
P: Was there any anti-Semitism in this, in the threats and the letters?
S: My Judaism isn't like imprinted in my face or in my name automatically. No, I
think it was just hateful stuff from some right-wing folks. I remember newspaper
clippings coming that had writing all around the perimeter. People would read
this in the paper and then rip it or clip and write nasty things on it and draw a
beard on me and devil ears. Somebody even glued a couple of metal washers
and tied strings to it and referred to I should be hanged, which is another one of
your ironies [because it was] a year after the Baugher stuff. I remember being
amused, mostly, by the hate mail, but the volume was staggering.
P: In retrospect, this is pretty extraordinary for a twenty year old editor of a campus
newspaper to literally risk his career, because that may well have been the case
had you been arrested and had a felony. It would have been tough to get jobs.
At any point did you have this fear that this is going too far, it's too dangerous?
S: Actually, I really had a lot of faith that we were right. I mean, I didn't believe we
were taking a huge chance. It just was so contrary to my sense of fairness and
everything I was learning at journalism school about the First Amendment. It did
not seem to me [like I could go to prison]. It's not like I obsessed about, gee, I
could go to prison. I knew that that could happen, but I had great faith that we
were right and a lot of faith that we were represented by some really smart
lawyers who would not have taken this case on if they did not think they could
P: Although you did at some point talk about the fact that you thought that O'Connell
and Maxwell were making decisions about printing or not printing, and that
O'Connell had made some sort of indirect threats against you. Was that true,
and did you feel in any way intimidated by that?
S: By indirect, how do you mean?
P: Well, that was just a term that you had used. You said, in one of your editorials I
think, that he had used indirect threats against the editors, and I presumed that
he was going to fire you or throw you out of school.
S: Well, I think that he didn't privately threaten us, he did it publically. Clearly, he
went after the newspaper itself, but he held me up as a human prop and he
squeezed my shoulder so I wouldn't walk away. It's not like I got to speak at that
news conference he held the day of my arrest, but he made it very clear that he
was going to punish me for disobeying him, and if the law didn't do it he was
going to do it. Fortunately, the attorney general's opinion didn't give him the
authority to do that.
P: Let me quickly finish up with a couple of other issues. You did a fairly long article
when Steve O'Connell had the sixty-seven black students who were protesting
arrested. What was your reaction to all that? Did you see O'Connell as, number
one, a racist, and, number two, as having made a poor decision in having them
S: I think [in] that era almost anybody who was a university president had a difficult
time because it was such a volatile, tumultuous time on campuses all across the
country. In the South, which [is] where the University of Florida is, that it reached
that level shows you how much this was rooted all across the country. I think
that he was not well served by his own background. I think he evolved his
philosophies and views as we all do. But I do recall I had the knowledge, even
as a student, that when he served on the Supreme Court he helped write a
majority opinion on a ridiculous thing, which was the refusal of some county in
Florida, I don't recall which one, to issue a marriage license to an interracial
couple. I recall [that] it was a law student who told me that the language in the
opinion actually almost was like this, that duck marry duck and geese marry
geese and white folk should marry white folk. Knowing that he was a party to an
opinion like that, no matter when it was, and it wasn't all that far removed from
the time he was now president of the university, surely that was in my frame of
reference and others. Just the exceedingly bad judgement of knowing that it's a
volatile time, and the reason these students were arrested was because they
refused to leave and they didn't have an appointment to see him. In retrospect
today, even President O'Connell, who is a brilliant man, I think, would sit down on
the floor in the lotus position face to face with those students and talk with them.
But at that time, when there were protests all over and the response of authority
at the time was tear gas and arrests, figures of authority did what others did.
P: In fact they did use some tear gas in that, didn't they?
S: Absolutely, I remember during that whole era of my undergraduate time at some
point the police department in Gainesville got a riot tank, so at least the police
officers wouldn't be out there on the streets sucking up tear gas with the rest of
P: Another thing I think I remember from your story is that they had brought the
buses in to arrest these students who were protesting, and the students let the
air out of the tires.
S: Yeah, that's rich. I don't actually recall that, but if I wrote it it must have
P: Talk about the Tom Sawyer Hotel incident.
S: This story got far less attention but it had much quicker results, and I was very
gratified by it. I got a tip one day, and this was deep into my time as editor, that a
student who was working part-time at the Tom Sawyer Motel, which was some
little tiny, rinky dink motel way up on 441, was discriminating against black
customers. I said, well, how do you know this? He said, I work there. I said,
well how do you know? He said, because the owners told the manager, and the
manager does this too, that basically we have to charge a higher rate to black
customers and we're not allowed to put the black customers in the newer wing of
the motel. [He said], we have to make them stay in the older wing and we charge
them more. I said, do you have anything that would prove this? He said, yeah. I
said, can I have a copy of it? So, I met him. What it was was this vertical run
sheet that almost lists all the room numbers, but I clearly remember there was
handwriting on it from the manager that says put "spooks," and I remember he
used the word "spooks," in whatever sections of the motel. We front paged the
story. We reproduced that as a piece of artwork. The U.S. Justice Department
came down. I don't know if they shut down the motel for a short time, but [they]
investigated it, the civil rights folks from the Justice Department. I was amazed
at how quick the delivery of justice was. This was certainly not the biggest
controversy of the day, but I was very impressed that the Feds so quickly
responded to this injustice. It was so blatant, and we had editorialized against it.
I don't remember the ultimate outcome except that just pointing it out was I think
a great service to the community.
P: You were an integral part of what I see as a very rich tradition at the Alligator in
defending the First Amendment. I think that it's absolutely remarkable. As we
know, Tom Julin was participating in all of these activities, the Earnhardt photos
and the stripper and on and on. Isn't that rather remarkable that a campus
newspaper would be doing these things when other major newspaper were
reluctant to get involved with these issues?
S: I think that's a great question. That's my favorite question you've asked, and
you've asked some doosies. The history of the Alligator [is inspiring]. While any
young person at the Alligator, even veterans, alumni like me, don't know it all, we
heard enough about it before we got there and once we got there, that it was
inspiring. It only reinforced and inspired you more to want to be a part of it. It's a
proud tradition. There is no other campus newspaper in the country that has as
rich a tradition of covering the news and appropriately raising hell than does the
Independent Florida Alligator.
P: Let me change the focus a little bit. When I talked to Tom Julin, he said as an
editor, I thought that was my job to raise hell. Is it easier for a student editor
under these circumstances to make these challenges? If you were a major
newspaper and you had all of the businesses who were taking out advertising
with you, it would be a little tougher. It might be tougher sometimes for a major
newspaper that might be in the Knight-Ridder chain to take those risks.
S: Actually, I think the interesting aspect to this question is that when you're editor
of the Alligator you know how long you've got. It's almost like someone's told you
how long you've got to live. This is such an amazing experience to be editor of
the Alligator, and an amazing responsibility. You feel the burden of it, but you
also feel this little clock ticking. You know that your term is for only so much
time, and you really want to do the job well, responsibly. You really are aware,
not every moment, but you are aware in the back of your mind of the rich tradition
in history of this newspaper. You know that your time as editor is going to be
meaningful in how well you do the day-to-day coverage of news in that
newspaper. But also, and this is where we raise our game up at the Alligator way
above what most college newspapers or maybe even some commercial papers
do, you realize there's a deeper responsibility to use the First Amendment.
Again, I think students maybe are more comfortable with this than professionals
become as a change agent. Certainly in the editorials you can be an advocate,
but even in strong reporting [you can accomplish this]. This is why I went into
journalism instead of law and politics. I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer
and an elected official, but my experiences at the Alligator showed me that my
initial instincts were correct, that you can do as much or more to effect
meaningful change in our society through journalism than you can through the
halls of Congress sometimes.
P: The jail reform and the abortion, those were not issues you sought out. They
were issues that came up as you reported and found out information.
S: I think what it is is [that as an] Alligator editor and staffer, but particularly as
editor, you sharpen your skills for a finite period of time, which is great practice
for when you go out professionally. You say, besides the day-to-day stuff, what
should we be doing? What breaking news stories need a deeper look? What
issues need a deeper look? I think you are particularly motivated by knowing
that you have a limited time in the job. If you're editor-in-chief of a major
metropolitan daily, you don't know what your tenure there is going to be, but at
the Alligator you do. I think that that is a great motivator because you want your
time there to be significant. You want to certainly nurture young reporters and
you want to do a good job on the day to day stuff in covering student
government, but if there's an opportunity to right a wrong and to effect change by
doing a great job of committing journalism, than that I think is where Alligator
editors shine. They don't look for those opportunities, but they're sensitive that
they're out there, and when they see them they do not go shyly.
P: So in that sense you didn't come with an agenda, per se, other than to inform
and to promote change?
S: That's correct. Again, I did not give thought to what kind of job is this going to
help me get. Frankly, after the Baugher stories my junior year in college, those
stories helped land me my internship at the Miami Herald. During my summer
internship in the summer of 1971, the Herald editor said to me, this is your
hometown paper, we want you to work here when you graduate. [He asked me],
do you want a job with us? I said, this would be the proudest thing I could ever
do is come home and work for my hometown paper. That was my first job out of
college. So I still didn't know if I was going to go to the Herald for sure, but it was
nice to know that they wanted me. I didn't know if they would still want me, but
the editorials of support off the abortion thing were unbelievable across the
board. The Herald initiated a professional newspaper support, editorially and
financially, of what we were doing after the fact. So I was very pleased the
professionals were rooting us on. I would say to you, Julian, I really believe that
Alligator editors have a sense of the history. They're not historians about the
Alligator, but they have a basic sense that some important things have happened
in the hallowed halls of that newspaper. A lot of fun has happened, a lot of
bonding of young people, a lot of careers have been propelled forward and
shaped, even as people took turns in their careers away from journalism. But I
think you feel a sense of responsibility and duty to do something meaningful in
your time there, not just to have the honor of serving, but to serve well. I will tell
you, and we're at the end of our talk, [and] I tell Ed Barber, anything I've
achieved today, anything, all traces back to my time at the Alligator. Working for
Governor Chiles and Governor Askew before him, but particularly that governor,
every professional skill I have [I gained at the Alligator]. What I tell young people
in mentoring them today [is that] I owe it all to the Alligator. I mean, I really do.
P: Well, let's end on that note.