When I was 15, I decided I was a reporter. This was based on a couple of bylines in the local paper.
I wrote a two-page spread on the inauguration of Gov. George Busbee, complete with lots of pictures.
That summer, Busbee called the General Assembly into a special session to reduce the state’s budget. Armed with a paper press card from the Georgia Press Association, I walked into the Capitol and presented my credentials. I must have been convincing because they issued me special passes that allowed me on the floor of the House and Senate.
It was during this time that I met Dick Pettys, who was the capitol correspondent for the Associated Press.
In those days, news organizations relied on two news services, the AP and United Press International. Bill Cotterell was the UPI correspondent and it was a very competitive environment between the two wire services.
Pettys had longish, stringy hair and smoked a pipe. This was in the days when smoking inside the Capitol was OK and there were plenty who did.
Over a period of years, UPI faded away as a state news organization and suddenly every major news outlet joined the membership of the AP.
For many years to follow, Pettys was, as one person described, the eyes and ears of state government to millions of Georgians.
Pettys suffered a heart attack and died last week in Habersham County, where he had retired and built a cabin home in the mountains. Sadly, he didn’t get to enjoy it for long.
I worked side-by-side with Pettys for a few sessions of the General Assembly, first for WALB-TV in Albany and later for The Times.
As an early spokesman for the Nathan Deal campaign, I had to respond to Pettys’ questions. He was a very fair and even-handed journalist.
The night that I will always remember was Dec. 12, 1984, the night the state executed Alpha Otis Stephens for a murder in Twiggs County. Both Pettys and I were media witnesses of the electrocution.
He offered some advice I have never forgotten.
“Whatever happens, remember that you had nothing to do with it and you are here to report what you see,” he told me early that evening.
He didn’t know how profound his words would be.
Something went wrong and it took two administrations of electricity to kill the convicted murderer.
The Stephens execution was one of the key cases used 20 years later in the decision to convert Georgia to lethal injections.
I was 24 at the time and had been in the news business for all of nine years. I valued the advice and counsel of my older colleague. I asked him once, but he didn’t want to talk about that cold night at the State Prison at Jackson.
Pettys began his Georgia capitol assignment in the final days of Lester Maddox’s term as governor. He covered Gov. Jimmy Carter and the seven governors who followed. He wrote about the General Assembly and the cast of characters who graced the hallowed halls over the next 40 years.
In the old days of wire services, the end of a story sent by telegram was signaled by the placement of “-30-" after the last words.
Dick Pettys gave us many stories, good and bad, but fair. Now, his story has ended.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.