Remembering Doyle Harvill
Just before Christmas someone important in my life died. I hadn’t seen H. Doyle Harvill in years, but I’m not sure I’d be where I am today if he had not given me a chance years ago in the newsroom of the Tampa Times.
Harvill was the managing editor of Tampa’s afternoon newspaper in the 1970s when several of my friends and I began jockeying for reporting jobs there. I had to serve time at a lesser Florida paper, copy-editing columns such as “Dear Abby,” before Harvill took me on as a real reporter in the Times’ rural Brandon bureau. Covering the Junior Woman’s Club, schools, and rodeos wasn’t perfect for someone who desperately wanted to be in the newsroom, but it was a start. And in a time when there were no women on the Post’s Watergate team, only a handful of female journalists such as Barbara Walters and Helen Thomas serving as role models, and no Diane Sawyers anchoring the nightly news, just being hired was huge.
I’m grateful to Doyle Harvill not only for having some faith in me but also for teaching me so many journalism basics. It was Harvill who told me I couldn’t belong to any organization or even subscribe to Audubon magazine, because subscribers were required to join the Audubon Society—and I remain a non-Audubon subscriber and a registered Independent to this day. He admonished me about a critical misspelling in a story one day, telling me that names were sacred. And he told all reporters to travel a different way to and from work every day, so that we’d notice everything that was happening.
Harvill was a big believer in local watchdog journalism and community news when it seemed that other papers were trying to emulate The Washington Post and break their own Watergate story. I loved the quote in one of his obits where someone said that he wanted reporters to “get the news, get it right, and tell people why it mattered.”
Before I was issued a picture ID card giving me access into the newspaper’s imposing, stone building downtown, I had never been a reporter, unless you count The Vanderbilt Hustler. In fact, in the 1970s, Harvill hired so many of us from Vanderbilt that people jokingly referred to it as the Tampa Hustler. But many of his bets paid off. Neil Skene became publisher of Congressional Quarterly. Clay Harris went on to the London bureau of The Washington Post. Ann Ahern Allen became a mainstay at the Charlotte Observer, and I was lucky enough to spend time on the national and foreign news desk of The St. Petersburg Times, a place that arguably never would have hired me without experience.
Neil Skene said shortly after Harvill’s death: “We all learned what competition was at that paper. Wherever he is now, he’s giving ’em hell.”
Harvill had the habit of standing behind reporters as they were writing. Mostly, he never said a word. He would watch for a while and then move on. But sometimes he’d offer a bit of advice on a lead, and one glorious day he told me I had good feel for what people wanted to read.
During a turbulent time in my life when my parents in Virginia separated, I went into Harvill’s office and told him I needed to leave. My mother was having a hard time with the divorce and needed me. Harvill listened, nodded, and then told me he’d hold my job open for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to return, but within two months I was covering cops, poultry farming, and strawberry research in the Times’ Plant City bureau.
Former Times sports reporter Steve Otto remembered a similar story in his Tampa Tribune column. Harvill ruled with a heavy hand, Otto said, “but he was the same guy who had told an entertainment writer to stay home and take care of a sick husband for months. Her salary never was cut.”
Somewhere along the way in my years at the Times, the local NOW chapter decided to give Doyle Harvill its notorious Barefoot & Pregnant Award. The argument was that he had not hired enough women. But I did not see a man who discriminated against women; I saw the man who opened the door and began letting us in.
Rich White, a Vanderbilt classmate, made a similar point in his own remembrance:
“I was one of seven reporters he hired around that time straight off the campus of Vanderbilt University. …Three of those seven were women, at a time when maybe only 10-15% of all reporters were women. Doyle gave me the freedom to work different beats (sports, police, education, county) and to write longer investigative series. He didn’t just challenge reporters to report better; he also challenged writers to write better and more creatively.”
And Clay Harris recalled:
“He instilled the right values in journalists (regardless of sex or race), values that apparently are disappearing along with newspapers themselves.”
Some 10 years after walking into the Tampa Times newsroom for the first time, I found myself working for one of several Southern Living, Inc., magazines in Birmingham (Creative Ideas for Living). Harvill was running the Montgomery Advertiser by then and asked me to drive down and meet with him. He asked me to be the Birmingham bureau reporter for him, but I had to turn him down. The salary was better and the hours saner at the magazine. But I knew—even having earned a master’s in mass communications by then—that I was giving up the chance to learn more about good journalism.
The Tampa Tribune said in its tribute to Harvill that “his zest for journalism was infectious, and those who endured his boot-camp tactics and profanity-laced lectures usually emerged with a lifetime passion for the profession, a deep respect for its watchdog responsibilities and a grateful appreciation for the satisfaction and fun that come with a job that challenges the power structure each day. Harvill had a keen eye for talent and didn’t mind taking chances on individuals. He launched the careers of hundreds of journalists across the country and took enormous pride in their success.”
I hope Doyle Harvill knew that these young journalists took enormous pride in working for him, themselves.
WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing
“Writing is thinking on paper.”
– William Zinsser