The life of a great reporter


Jack Nelson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, author and Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times whose brilliant coverage of the civil rights movement and the Watergate scandal helped establish the paper’s national reputation, died on Wednesday, October 21, after bidding farewell to family and friends.  He was 80.

This website has been launched to collect documents from Jack’s extraordinary life and to allow his friends and admirers to post tributes and memories. You can add a comment by filling in the “Leave a Reply” form on the bottom of any page. You may also read comments from figures such as former President Jimmy Carter, David Broder and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Tributes section at the top of this page.

Those wishing to honor Jack’s memory are invited to contribute to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, his favorite cause. Visit the Committee’s website at or write to 1101 Wilson Blvd, Suite 1100, Arlington VA 22209. Telephone: 703-807-2100.

C-SPAN covered the Jack’s  memorial live  on Saturday, November 14th.   There is a link to the ceremony in the Video section on the right side of this page.

Thanks for visiting this site — and for remembering Jack and all he did.

(The most recent comments are listed on the lower right side of this page.)

78 responses to “The life of a great reporter

  1. Bill Bryant

    Jack started in the Washington Bureau about the same time I was hired as press secretary to U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. We both served for two decades in those jobs.
    Although I did not know Jack personally, we met more than once professionally. I admired him tremendously and I quickly discovered he was one of the top journalists in Washington. (It was no secret.)
    As is his custom, Gene Roberts said it well in a gracious summary: “He was one of the most important journalists of the 20th Century.” It was a thrill to read the words of one journalistic legend generously paying tribute to another.
    I hope Jack’s many friends, co-workers and, especially, his family will accept my sympathy and gratitude. Thank you for sharing him with those of us who barely knew him but loved his skills and learned from his stories.

    • Letter to Jack from B.J. Phillips, a colleague at the Atlanta Constitution:

      Dear Jack,
      Arlie told me a couple of weeks ago that you had decided to move into hospice care. I started a letter to you then – interrupted by flu and pneumonia – and am only now emerging to get my thoughts together. Part of me hopes that you beat Art Buchwald’s record, or at least tie my Mother’s, who said she was “enjoying dying so much” that she triggered the bureaucratic deadline where they review your diagnosis, even though she had ALS. I know the odds for a long farewell are always low, and all I can hope is that you leave us the way you want to, without pain and in the clear knowledge of how much you are loved.
      I do want to reach into my own life to tell you that, as sorry as I am that you and Barbara decided that the time for battling the disease has passed, I am very glad that you came to the decision. I remember so clearly how wonderful those closing days were for Mother and me, and I am glad that you and Barbara will have this period of calm in the medical storms to re-share your lives together. Speaking for your friends – and most of all, for myself – I want to thank you for giving us this last gift of time. Time to retell the stories, time to tell you how sorry we are to lose you, time to say thank you for all the things you meant to us, time to say goodbye.
      We all say we want to keel over quick and clean. Remember, McGill spoke of envying Adlai Stevenson for being able to “drop dead walking on a London street, with a pretty woman.” That’s fine for the dropper, but not for everyone left behind. Wouldn’t we have all liked to tell Mr. McGill how much he taught us about a moral life? I’m grateful that you us sent the signal of hospice, to let us know that we can pull down the false fronts, look you straight in the eye and say, I love what you meant in this world, Jack Nelson. Thank you for letting me watch you work for all these years. Thank you for renewing the final gift from my Mother – to die gently and therefore, to erase all our fears. I love you. Goodbye, old friend.


    • I was privileged to follow the work of Jack Nelson long before he became THE Jack Nelson.He was the gutsy investigative reporter for the Atlanta Constitution when I moved there in 1958. Journalists are supposed to “comfort the afflicted and inflict the comfortable.” Jack did some big time inflicting when he courageously exposed the horrific conditions and corruption in the State Mental Hospital in Milledgeville, GA. A story that won him the Pulitzer Prize and put him in the same company as the great Southern editor Ralph McGill. Jack was an important voice as he covered the the fight for civil rights, first for the Constitution and then for the LA Times. He was the best on the beat.

      When I came to Washington with Jimmy Carter I got a chance to work with Jack and along with Jody Powell tried to spin him in his coverage of the Carter White House. It was a challenge because Jack was too good at what he did and you had to be at the top of your game to deal with Jack. But he was always fair. And he always got it.

      I will miss laughing with Jack as we swapped Georgia and Washington stories. He had a great smile He was a serious man who didn’t take himself so seriously.

      Barbara, we’ll miss him.

  2. John W. Mashek

    Jack and I were friends for about 40 years. In
    those four decades I came to appreciate the
    true value of investigate journalists in our midst.
    The wrath of J. Edgar Hoover was not a distraction
    to his pursuit of the truth. He wanted that truth and would not stop until he found it.

    We shared information when I was with U.S. News, a weekly with no deadline pressure like his. It wasn’t heavy stuff but passing on information that could be helpful. We never misled each other.

    Was he competitive? Jack and I were playing tennis in Atlanta one hot and humid mid-afternoon. We played on despite the Georgia heat and the set went to 15-13 when he won and we left
    the court in sheer exhaustion. We could
    laugh about it years later but neither of us would
    say it was time to quit.

    Jack and his wife Barbara have been special friends
    in our retirement crowd and he will be missed sorely.

    John W. Mashek and Sara S. Mashek

  3. Susan Casey

    I am very saddened to learn of Jack’s passing. What an incredible man he was! I had the honor to be hired by him to be the Los Angeles Times receptionist when I just graduated from college in 1981. I still remember him restraining a chuckle during my interview when I answered his question about how good a speller I was. I knew there and then he could be a nice boss. I hold dear those memories of him at LAT in the “golden years.’

    I will always remember how Jack came to bat for me, calling my dad in Pittsburgh for me when I ‘accidentally’ got married and upset my parents. My dad, former journalist and WWII flyer, was thrilled to receive that call, as he revered Jack. All was forgiven me. I remember the lovely goodbye dinner party Jack held for me when I moved away, and in my 5 years at LAT, how he laughed at my silly stories, mostly about dating. He loved it when I invited all my beaus at once to the annual Christmas party. And then I ran off with another guy.

    Years later, Jack called me out of the blue when I became a state senator in Washington State; he bellowed in his charming Biloxi accent, “Susan, I knew you when!” Without identifying himself first, I knew straightaway who was on the other end of that line and again, I was honored.

    I felt Jack treated me a bit like family back then, his wife Barb and he entrusting me to dogsit and drive their car around town when I didn’t have wheels – what a treat. There are other stories I remember, and Jack’s calm demeanor and lovely disposition. It meant a lot to me being the youngest in the office and new to the powerful city of Washington – he was so important and yet, so personable. His assistant back then, Marlene Marmo, became my best friend and “Godmother,” as she remains today.

    My dad is long gone from this world but I hope he and Jack will meet up and tell some funny stories over a Salty Dog or two in heaven’s bar – they both had such a great sense of humor, and of history. And in bringing out the truth of history as it was being made, Jack has made some important history, too. I am very proud to have known Jack Nelson and to have worked for him.

    My condolences to family and friends of Jack.
    Susan Casey

  4. John Hall

    For those of us who worked for southern news organizations in Washington, Jack Nelson’s career didn’t just set an example but blazed a very wide trail for all of us. He was a hard charging investigative reporter with a very easy and reassuring manner. I would never come close to his skills, but just seeing him succeed gave me a lot of confidence.
    Jack was the genuine article. We will never see the likes of him again.

  5. Terry Lenzner

    I met Jack first in the South working the civil rights story and was impressed with the intensity and clarity he brought to those complex issues.

    I became even more of an admirer during the Berrigan trial that Jack and Ron Ostrow covered in a partnership that produced articles that were the gold standard of3 plus months of coverage. Even though I was one of the defense attorneys, Jack’s writing reflected a much more nuanced and comprehensive view of the unfolding events than I perceived.

    Because of Jack and Ron’s contributions, the LA Times coverage of the events leading up to and during the trial were a uniquely powerful encouragement to read the paper.

    I am able to note the number of LA Times reporters who carry on the Nelson-Ostrow legacy for careful, thoughtful, elegant and balanced news reporting — including my current favorite, Matea Gold , my daughter in law.

  6. Aleta Embrey

    Although it took place in 1983, I remember my interview for a bureau researcher position with Jack as if it happened last week. A single mom, working full-time and going to school, I was looking for a higher-paying job. I had research experience but had not yet completed my college degree. Jack looked me in the eye and told me the piece of paper wasn’t important. What mattered most was being able to do the work. Only later did I find out that Jack, the Pulitzer Prize winning author had never finished college. I got the job.

    Two years later, my mom, teenage daughter and I planned a trip to Czechoslovakia to visit relatives. Because of my employer and job title, my visa was denied. (Evidently the Communist officials thought I was a spy.) I went into Jack’s office in tears. Our departure date was less than a week away, the tour was paid for, my mom and daughter had their visa but I wouldn’t be able to go. Jack listened and then picked up the phone. After a short conversation with the press attache at the Czechoslovak embassy, Jack looked me in the eye once again with his steady gaze and said, “Next time you fill out a visa say you are a housewife.” I got my visa the next day.

    In addition to his incredible talent Jack was both kind and compassionate. I treasure the nine years I spent working with him during the glory days of the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau.

  7. Eleanor Randolph

    That photo of Jack, head slightly down, staring at you as if to say, “you’re certain about that, are you?”–that is the Jack Nelson I knew. He was the place you went to check the smell of a story, to get grounded about whether what you were doing, or writing, was correct. Like many of us from the South, he fell in and out and in and out and then in love with President Carter. I admired that, knowing some journalists who are so busy being evenhanded they don’t hear their own instincts.
    I was so proud to work for him and with him. He was a strong, honest voice in a shrinking business. Journalism will miss him and so will I.

  8. “Well, hello there!” in his southern drawl was Uncle Jack’s greeting when he came to visit. My mother and I will miss Uncle Jack & Aunt Barb’s annual summer visit to Biloxi. He was a very special uncle and big brother.
    As a child, every time he came to visit he’d say, “Come give me some sugar” and I’d give him a kiss on the cheek.
    Another phrase I remember he used to say a lot is, “Is that right?” when listening to an interesting story.
    It is very hard for me to accept that someone whose been around my entire life is not on this earth anymore. He definitely made a positive difference in many lives, both personally and professionally. He had so many accomplishments and he was definitely very motivated and driven.
    We know he is enjoying visiting with all the family members that we loved that have now passed.
    Thanks for all the happy memories Uncle Jack, we will miss you very much.

  9. Pat Schaap

    The Jack Nelson that I knew had nothing to do with his career as a journalist. I knew Jack as an animal lover – he loved his dogs more than life itself. Lui, Jack’s beloved tri-colored Sheltie passed away just a few months after Jack was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was the new puppy, Leo, who saw Jack through these last months and was at his side when he passed.

    It was at our house that Jack’s dogs have come to “vacation” for the past fifteen years or so when Jack and Barbara have been out of town. The dogs always ran in the door and immediately outside to play with old friends. Lui knew the day Jack was coming home and would hang around the front door until he heard the car pull up. His dog friends were forgotten the moment Jack opened that door!

    I suspect that Jack has been reunited with his canine friends “at the bridge” and all are finally at peace again, together.

    I will miss Jack, but knowing that he’s with Lui makes it easier to bear.

  10. Mary-Sherman Willis

    How proud I am to have known Jack Nelson, truly a journalistic superhero. He wore his extraordinary accomplishments with grace, and always had time for a chat and a story. I can still see him and his big delighted grin in some goofy Gridiron costume with my dad, Phil Geyelin, who loved and admired him as a friend and fellow “ink-stained wretch.” He and Barbara were dear friends too with my mother Sherry — great supports to her in her storytelling projects and invaluable additions to her dinner table. Jack is irreplaceable; our family is privileged to have known him.

  11. Bob Neuman

    My friend Jack Nelson died of pancreatic cancer. He had just had his 80th birthday.

    His was a life full of glory and accomplishments. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. He had been awarded a prestigious Neiman Fellowship at Harvard. He had been a regular guest on Washington Week in Review, the PBS Friday night program that gripped the nation during the Watergate years. He headed the then-mighty Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau when it was a force in national journalism.

    He was, as said by his colleagues, “A reporter’s reporter”.

    He was one of the heroes of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Jack braved the ferocious hatred of the segregationists, the bitter enmity of Southern state police and politicians, and the betrayal of the FBI, in particular J. Edgar Hoover. He courageously exposed the truth and revealed the lies.

    He wrote a few books about these times, always honest and always humble. He was that kind of guy.

    We met for the first time in 1973. I was working for Rep. Jerome Waldie, a California liberal who was the first Member of Congress to ask for an official inquiry into the Watergate break-in of the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Waldie was also a member of the House Judiciary Committee and an ardent supporter of hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon—he was also running for the Democratic nomination for governor of California.

    Jack knew that Waldie, little-known in Southern California, would enjoy any mention in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Jack knew he had found a source. He was that kind of guy.

    As Waldie’s press secretary, Jack knew that I could be helpful in alerting him to what was going on in the Judiciary Committee.

    When members of the committee were provided with the first transcripts of the infamous Nixon tapes, Jack was in our office in a flash, taking notes from the thick green books and calling his desk with the juiciest revelations.

    After Watergate and the Nixon resignation, Jack introduced me to his favorite watering hole, a strange little bar and restaurant a block and a half from the White House called the Class Reunion. It was here that the reporters housed in nearby offices gathered to tell lies, exchange gossip and quietly meet with Administration officials for informative leaking.

    After Jimmy Carter won he presidency in 1976, he was in the catbird seat as he knew all the key players, Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordon, Gerry Rafshoon, Greg Schneiders and the President himself. He used these contacts with expertness and class. He had raised the Los Angeles Times’ importance and influence to unheard of dimensions. By now, the Times had a Washington edition, which was terrific for me as it was the only way I could get West Coast sports scores.

    Jack presided over breakfast sessions with newsmakers that become much sought after by political hopefuls and influence peddlers alike.

    The Class Reunion was a kind of line of demarcation as to how the media and the newsmakers interacted. At its peak, it was almost a required stopping place if you wanted to shop a story.

    Jody Powell and I and Ronald Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady sat in a corner booth one cold night as Jim asked Jody and me—still the communications director of the Democratic National Committee—how to deal with some of the problem children covering the White House. The next day he was shot.

    During the Reagan years a new generation of reporters arrived as the old hands retired or were bought out. They didn’t believe in mingling with sources. CNN happened, the internet happened. It all changed.

    The joy of it ebbed.

    The Class Reunion died in 1982.

    Jack Nelson died in 2009.

    They are both missed.

  12. Roy Reed

    Jack and I met on a brisk February day in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. He had just gone to work for the L.A. Times and I for the N. Y. Times. We hit it off and traveled together across the South for the next several years. He beat my socks off at every turn, but it was worth it just to know that if I ever got in a jam Jack would defend me–with his fists, if necessary. He was the toughest reporter I’ve ever known. He could turn a lying politician or a mean prosecuting attorney to jello with his questions–even if the guy was on the other end of a telephone line.

  13. Hal Fuson

    I spent a brief term as Jack’s lawyer, or at least the one the Times assigned to him — I suspect he had all the access he wanted to far more capable counsel, if he even needed them. During those few years, I remember most his thrusting me into a cab on K Street in January 1982. It was midafternoon and I didn’t see any reason to rush to my evening flight back to LA, but the weather was getting ugly and Jack correctly recognized that getting to Dulles was going to take a while. Even he, however, didn’t count on an Air Florida plane bouncing off the 14th Street bridge into the Potomac, which happened not long after I started that cab ride. Or maybe his sources really were that good. Hard to be sure. I made the flight, in part because it left three hours late.

    But that story’s more about me than it is about one of the true heroes of my lifetime. Jack’s reporting covered scores of beats and his performance on any one of them would have made the careers of most of us. The bravest, though, was on his home turf in the 1960s, when he told the stories about Selma and many other less-remembered places, and, in so doing, helped change the world.

  14. Jeff Nesmith

    I’m sure I’m just one of many people who will say Jack was the best reporter they ever knew. But that’s what he was. He was the best.
    They used him and Ralph McGill to recruit when I hired on at The Constitution in 1964. I had heard of Mr. McGill, of course, but having been fired from a job as a public relations man in Orlando a few months earlier, I knew zip about Atlanta or Jack Nelson. I remember Calvin Cox, the city editor, telling me over lunch at Herron’s that Jack would “have to be included on any list of the ten best reporters in the country.”
    I had been there less than a year when he left to go to work for the Los Angeles Times. He did a couple of his projects during that time. One was a thing on the “marriage mills” in south Georgia, places kids from Florida would go to get married when they eloped. Rotten, evil operations. I was sitting over there, pecking away on my obits, when the Three Star came up. I started reading that stuff and it nearly took my breath away. I was amazed that he could have dug up facts like that and gotten people to reveal such things.
    “In an affidavit given to The Constitution” was a phrase that appeared many times under Jack’s byline back then.
    Another series was on waste and outright corruption in the Stone Mountain authority. It seemed like the mountain would remelt back into whatever igneous glop it was made of on day he wrote about all the money they had spent to put bidets in the rooms of the state-owned hotel out there.
    A couple of other things that others might not remember: Jack had an odd way of typing. It seemed like he almost attacked the typewriter. He would sort of lunge at it. Of course, I was already in such awe of him that seeing him do that the first time left me kind of speechless.
    Calvin, Harold Martin and some of the others got up a press club in Atlanta back then. It lasted only a year or two, but one of the things they did was give out an award they called the Joree Award. A joree is a pretty little black, white and tan songbird, apparently known as a towhee everywhere but in Florida and a few south Georgia counties where they call tortoises gophers and wiregrass grass. It spends much of its time on the ground, usually pecking around in a thicket or under some bushes. Former Gov. Marvin Griffin, when he was in office and had grown weary of Jack’s working out on him, once called Jack and one or two other Constitution reporters jorees, which the governor pronounced “jo-rays.” “Just like a bunch of damn jo-rays, always a-scratchin’ and peckin’ around in the mud and the muck,” he said.
    Well, when they instituted this short-lived “Joree” journalism award, former Gov. Griffin, himself the publisher of the Bainbridge Post-Searchlight, came up for the dinner. Afterwards, a group of reporters and editors sat around, having a few drinks with the former governor. Although Jack was no longer at The Constitution, he was still based in Atlanta as the Times’ Southeastern correspondent and he was there that night. I was on the outside of the crowd, but I could see and hear what was happening. At one point, Griffin turned to Jack and said, “Jack? You know what I used to think to myself evuh time I had a press conference in the govnuh’s office and I’d see you comin’ through th’ door with that damn notebook in ya’ hand?”
    Jack said, “No, Governor, what was that?”
    “I’d think, ‘I wonder what that beady-eyed son-of-a-bitch has got on me this week.'”
    One more: If you’ve never read Terror in the Night, get it. It is an astonishing story and a hell of a read. How could he have gotten people to reveal such things? Only Jack.
    Achsah and I will miss him a lot. We send our condolences to Barbara.

    Jeff Nesmith

  15. Tom Rosenstiel

    Over the last 15 years, I have talked a lot about with people around the world about journalism as a mission, a passion, and a calling.
    Jack Nelson was the person I have had in my mind s eye when I do.
    No one, no reporter, bureau chief or editor, famous or not, was a better boss, better friend, or a better role model.
    Journalists are not prone to love their bosses. When they find one who deserves it, and returns it, it is all more special for being rare.
    The reason Jack earned it was he always put truth first, the story first, the work first and that was an inspiration to his people. It infused everything he did, from helping a young interloper from LA working on a story in his backyard, to making helpful calls on to get quotes to help make his reporters stories better, or backing his people during fights with LA.
    One of the honors of my professional life was getting a chance to work with Jack.
    They say that newspapers are big institutions, bigger than the people who work for them. It isn t true. Jack helped make the LA Times great and everyone around him better.

    Tom Rosenstiel
    Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism

  16. Frank Aukofer

    Jack and I shared the experience of covering the civil rights movement in the 1960s. On many occasions, we agreed that for any reporter it was the best of times. And he was among the best of us.
    Frank Aukofer
    Retired Washington Bureau Chief
    The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

  17. Hank Willner

    Jack was a spark of a presence in our neighborhood. We became friends walking our dogs together and it was very comforting to see him and Louie on their daily treks, and I loved talking with him about current events since his opinions were quite sharply expressed. Never a dull moment with Jack! He faced his final illness with frankness, resolve to make the most of his remaining days, and graciousness towards his friends and family who daily paid him tributes. He regaled us with stories of Martin Luther King, J Edgar Hoover and more. He was a living treasure! My family will never forget the hour we spent with him on his 80th birthday just two weeks ago. We will miss him enormously.

  18. Steve Daley

    I met Jack Nelson a long time ago in place on Pennsylvania Ave. called Tammany Hall. There were any number of good DC bureau chiefs in those days but Jack brought his reputation and the respect of his peers – and those of us who were not his peers – with him.

    If you loved the news business and the truth, watching him walk into Tammany Hall was like watching Sandy Koufax get off the team us.

  19. Jim Dickenson

    I don’t think I need to try to convince anyone that Jack was one of the great newsmen of our generation, certainly, and several others as well; that’s a given. One reason was that he loved the news business, loved breaking stories–at which no one was better–and had a world class work ethic.

    But there was another dimension that contributed to his great success–the quality of his character. I remember the first time I had lunch with Jack in Washington, when we weren’t out on the road or otherwise working on a story, just a social luncheon in the middle of a work day. We talked about the sort of things that we “news creeps” (as we called ourselves) talked about with each other and as we parted to return to our offices I had an unfamiliar feeling. For some reason I felt better about the world, about the human condition, about humanity in general.

    The reason was that Jack Nelson was one of those very rare characters who had the capacity to make me feel better about the world around me. It had to do with the strength of his character and his integrity. He brought those to his personal life and relationships and to his work as well. He was a great reporter because he was a great human being. He hated cruelty and injustice and his career was driven by the need to stand against them. He was guided by the ideal the rest of us all know and don’t always honor–to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Jack honored that principle every day of his life. If there is a Heaven Jack will be its conscience.

  20. Bill Neikirk

    As a young reporter in the Baton Rouge bureau of the Associated Press in the 1960s, I became keenly aware of Jack Nelson’s great reporting of the race story. He broke big stories and had the knack of stepping back and giving a broader picture of what was happening in the Deep South. Later, when I was transferred to Washington and competed with Jack in covering the Carter administration for the Chicago Tribune, I had the pleasure (and sometimes displeasure when he had a scoop) of knowing a first-rate journalist and a real gentleman. Like all my colleagues, I will miss him.

  21. Robin Wright

    There are no words to describe the loss of Jack Nelson to the world of journalism and politics — and everything else in Washington. But Jack was so much more than a giant in our business. He was also a man who took personal interest in his colleagues and friends. He was a great mentor to his entire staff and always someone who made all around him feel that we were working with him, not for him. I will always be in his debt for his thoughtful leadership. And I will always remember that sweet twinkle in his eyes even as he asked the toughest questions. Our profession — and my life — were enriched because of Jack.

  22. Howell Raines

    Jack Nelson had left the Atlanta Constitution by the time I got there in 1971, but his newsroom legend still loomed large. His expose of inhumane conditions in Georgia’s state mental asylum had made him famous throughout the world of Southern journalism, and those articles remain to this day a benchmark accomplishment in the annals of the Pulitzer Prize. I felt proud to be on Jack’s old paper, because I had become an admirer of this astonishing Klan/FBI stories out of Mississippi and other civil-rights battlefields in the 1960s. Young reporters all across the South followed the work of Jack Nelson on the Los Angeles Times syndicate as he showed how to cover regional stories for a national newspaper. Jack and competitors like Claude Sitton at the New York Times were role models for all who aspired to be based in Atlanta for a national news outlet.

    On the personal side, I can’t remember when Jack and I first met. Perhaps it was in the run-up to the first Carter campaign. I quickly came to appreciate the humor and zest for life that existed in parallel with Jack’s serious commitment to public-service journalism. The Carter and Reagan years marked a new and highly productive phase of Jack’s career. Most of the nation came to know Jack through his high-profile Washington years, but to me, he will always be first and foremost an inspiring example of the kind of journalists who came out of the South starting in the 1950s. This was a group that, like Jack, had a rage for justice that arose from being eye-witnesses to injustice for so many years. This past weekend, a few Constitution veterans, including Eugene Patterson, Phil Gailey, Rex Granum and myself assembled at my home in Pennsylvania for a long-scheduled get together. It convened as we were all trying to digest news of Jack’s death. Gene Patterson, one of Jack’s old bosses, summed up our feelings with his customary eloquence. “The world seems like a smaller place,” Gene said, “without Jack Nelson in it.”

  23. Grayson Mitchell

    Jack Nelson was a giant of a man. We crossed paths in Atlanta, in the late Sixties. I was a fiery young Black kid there in college, on a summer internship at Newsweek’s Atlanta Bureau. Jack became my friend and mentor, taking me under his wing and teaching me how to become a first class newspaper reporter as we crisscrossed the South covering the race story. I couldn’t have had a better teacher or a kinder friend.

    At a time when the African-American presence in major newsrooms was virtually nonexistent, Jack encouraged me to pursue a newspaper reporting career. And so I did. For me, a young and sheltered African-American coming from Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Jack was the first white man who entered my life. He apparently saw in me talent and potential I didn’t even see in myself. And, as fellow Southerners, Jack understood the inward anxieties and trepidation I would feel when a Dixie sheriff once told me that he didn’t talk to “nigger reporters,” then having to return to a newsroom where some colleagues silently resented and questioned my presence. But with Jack as teacher and role model, you didn’t let anything stop you from getting that story. You learned to be tough, relentless.

    Several years later, in 1976, after cutting my teeth at newspapers in Chicago and Washington, Jack brought me into the L.A.Times Washington Bureau. I was in my mid-twenties and one of only two reporters of color in the bureau. There, under his leadership, worked some of the best reporters and editors in the business. It was the temple for hard-fisted investigative reporting. It was truly a wonderful opportunity and a rich experience.

    People like Jack Nelson come along rarely. I’m so lucky and grateful to have had the privilege of getting to know him.

  24. Jack Nelson was a personal and professional friend for fifty years. To me he represented the very best in journalism: courageous, honest, accurate, fair, and a fierce enemy of injustice. We first met when I was a junior medical student with an interest in psychiatry and he, at the age of thirty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his story on the atrocious conditions and corruption at the Georgia State mental hospital at Milledgeville. It shook the state and established him in the front rank of the profession. Our paths crossed regularly during the early days of the civil rights movement, especially in the office of our mutual friend, the crusading southern director of the ACLU Chuck Morgan. In 1966, Jack covered the court martial of antiwar activist Captain Howard Levy, in which I was a witness for the defense. In 1972, we were together at the Democratic Convention in Miami where Jack was both a tenacious reporter and a quiet advisor on the failed effort I was involved in to get Jimmy Carter on the ticket with George McGovern. During Watergate, while I was working in Nixon’s Special Action Office for Drug Abuse prior to setting up the Carter Presidential Campaign office in Washington, I was a source for him on what was going on in the White House. We used secret code words when leaving messages setting up meetings so that neither of us would be identified by eavesdroppers. I persuaded Jack, deeply loyal to his Southern roots, to introduce Carter at the National Press Club when he made the announcement that he was running for the presidency — notwithstanding his doubts about Carter’s prospects. Throughout the subsequent campaign and the years I was in the White House with Carter we were in weekly and at times daily contact. Our longstanding friendship was mutually beneficial. We remained close for the rest of his life, and whenever I knew something I thought vaguely newsworthy Jack was always the first person I took it to. Few other people have been so important to me in my life and I will greatly miss him.

  25. Jim McCartney

    John McCain had it all wrong. He thought he was the Straight Talk Express. No, Jack Nelson was the Straight Talk Express. When you talked to Jack he looked you right in the eye and you knew you were getting it straight. There was not a hint of the phony in Jack Nelson. I thought it was wonderful but I can just imagine what many of the pols thought. My favorite personal memory involving Jack was in 1976. We had known each other casually—God knows for how long, probably since the early 1960s when I was with the Chicago Daily News—but had never had a chance to really talk. I had bumped into him at the Atlanta airport and we were both headed to Plains to cover Jimmy Carter in the transition. Jack said he was renting a car and why didn’t I ride along with him to keep company on the long drive at night to Americus, where the press hung out because there were no motels in Plains. He said I could pick up my own car later in Americus but why waste gas? So we got to know each other on that long night’s drive. What a guy. Tough on the surface, soft inside. As others have noted, Jack was an enduring credit to our profession. Irreplaceable.

  26. Gene Patterson

    Fifty years ago Jack Nelson was grabbing a bite in a Milledgeville restaurant when he was recognized by a doctor at the Georgia state mental hospital which Jack was exposing as a snake pit. The doctor barged up to his table and belted him in the jaw.
    Jack stood up, walked to a phone and called in the story. What his attacker didn’t know was that Jack was a Golden Gloves prizefighter who could have decked him with either hand, but decided to stick with the story. The governor cleaned out the hospital staff of drunks and incompetents as a result of his reporting, and Jack won the Pulitzer Prize for it at age 29.
    Jack was the boldest, toughest, straightest, surest footed investigative reporter I ever saw. As editor I hoped to hold him on The Atlanta Constitution but I suspected Otis Chandler was only making a courtesy call when he phoned me to ask the name of the finest reporter I knew of in the South. Otis said he was determined to make the Los Angeles Times a great newspaper and needed to open an Atlanta bureau with the best. I fed him the names of every outstanding reporter I knew across the South, omitting Nelson. Of course he hired Jack within the week. And suddenly Nelson was hammering every civil rights story the pinchpenny Constitution had been skipping across the South.
    A natural leader, he was shortly elevated to Washington, ticketed to be chief of the LA Times’ great national bureau that grew to more than 50 people under his command. I had moved to The Washington Post and he called on me to say he was onto a great story of FBI complicity in a Klan killing in Mississippi. J. Edgar Hoover won’t like that and he makes strong men tremble in this town, I warned Jack. “I don’t care who he is,” Nelson replied. He didn’t, either. I never knew him to pull a punch.
    Except that one, in Milledgeville.

  27. Jimmy Carter

    At this time, I am traveling to eight nations in the Gulf region. A couple of engaging conversations with Jack in recent weeks are fresh in my memory, and uplifted me. I cannot access the Jack Nelson website during this trip, but I have asked Terry Adamson to share a statement that will appear next October in a book I am currently writing. The book is based on my personal diaries that I kept during the White House years. “The most competent and balanced news reporter I ever knew was Jack Nelson, who had won a Pulitzer Prize in Atlanta before heading the Los Angeles Times bureau in Washington. He also had great influence among other journalists.”

  28. When Otis Chandler became publisher of the Los Angles Times in 1960 journalists around the country watched to see what difference he would make. What we saw, as David Halberstam later wrote in his book “The Powers That Be,” was Chandler lifting the newspaper from mediocre status into a major national competitor.

    A key part of that drive was hiring Jack Nelson away from the Atlanta Constitution in 1965 to open the paper’s first bureau in Atlanta. This was at a time when the movement of blacks in the South to insist on their rights as citizens challenged practices in America that shamed both the law and journalism. Most courts in the region refused to protect the legal rights of black citizens and most news organizations ignored these practices.

    Nelson, who often talked about having never seen a black person in any courthouse “who was not a criminal defendant or pushing a broom,” saw the civil rights movement as a personal challenge and an opportunity for the press to tell about these injustices and the story of the movement to end them.

    As soon as he opened the bureau he went to Selma, Alabama, where one of his first stories was coverage of the attack on civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by mounted Alabama police who charged their horses into the protesters, including women and children, flailing their whips, clubs and cattle prods.

    The Selma stories were followed by a major five part series on “Jim Crow Justice.” It was a series that lifted the Los Angles Times into the ranks of national international news organizations that were shaping public opinion on a story of historic significance.

    One of the series told of a “conscience stricken state official in Georgia” who met him secretly after dark in a state office building to show him damning evidence of moral and legal corruption that Nelson turned into stories.

    From that day until he left Atlanta to join the paper’s Washington Bureau, Jack was recognized by others as one of the best civil rights reporters in the nation and one of the first other reporters checked with when assigned to do a story in the region.

    Jack’s insistence on questioning Alabama Governor George Wallace about his own personal responsibility for failure of state officials to protect its black citizens infuriated Wallace who often retaliated by pointing Jack out to white audiences whose emotions the governor had whipped against, “outsiders like Jack Nelson there of the L. A. Times—that one there with the burr haircut—trying to tell us Alabamians how to run our state.”

  29. Jim Mann

    Jack was a truly great journalist and, as we all saw, an intensely competitive one. Yet he also went about his job with a human touch, showing a sometimes startling sense of compassion both to the people he was interviewing and to reporters for other newspapers.

    Here’s a story. The first time I met Jack, I was a young reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Jack was, of course, with the Los Angeles Times. In the mid-1970s, each of us separately had gone to Harrisburg, Pa., to cover a minor one-day court proceeding that grew out of the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

    At the end of the day’s events, Jack and I were both talking with one of the many figures involved in the Hearst case. We invited him out to dinner. The three of us went to a forgettable Harrisburg restaurant, and Jack and I tried to glean some information about the ongoing case. Jack was particularly persistent. The guy offered nothing but airy banalities. It was a long, inconsequential dinner, at which we learned little.

    The following day, I was back in Philadelphia when I got a call from Jack in Washington.

    “The guy didn’t say much, did he?” Jack asked. Nope, I told him.

    “I got to tell you,” Jack went on. “After the dinner I took him out for another beer. Here’s what he told me. I’ll be reporting it for tomorrow. I thought I’d give you a fill, in case you want to, too.”

    Jack was doing me a big favor and teaching me a lesson at the same time. He was like that with everyone.

  30. Roger M. Williams

    I have indelible memories of being with Jack on reporting trips during the civil rights movement, esp. in Alabama when Selma was a hot, ongoing news story. As Roy Reed recalls in his tribute on this site, Jack was one tough, fearless reporter. He took no B.S. from, and showed no undue deference to, anybody. While the rest of us reporters fumbled and mumbled trying to phrase questions that wouldn’t rile or plain silence Klansmen, good old boys, and their politician pals, Jack just asked them straight out whatever he wanted to know–including how they could justify this or that outrage against would-be black voters, civil rights workers, and the like. And if they didn’t answer to his satisfaction, he’d ask ’em again.

    He was simply the best reporter I ever saw in action. (I also saw the legendary Homer Bigart, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and superb war correspondent, but well after Homer’s prime and in the South, on Jack’s turf. There was at that point no comparison between the two.)

    His journalistic enterprise was every bit the equal of his journalistic fearlessness and sense of fairness. The story of his gaining access to hospital records after the “Orangeburg Massacre”–announcing that he was from “the Atlanta bureau”–is a classic. It should be taught in journalism schools, if any of them survive.

    I am happy and proud to have done the reporting for the long piece on Jack that Time ran in its Press section in the mid-’60s. He was at the Atlanta Constitution then, doing great stuff but woefully underpaid and still under-appreciated. I think the piece helped his career, or at least his self-esteem, which he damned well deserved.

  31. Barbara Matusow


    Jack was present at the birth of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and supported it wholeheartedly through the next four decades.

    His family has asked that charitable contributions to honor his memory be given to the Reporters Committee. Visit their website at The address is 1101 Wilson Blvd. Suite 1100
    Arlington, VA 22209. Tel: 703-807-2100

  32. Terry Adamson

    Jack Nelson did loom large in the vision of young and very green Atlanta Constitution reporters. I speak firsthand of that experience from my start there in 1969. Jack was already a legendary figure. He won the “pullet surprise,” as his son Stevie told his elementary school teacher. His stories of the tumultuous events around the South for the Los Angeles Times were the talk of our newsroom.
    We met in passing at a couple of functions in Atlanta; he never remembered that, but those occasions of course stayed fixed in my memory. Little did I know that our next encounter would be more memorable for him, and me. I had the misfortune to stand between Jack and a trusted source, which is a very dangerous place.
    [for the rest of this comment, please go to “Tributes” by clicking on that word at the top of this page]

  33. Rex Granum

    I spoke recently with my friend Carolyn Shields about Jack’s death and the several years she spent working for him in the LA Times bureau. Carolyn and I first knew Jack from our time in the Carter White House press office, where Carolyn was Jody Powell’s assistant and I was his deputy. I’d long known of Jack from my time as a reporter at The Atlanta Constitution; Jack had left it long before I showed up but his name, quite properly, was still cited there with tremendous reverence.

    Carolyn and I talked with great affection about what a superb reporter Jack was and, more importantly, what a genuinely good person he was. We also discussed how you never wanted to be standing between Jack Nelson and his pursuit of a story, and noted the Doyle McManus comment in The New York Times obituary that Jack’s “interviewing style was blunt, direct and, when he talked to politicians, about an inch short of bullying.” Carolyn pointed out that this style also applied to the assistants fielding those calls, including ones placed to Jody in the Carter White House that she answered.

    Later, when Carolyn worked for Jack for several years, she learned of an instance when Jack had been so insistent that he be put through immediately that he left the assistant to a Reagan White House official in tears. Afterwards, Jack felt so guilty he sent candy to the assistant.

    When Jack’s close friend, Jody, learned of this, he quipped: “Jack Nelson is the only bureau chief in town who has a line item in his budget for candy for secretaries he’s terrorized.”

    Carolyn, a Texan who doesn’t mind standing up for herself, asked Jack why he’d never sent her candy in the Carter years. Jack replied, “You never cried, and you were just as pushy with me as I was with you.”

  34. After reading all the tributes to Jack Nelson, there is not much for me to add – except that he once interviewed me for a job in a hot tub. That was a first, certainly for me and probably for Jack. After the Washington Star folded in 1981, I was lucky enough to have had a job offer from Bill Kovach, Jack’s friend and chief of the New York Times Washington bureau.
    When Jack heard the news, he went into his fierce competitive mode. He invited me to a long, wet lunch at one of his favorite Washington restaurants to tell me all the reasons why I would be happier and more successful working in his Los Angeles Times bureau. After lunch, he insisted that we continue our conversation in Bob Jackson’s hot tub (Jackson was a reporter in Jack’s bureau). We must have spent two hours in hot water, cooling ourselves with vodka on the rocks (in Jack’s case, it was vodka and grapefruit juice). I was about one vodka away from accepting his offer, but the pull of the New York Times ultimately proved too great. The next day, I had to tell Jack I was going to the NYT, and I felt terrible about it. Jack said he was disappointed but understood. Over the years he enjoyed telling this story, usually adding that I might have changed my mind if Abe Rosenthal (the executive editor of the New York Times) had conducted job interviews in a hot tub.
    I don’t think I ever told Jack the whole story behind my decision. As large and as competitive as the LAT bureau was, I thought the New York Times would give me greater visibility in Washington. But I also worried that if it turned out I was not as good as Jack apparently thought I was, it could strain our friendship. I didn’t want to risk that.
    To be offered a job by Jack Nelson was just about the highest compliment a newspaper reporter could be paid. After all these years, I still wonder what it would have been like to have worked for and with Jack, one of the greatest reporters of his generation.
    Jack Nelson was the most generous and faithful friend I have ever known. I loved him for who he was, and I love Barbara for not trying to change him. Rest in peace, my friend.

  35. curtis wilkie

    Shortly after moving from Mississippi to Washington in 1969, I was startled to see an LA Times article — byline Jack Nelson — in the Washingotn Post; a story so good that a rival newspaper published it. Jack had a detailed account of how prominent members of the Jewish community in Mississippi subsidized an FBI undercover operation against the Ku Klux Klan. The plot resulted in a deadly ambush that effectively ended a Klan bombing campaign against Jews. I had heard a whisper about the secret fund a few months before I left Mississippi but never pursued the lead. Jack, of course, did. That was why his name was already held as legend among young Southern reporters like myself.
    Years later, Jack turned the story into an outstanding book, “Terror in the Night,” that dealt with the Klan’s last spasms of violence — directed not only against blacks, but Southern Jews, too.
    It was not the only story Jack beat me to. He seemed to own a news-breaking franchise during the Jimmy Carter years.
    Jack was a great reporter, and he became a splendid friend. Over the years, we covered many of the same stories and hung out at the same bar — the fabled Class Reunion.
    Jack was fine company. A born raconteur, a bon vivant, and a gentleman. For all of his reputation, he had not an ounce of self-importance. He was a model of all that is good in American journalism.

  36. Frank Quine

    A recollection…Jack was a long-time member of our Board of Visitors at the Maryland College of Journalism. The Board meets twice a year, and there were frequent after-dinner cocktail gatherings the night before a Monday meeting. At one of these, AJR’s Rem Rieder and Board members John Seigenthaler and Jerry Ceppos and I were privileged to heard Jack himself tell the tale of the Stan Musial hoax story. Many of us had heard third-person tellings or had read about the Musial story, but you had no idea of how really hilarious and incredible it was until you heard Jack tell it in his vivid and animated way.

  37. Marlene Cimons

    There is not much I can add to all the other tributes about Jack’s enormous gifts as an investigative reporter (he was the best), his exquisite sense of justice and ethics, and his love of animals (he once saw a photograph of the first cat who “owned” me and liked it so much he had me make a poster-sized copy for his cat-loving daughter). But there is one other attribute that I actually discovered during a not-so-happy encounter with him more than 20 years ago: his inability to hold a grudge. Jack was stubborn (one of the reasons he was such a great reporter) and so was I. It was spring, 1987 and we had a doozy of a fight. I sat in his office, door closed, and the two of us went at it, voices growing angrier and angrier. It was ugly. Neither one of us was willing to back down. Finally, the issue we were arguing about went to Los Angeles for resolution – and Jack was overruled. Some (small and petty) people, having lost, would never forgive and forget – but Jack was not like that. Relationships were important to him, much more valuable than the outcome of a single skirmish. Never, not in all the years that followed (and I worked as a reporter for him during his entire tenure as bureau chief), did he make me “pay” for my victory that day. Jack was always unfailingly supportive to me as a colleague, and generous to me as a friend. We enjoyed a terrific professional relationship, and a warm friendship until day he died. I visited with him just a few days before he passed away. He was in great spirits, and calm about what he knew was coming. I left him with a hug and a kiss – and a Starbucks cappuccino. I’ll miss him.

  38. Alan Muldawer

    I have known Jack since I was ten years old and living in Atlanta. When I was a student at American University Jack and Barbara became my surrogate parents. At their Van Ness house in D.C. I used to house-sit and help with home repairs (Jack was not too handy) and attend their parties with the bigwigs from the Washington media. What I loved about Jack was that he liked all people and it did not matter what you did or who you were. He was the most accepting person that I have ever known. When Jack and Barbara were moving from Van Ness to Wynkoop Court Jody Powell and I were helping with the move. The three of us were in the back of a pickup truck, piled high with stuff going down Mass. Ave., drinking beers. Jack was the salt of the earth and that is why everyone loved him.
    I am still in shock over Jack’s passing. I loved him and will think about him every day. Jack will live on forever in my heart.

  39. Lindsay Nelson

    I am such a lucky girl to grow up with such a great Pop Pop! My Pop Pop always took great care of his grandchildren. I used to love going to Hilton Head with him, Barbar and the rest of the family. I always knew my Pop Pop was an impressive man but I am still learning so much about him.

    I remember when his book Terror In The Night came out. I was young (too young to be calling a book store for that kind of book) but I did. I called and asked if they had one in stock. They told me they didn’t but that they could order it. I told them to please order multiple copies of the book for me. I already had a copy at my dad’s house. I was just so proud of my Pop Pop and I wanted to make sure that the book store had his book ready for someone else to purchase. I thought I was really helping him out with his book sales. I never told Pop Pop that story but he probably would have gotten a good laugh out of it. I was just trying to be a good granddaughter to an amazing Pop Pop.

    We went to visit just a few weeks ago and had a great time. Pop Pop entertained us with some amazing stories about his life. Barbar always told us stories when we were kids and I told Pop Pop that we should have been asking for his stories too when we were younger. I wish I would have had more time to visit and hear about his past. I am very proud to be a Nelson and very proud to have had him for a Pop Pop!

  40. That Jack Nelson was a dogged, fearless, relentless, top quality investigative reporter and bureau chief, there can be no doubt. But what was sparkling and special about Jack was that he just LOVED getting the story and he didn’t mind showing his pride and joy in his work. Yes, he was tough and he was canny. But he also brimmed with boyish enthusiasm about the work we reporters do. When Jack dug up some revelation about the FBI or the Justice Department or exposed some inner battle or some goofup in Jimmy Carter’s White House, or Reagan’s or Bush’s, he would light up like a ten-year-old boy. With undisguised relish and a “Can You Believe that” tone in his voice, he would tell and retell the story, taking special pleasure in exposing political skullduggery or doubledealing by government officials. By nature, he was “Watchdog Jack”.
    When it came to defending the rights of the press, especially against the ever-encroaching secrecy of administrations from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, the First Amendment had no more committed or passionate advocate than Jack Nelson. Press freedoms and the public’s right to know the truth, as well as press responsibility and accountability, were in Jack’s DNA. Let some agency or official try to deny access to information about what the government was doing and what it was trying to get away with under the cloak of national security, and Jack fought, teeth-bared, like a terrier.
    For the better part of two decades, I had the pleasure sharing a seat at the table with Jack and Haynes Johnson and Charley McDowell and others at Paul Duke’s Washington Week in Review. I never left that program without having learned something from Jack and having had the fun of delving deeper into some inside story or sparring with Jack over the right version of what was really going on behind the scenes. Jack was a tough competitor, but he was sensible enough to share his wisdom and also learn from other reporters as well. That’s one reason why so many reporter became his long-time friends. I count myself fortunate to have been one of Jack’s reporting colleagues, competitors and friends.
    Jack was a class act, all the way to the end. He was as gallant and fearless in his final weeks and days, fighting his terrible cancer, as he was all those years as a great reporter – solid, steady, smiling, calm, friendly, and unbowed. Quite a guy!

  41. In a town overrun by major league journalists—good and bad—Jack Nelson was the best in the business. Old-fashioned, unpretentious, high-minded, and always focused on the story, wherever it led, Jack provided the benchmark the best writers aspired to meet. But everyone who knew Jack knows that.

    In this reflection by his friends, I must tell a story that is quintissential Jack. When writing my recent book, In Confidence, I included a chapter on the journalist’s “privilege”, and the rule about anonymous sources that was very much in the news in the wake of the Robert Novak-Valerie Plame incident. Jack told me a story which I used in my book, and which I re-tell here for those few remiss readers who may not have read the book.

    I was doing investigative reporting on Watergate.
    John Lawrence, Los Angeles Times’ Washington
    bureau chief said he knew Jeb Magruder, a
    senior Nixon administration official from their days
    in California and could arrange an off-the-record
    interview. I interviewed him and promised it would
    be of the record.

    A few weeks later, as the Watergate cover-up began
    to unravel, it became obvious he had lied throughout
    the interview. In a Watergate story I wrote, I mentioned
    that he had lied in an interview with the Times. A couple
    of days later I ran into him, and he said. “I’ve got a bone
    to pick with you. You interviewed me of the record and
    then you quoted me in an article.”

    I said, “Yes, but you lied to me.”

    “I lied to every body,” he said.

    I said, “You broke our agreement on confidentiality
    by lying so I was no longer bound by it.”

    It is SO Jack a story because it shows him as the consummate reporter, protective but tough.

    In our last conversation, a few days before he died, I told Jack a Watergate story I’d recently heard for the first time from a poker pal who was in the foreign service during the Watergate era. My friend was an ambassador in a Latin American country when then Attorney General William Rogers passed through. They spoke about the current Watergate scandal, much in the daily news. Rogers told my friend that he’d advised the president to “blame it on the Krauts” (it was a time when political correctness was not followed rigorously) and fire them. It would be a one day story. “But Nixon never got the message,” he added. The “Berlin Wall” blocked President Nixon’s access to Rogers’ advice.

    “I never heard that,” Jack said in surprise. I imagined him years earlier, hanging up and calling someone at the bureau, instructing them to “run that item, I know and trust the source. But check it out first.”
    * * * *
    It was my honor to work with him on several books, and to become a friend in the process. There is a bottle of champagne chilled and waiting to uncork on opening night of the movie, Terror in the Night; Barbara and I will be bereft to drink it in Jack’s memory when that event happens.

    Jack Nelson is one of the best and nicest people I’ve encountered in almost half a century in Washington. As one of our mutual friends said to me, and I agree, we were fortunate to have passed his way.

  42. Carol & Paul Muldawer

    We can never thank Jack and Barbara enough for all the years of loving friendship they have given our son Alan. They made our life much easier just knowing that they kept an eye on him for us. He now keeps an eye on them. They are our extended family. We have wonderful memories of the Class Reunion, dinners and parties at their home(with the Southern Mafia)enjoying blue grass and country music. On a personal note, whenever we visited Washington, Paul would set up a tennis match with Jack. He never refused. By his own definition, he was a slashing player.
    It is not often that someone comes into your life and makes a tremendous impact. When we were greatly bothered by a national situation, Jack’s rational analysis usually calmed our concerns. His
    reporting helped change the south for the better and we will be forever grateful. More importantly, we will always be grateful for his friendship.

  43. Beau Cutts

    In the summer of 1974, Jim Minter, managing editor of The Atlanta Constitution, promoted me to Washington correspondent. I was 27 years old. It was an exciting time in Washington City 35 years ago. I began work there the week President Nixon resigned.

    A short time later, Jack Nelson shook my hand, welcomed me to D.C., and reminisced briefly but warmly about his years in Atlanta. He went to work for the Los Angeles Times in the mid ’60s and became its Washington bureau chief. I had been an admirer of his work and told him. I wish now I had said to Jack:

    “I heard you left The Constitution after you won the Pulitzer because they wouldn’t give you a $5 a week raise. Is that true?”

    Does consistent, superb reporting, especially exacting investigative work, equal profits for newspaper owners? The Atlanta paper now limps miserably with half its news staff of a few years ago; Cox family owners are selling other newspapers they own. I wonder what journalism here in Atlanta would be today if Jack’s bosses had given him a raise, $5 or another amount. It is difficult and dreamy to imagine 30 more years of Nelson’s high quality of work here, if only he could have smiled looking at his paycheck.

  44. Bob Drogin

    When I first was hired to join the New York bureau of the Los Angeles Times in 1983, I called my family to share the happy news. My parents, raised on the Brooklyn Eagle, Herald Tribune and New York Times, were skeptical. Why would I want to work for a California newspaper? What, a New York paper wasn’t good enough?
    But Esther Feigenbaum – my little Jewish grandmother back in Bayonne, N.J. – gave her immediate seal of approval. She had never read the paper, never visited Los Angeles, and wouldn’t know Otis Chandler from an Otis elevator. She and my grandfather had spent most of their lives selling and slaughtering chickens. But she knew Jack from the TV talk shows, and his quick wit, sharp analysis and calm demeanor won her over.
    “He seems like such a nice man,” she told me. “So smart.” She was right.
    > Jack brought a common touch to a noble calling. The decline of newspapers’ ambition and reach in recent years is all the more pronounced for the standard and example he set as reporter and bureau chief. His ethics and enthusiasm for pursuing the big story, no matter what the obstacles, still inspire those of us who knew him. We shall miss him.

  45. Chuck Conconi

    When I read about Jack in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, I was reminded of how important Jack had been to me in the early years of my journalistic career. In 1968, I was a fledgling reporter at the Evening Star. I was a dumb kid from the Midwest who had suddenly been turned into a civil rights reporter. I was preparing to cover the Poor People’s Campaign Martin Luther King Jr. was bringing to Washington. It was to be the first unified campaign of blacks, Chicanos, Appalachian and urban poor. I had no idea what I was getting into.

    King was leading a demonstration supporting a garbage workers strike in Memphis when rioting broke out. I was sent to the airport to catch the last flight to Memphis. I didn’t have time to pick up a toothbrush and at that time I didn’t have a credit card. In Memphis, and the following day in Atlanta, I got to know Jack who allowed me to follow him around and, most importantly, cashed a check for me so I could purchase a toothbrush, a razor and a change of underwear.

    Later, after King’s assassination when we all traveled to Marks, Miss. for the beginning of the disasterous Poor People’s Campaign, Jack again was a mentor. One night after an early dinner in Clarksdale, Miss., some 20 miles from Marks where all the journalists were staying, I told Jack I was going to drive back to Marks to see what was going on there. Jack sat me down and pointed out that the dark, empty road between the two towns was dangerous. “You are safe in Marks or Clarksdale,” he said, “but out on that lonely road you will simply disappear. I’m a southerner. I speak with a familiar accent and I wouldn’t take that trip.” I took his advice.

    Two years ago, Jack and I were on a panel at Americans for Progress and talked about those turbulent days. We had an opportunity to talk privately and I reminded him how important he had been to me. I value those moments we shared. I take great pride that I had an opportunity , if only briefly, to work alongside Jack. He was unique, the kind of newsman that any journalist could ever hope to emulate. He was a talented, courageous newspaperman with impeccable professional and ethical credentials. I know it is a cliche, but they don’t make newspapermen like him anymore.

    I feel the deep loss of a friend and mentor — a man who was a journalistic giant among the diminishing ranks of journalistic giants.

  46. Democracy has lost one of its finest gatekeepers. Jack was wise, steady, fair, hard-working, a compleat gentleman and journalist. In this era of shrinking newspapers and endangered reporting, the loss of someone who so clearly defined and furthered the work is most deeply felt.
    Susan Stamberg
    Special Correspondent
    National Public Radio

  47. Ed Fouhy

    The tributes to Jack’s life published here and in the newspapers have been wonderful; several of the obits have been quite successful in their attempt to capture his indomitable spirit. But beyond a brief and casual mention there is an aspect to Jack’s career that eluded the writers. That is his work on the Reporter’s Committee. Mention should be made about that chapter of his career and the regard he was held in by those who were colleagues in the long ago battles for greater transparency in government.

    I first encountered Jack back in the day when we TV news types were segregated from our print brethren. I came late to the Committee though not late to First Amendment advocacy because, as some may recall, there was rank discrimination against television coverage of such Washington institutions as the White House and State Department briefings, even floor action at the Capitol. At the House of Representatives, television networks were not even able to get cameras inside committee hearing rooms for many years. But it wasn’t just TV cameras that were discriminated against, there were other, more subtle ways to keep the prying eyes of troublesome journalists out of the public’s business.

    A Federal shield law, the Freedom of Information Act, even what we now refer to as Sunshine Act legislation, were all far in the future.

    But Jack, I learned when I joined the Committee’s board, had been for some time, advocating laws that would help journalists gain access to federal records, indeed he may have been a pioneer in that work. He was one of the handful of big name Washington reporters to engage in that work. And he persisted even as the disappointments mounted and the Committee seemed to be an orphan in the journalism culture of the day.

    In time – it took decades – the freeze melted. Changes that no one thought would ever come did come, and they came because of the slow, plodding, persistent hard work of Jack and the people he recruited and encouraged.

    There is no glory for a Washington journalist in First Amendment drudgery. It goes on in the shadows. The stars are off vying for the attention of the cameras and while Jack had his turn in front of their lenses he could be relied on to be there when it was crucial to have his star power at a fund raiser or to give a discouraged staffer a pat on the back at a tough time.

    Jack was a singular guy who was never seduced by the powerful. He rightly regarded them as the natural enemies of journalists seeking to find that most elusive Washington item: the truth. I hope young journalists will take inspiration from his dogged pursuit of it. He will be missed.

  48. Hank Klibanoff

    I was 23 years old when I signed up to work at a Mississippi newspaper that I knew little about. That was okay; the newspaper knew little about me; they hired me sight unseen after only a couple of telephone interviews.
    So while I never knew what they saw in me, I was certain what I saw in them: Jack had gotten his start there at The Daily Herald, an afternoon paper in Gulfport-Biloxi.
    Being from Alabama, I had an innate affection for Alabama folks who did well at things I loved or wanted to do. Thus, I had been a Milwaukee Braves fan from the mid-50s because they had a player from Alabama whose name was Hank. And I was a Jack Nelson fan because he was from Alabama and was doing amazing work in a field I was certain was my destiny.
    When I arrived at The Daily Herald in 1972, they still talked about Jack. Tough guy who had taken on tough stories along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where gambling, speakeasies, prostitution and drug-running ruled in a lawless climate. When I wrote about a series of stories about the corruption in the longshoremen’s union at the Gulfport docks, Jim Lund, an editor who was a longtime friend of Jack’s, made a passing reference to how the story reminded him of the work Jack had done. Comments like that will set you for life; you certainly don’t forget them, as I’ve just proved.
    So when Jim came to me one day to say Jack Nelson wanted to talk with me, had something he needed me to do, I froze. I stalled. The call was being transferred. I took it.
    Jack was deep into the Watergate story, and the name of a Mississippian, Fred LaRue, had emerged in documents and interviews. LaRue was both a White House aide and an official in the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Jack had dirt on LaRue and needed a comment from him. “You’ll find him in Ocean Springs. He’s got a place there. He’ll be on his boat probably.”
    Sure enough, that’s where I found him, in Ocean Springs, at his place, on his boat. Once there, I called out to him. Staring in the sun, he wanted to know who the hell I was. “I’m nobody, but I’m here for Jack Nelson.”
    “I’ve got nothing to say.”
    “Jack wants me to ask you if –“
    “I said I’ve got nothing to say.”
    Jack, I told myself, wouldn’t walk away. He’d keep firing questions. I was his proxy, his artillery. I had to hold my ground.
    “Yes, sir, but Jack thinks you might know something about –“
    “Listen to me: I’ve got nothing to say. That’s it.”
    Damn. He wasn’t even varying his response to lend a little heat to it, a little juice that could justify even a second paragraph. I had nothing, but I couldn’t come back empty-handed.
    “Yes, sir, I understand, but see, here’s the thing, Jack’s writing a story about you and wants to know –“
    “I’m telling you, and I’m telling you for the last time,” he said, his voice rising, “I’ve got nothing to say — and I’ve especially got nothing to say to Jack Nelson.”
    Bingo! Got it. A specific reference to Jack. Maybe the LA Times couldn’t use it, but it’ll sure as hell make Jack’s day. Indeed, when I called Jack, he just laughed.
    “Give me that again, Hank,” he said, and I could tell he was smiling as he wrote it down. He was hardly disappointed in me. He was instead satisfied that he had let LaRue know he was on his trail. Jack knew that LaRue knew that he would be back. The next time, Jack wouldn’t send a rookie reporter. He’d be there himself, and he’d get what he came for. In time, Jack prevailed. LaRue pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and did some time.
    Over the years I got to know Jack much better and found a bottomless well of kindness residing inside that tough shell.
    A week or so before Jack died, I reminded him of the LaRue assignment. He laughed, then added, “Yeah, my guess is that what LaRue really said was, ‘I’ve especially got nothing to say to that goddamn Jack Nelson.’”
    Thinking back, I’m sure that’s exactly what he said. Jack got it right again.

  49. Jim Turner

    When Jack died, our mutual friend, Roy Reed, who covered the South for the NYTimes, suggested that I write up an anecdote about Jack that I always cited to prove the type of journalist he was. I did that, but the LATimes declined to publish it. I attach it here so that Jack’s friends can read it.

    The death last week of Jack Nelson, former Chief of the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau, has awakened a long buried memory of the turbulent times at Selma, Alabama, and the surrounding Ku Klux Klan stronghold of south Alabama forty-four years ago. His death also brought to mind the real courage of regular reporters like Jack.
    Jack Nelson was born in Alabama in 1929 and grew up in Mississippi and Georgia. Though he never attended college, he did win a Pulitzer Prize and by 1965, at age 36, wound up covering the civil rights movement for the L.A. Times. Nothing escaped his notice; in the press corps he was called “Scoop”. In 1965, he spent February and March reporting the turmoil in Selma. He covered the daily voter registration marches, then, on March 7, later dubbed “Bloody Sunday”, he wrote of the unprovoked police attack on the demonstrators on the Pettus Bridge, then he covered Dr. King’s march to Montgomery, and finally, he reported the March 25 Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white volunteer from Detroit. In an exclusive report, Jack explained that federal authorities were able to arrest the killer Klansmen because an FBI informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, was in the car when the shots were fired. I was in Selma on my first assignment as an attorney for the federal Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. We stayed friends over the years as he rose to head his paper’s Washington Bureau and I became Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
    Although the federal government returned the first indictment for violating a civil rights law left over from Reconstruction, Alabama requested to go first with trying the Klansmen on the most serious charges of murder. With some misgivings, the federal government agreed. The local grand jury indicted the three Klansmen and two trials were held in the tiny town of Hayneville, about 40 miles southwest of Montgomery, the state capital. Hayneville is the county seat of Lowndes County and, in the area it was regularly called “Bloody Lowndes.” In spite of Rowe’s horrifying and utterly convincing testimony, there was a hung jury (ten to two for conviction) in the first trial and an acquittal in the second. The outcome was all-too-predictable during those years in the Deep South. The jury was all white. At the first trial, defense attorney, Matt Murphy, was a caricature, proudly strutting around as the Klan’s official lawyer and mouthing every white supremacist fear in the jurors’ hearts. The killers were finally were convicted in federal court in Montgomery of a federal civil rights violation and sentenced to a maximum of ten years.
    But this story is about Jack Nelson and his determination to chase down every scintilla of news as the creaky legal machinery of Lowndes County was engaged in the Liuzzo case. His regular reports described Bloody Lowndes as a truly southern county which earned its grisly nickname from the violent way one fifth of its population (white) controlled the other four fifths (black). There were no black voters in this county, no black jurors, and no black elected officials. One-room segregated black schools teetered on cinder blocks, with outdoor toilets and wood stoves for heating. It was worth a black man’s life to question the system that had kept him and his kind in a state of near-bondage for generations.
    The center of things in Hayneville was the county’s antebellum courthouse where a perpetual domino game was the main activity. It had no air conditioning and all the toilets and drinking fountains were segregated. During proceedings up in the courtroom, you could drink a coke or smoke a cigarette while contemplating an old time prisoner’s cage at the back of the chamber or watching a couple of birds fly in and out through the open windows. (Those who can remember the town depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” have hit on the right neighborhood.)
    The first step in the state’s prosecution effort was to return an indictment, the official charge that the three Klansmen had murdered Mrs. Liuzzo. Jack Nelson and about twenty-five or thirty other media representatives were present in the courtyard when the grand jury convened. I had been assigned as the official “go-between”, that is I would provide the state authorities with all the evidence from the federal investigation including copies of the FBI reports and access to the federal witnesses, including Tommy Rowe and a Leroy Moton, a Selma student, young and black, who had been riding in the victim’s car.
    In discussing his testimony, it became clear that Rowe was going through with it reluctantly. He explained that in the five years he had been serving inside the Klan as an informant, he had learned several things. For one, Alabama police were best friends of the Klan. When the Freedom Riders came through Birmingham in 1963, Rowe said the local cops had agreed, surreptitiously, to delay arriving at the confrontation scene for fifteen minutes to give the local Klansmen a chance to beat the black and white riders without interference. Moreover, he also learned that one of the Klan’s tricks was to get one of their own close to their intended victims by carrying a pencil and pad, posing as a reporter. Accordingly, Rowe believed he was in great danger being sent into a rural Alabama county, a hotbed of Klan sympathizers, where he was to blow the whistle on a Klan murder while dozens of reporters milled around. Who knew which man with a pad and pencil might be a Klansman? And, he sincerely doubted how well he would be protected by the Alabama cops.
    With the FBI and the prosecutor, it was arranged that Rowe would enter the grand jury room through a side door while the crowd of reporters were diverted to the front of the courthouse by the arrival of two FBI decoy cars. This ruse worked perfectly and Rowe was approached by no one.
    But getting him out of the courthouse afterward without being approached was a different story. At the appointed time, I stood with a half dozen FBI agents and a few state police, all wedged into the front breezeway of the courthouse to delay the media surge just long enough for Rowe to leave the courthouse and run to a waiting FBI car. And, it would have worked– except for Jack Nelson of the L.A. Times who somehow squirmed and slithered through the line of blockers like an NFL half-back. Watching this scene, I gasped for breath. Here was the perfect re-creation of Rowe’s doomsday scenario. Nelson was running full tilt at Rowe, waving his reporter’s notebook and calling out “Mr. Rowe, Mr. Rowe, can I ask you one question?”
    As Rowe ran to and dived into the car, I watched Nelson abruptly stop, raising both hands, and began backing away as the car burned rubber. An outraged Nelson later claimed that as he approached the car, he saw Tommy Rowe carefully aiming a pistol directly at him. It turned out that the FBI agent assigned to cover Rowe had promised that if Rowe would leave his personal weapon behind as the Bureau had ordered, then, once he returned to the safety of the Bureau car, he could hold the agent’s own side arm. When Nelson’s editors raised an official complaint with the FBI that a government informant had tried to shoot their reporter, the agency investigated the matter fully. It replied that Rowe, who sometimes smoked a pipe, was in need of nicotine and actually was holding his pipe and a tobacco pouch, not a gun at all.
    But, Jack Nelson was a truth seeker and a practiced observer who had no problem distinguishing between a deadly pistol and a smoker’s pipe. No matter what the FBI claimed in its revisionist report, until the day Jack died, he would never agree that what he saw pointed at him was nothing but a harmless pipe.

  50. dolores burns

    Jack was a school mate of my husband John and we shared many pleasant dinners together when Jack and Barbara were in Biloxi.Jack,although famous, never lost the “common touch”and had that talent for listening to everyone with rapt attention and it was evident that he was sincerely interested in his old friends and the town he left behind for fame and fortune many years ago.He will be missed by many of his old friends.

  51. Norman Kempster

    Jack Nelson was one of the greatest journalists of his generation. That, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, is a “self-evident” truth. But, more than that, he made better just about everybody he came in contact with.

    His coverage of the civil rights movement of the 1960s helped to spotlight the racial abuses of the era, leading to the passage of legislation that made the whole country better. This, I observed only from a distance.

    What I know first hand is how he revolutionized the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times and, in the process, the newspaper itself. Jack hired me for the bureau in 1976, a few years after he became the bureau chief and early in the paper’s glory years.

    As a result of Jack’s tireless efforts (and the efforts of the staff he assembled), the Los Angeles Times became required reading in Washington–even in those pre-internet days when the paper was hard to get in the capital. For a while, the Times published a special Washington edition which developed a loyal following. When the edition was ended as a cost-cutting measure, a number of readers, led by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, lobbied to get it restored (which it was, although only briefly). I was covering the State Department at the time and Christopher made it clear that he wanted his LA Times on his desk every morning.

    The quarter of a century I spent working for and with Jack Nelson were the best and most rewarding years of my life. He will be missed

  52. Ron Ostrow

    A Remembrance of Jack

    The thread that pulls together why Jack Nelson did what he did and the remarkable way he did it is his intolerance for injustice. That is what binds together his books, his journalism for both the Atlanta Constitution and the Los Angeles Times and his frequent appearances on the Public Broadcasting System. When you work with and for a leader motivated by the need to right wrongs, you field countless late-night and early-morning phone calls wanting to make sure you have really “gotten right onto it” – pursued the failure of a law enforcement official to enforce the law, for instance.
    All of his books focus on injustice. “The Censors and the Schools,” co-authored with Gene Roberts Jr. when they were Nieman Fellows at Harvard dealt with local censors trying to rid school libraries of books they found offensive. “The Orangeburg Massacre,” co-authored with Jack Bass, introduced startling facts about the law enforcement assault on black student protesters, many of whom were shot in the back or soles of their feet – facts that Nelson established by obtaining their medical record (He told emergency room doctors he was from “the Bureau.”) And “The FBI and the Berrigans,” which he wrote with me, documented the government’s alleging a bizarre conspiracy by a nun and an imprisoned priest and others to blow up heating tunnels beneath downtown DC and kidnap then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. J. Edgar Hoover had broken all precedents on the presumption of innocence by testifying publicly about the investigation before a Senate appropriations subcommittee before any charges had been filed, and the subsequent prosecution smacked of an effort to save Hoover’s face. “Terror in the Night,” which he wrote by himself, told of the extreme steps the FBI and Mississippi lawmen took to counter the Ku Klux Klan after they turned against southern Jews in a series of bombings. The book was based on stories he had written years early for the Los Angeles Times; he had agonized over those stories because revealing what had gone on required “burning” law enforcement sources and others he had worked with for years.
    Jack waged his war against injustice until the very end. In one of my telephone calls from New England to his hospital room, he asked if I could guess who he was on the line with before my call. “Jimmy Carter,” he said with considerable pride. “We talked for about 10 minutes.” But onto a possible injustice: A long-time friend had called Jack asking him to check out an individual who was representing himself as an editor for the Los Angeles Times. The individual was trying to persuade a woman relative of the caller to move to Los Angeles to join him. Neither Jack nor I had ever heard of the man, but we had left the paper 11 years ago. Jack persisted, and managed to establish that such an individual did not work for the paper. “We might have prevented a fraud,” Jack said with satisfaction.
    At times, it was hard to distinguish between Jack’s wanting to correct an injustice and his sharp, well-honed sense of what constitutes a news story and how to advance one. The most recent example was his fascination with the story of the run-away balloon and the six-year-old boy. Jack remembered covering an incident many years ago down South. Both in-person and on the phone, he implored Dick Cooper, who served as deputy bureau chief under Jack and remains at the Times, to “get right on that” because it would make a great sidebar.

    The story is too good not to relate. It was 1953, and Jack was covering for the Atlanta Constitution the “strange case of a space alien” near Smyrna, Ga. Sheriff’s deputies came across a pickup truck, whose driver said he had seen a flying saucer on the road, with three ET-like creatures scurrying about. Two of them boarded the saucer, but the third didn’t make it before the space ship took off.. The truck skidded and struck the one creature. The driver showed the deputies the lifeless alien.
    Medical authorities were summoned, and one said: “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not of this earth.”
    After Jack’s story appeared in the Constitution, it was picked up by the wires and ran all over the country and overseas. Not too long after that, the creature body was determined to be a shaved monkey. It was a hoax, and Jack covered that in full detail too.
    Before he was bureau chief, Jack was in the LA Times Washington office the day the police cracked down on anti-Vietnam protesters who were filling Pennsylvania Ave., a half a block from the White House. The police—Park, local and other federal—literally were cracking heads and making arrests. We had a hard-to-beat view of the action from our seventh floor windows, just across 17th St. from the Old Executive Office Building. But that was not close enough for Jack. He grabbed his notebook and raced down the seven flights of stairs and out on Pennsylvania where the demonstrators and police were clashing.
    “You can’t get the badge numbers from up there,” he said, gesturing to our office perch.

    He had some difficulty adjusting to the rules that governed reporters in the national city. Even before he had a White House press pass, he was in the White House briefing room with a Los Angeles Times photographer when the public address system announced that photographers would be admitted to the Oval Office for a picture of President Nixon with a foreign dignitary. It was a “photo opportunity,”—no reporters, no questions. That did not deter Jack who followed on the heels of our photographer .He tried in a muted version of Sam Donaldson to ask the leader of the free world a couple of questions.
    Nixon looked uneasy. “Don’t worry, Mr. President,” Press Secretary Ron Ziegler said as he raised his hands to end the session. “That’s just Jack Nelson of the L.A. Times.”
    Even before he moved from Atlanta to Washington, Nelson had an influence over the Washington bureau. He was covering desegregation all over the South, and if Washington officials seemed to be dragging their feet, he would beseech me to ask them why, particularly the Justice Department and HEW’s office of civil rights. But this was when I was covering the Supreme Court, which in those years handed down its decisions only on Mondays. And Nelson’s questions often came on Mondays. I would often come home late on Mondays.

    This intolerance of injustice almost caused him to quit the paper. For weeks, we had been reporting a story of high-level corruption at the FBI. A businessman had been picking up the monthly mortgage payment of an FBI official, who was known for being close to the White House. The same businessman was named a roving ambassador by then President Lyndon B. Johnson.
    Our story was shelved on the reasoning that the FBI executive had said he was soon retiring and he had the college tuitions of several children to finance.
    Nelson was upset when our reporting was halted. “This has never happened to me,” he said over and over. The New York Times had been sounding him out about joining their paper. I walked with him at least 12 times around that huge square block that. runs down 17th St. to G and then up 18th St. to Pennsylvania , trying to persuade him to stay. When we went to our homes that night, I did not know what he was going to do. Fortunately, he decided to stay, and in a few years was named bureau chief.
    Where did this intolerance of injustice come from?
    His eagerness to scrutinize police behavior, especially if minorities or the poor are victims of police abuse, probably stems from Nelson as a young boy being picked up by Biloxi police after a neighbor reported her jewelry had been stolen. A beefy detective questioned him for hours under the heat of bright lights, suggesting he make it easy on himself by confessing. They eventually set him free, saying they knew he did not do it.
    Only a few years later, when Jack graduated from high school, he became a reporter for the Biloxi Herald. And one of the first things he did was seek out that beefy detective and warn him that if Jack ever found out he had done something like that to someone else, he would report it in the Herald. The detective became one of the young reporter’s best sources.

    But as a Southern kid, he could not help but notice how Blacks were denied basic rights. Still, Nelson’s experiences growing up are not really the story of a poor boy being shut out. After all, he was a 128-pound quarterback at his Jesuit school. Acknowledging that for part of the Depression he lived in a house without running water or inside plumbing, he said: “We did not know we were poor.”


  53. Roy Reed

    One of George Wallace’s nuttier ideas turned out to be naming the retired Air Force general, Curtis LeMay, as his running mate when he ran for president in 1968. He introduced the general at a Washington press conference. LeMay had made news earlier with a statement that if we wanted to end the Vietnam War, which had dragged on too long, we should use nuclear weapons and “bomb them back to the Stone Age.” As soon as questions were called for, Jack Nelson was on his feet. What about bombing them back to the Stone Age, he asked. LeMay’s lack of political skill was apparent as soon as he opened his mouth. Wallace listened as long as he could stand it, then took the microphone away from him and ended the press conference. It was a disaster. Wallace and LeMay headed across the country to different destinations. Jack and I were among those assigned to go with Wallace. As soon as the plane took off and the seat belt sign was turned off, the governor hurtled down the aisle looking for Jack. I had the aisle seat; Jack was next to the window. Wallace leaned across me, jabbed his finger into Jack’s chest,and started shouting at him. Jack, who relished any disturbance, rose halfway out of his seat and shouted back. I could tell there was going to be trouble, so I tried to make myself invisible. If blows were struck, I was in a fair way to suffer collateral damage. One of Wallace’s handlers eased him back to his seat after a bit. The last time I talked to Jack, a week before he died, I mentioned that incident and said I had been a little worried about him because Wallace had been a Golden Gloves champion in his youth. Jack replied, with some heat, “Hell, I was a boxer, myself, when I was young.” I couldn’t see him, but I’m certain that he rose up off his pillow and that his eyes were full of fight.

  54. Hugh O'Donnell

    Jack was my first cousin. His mother, my Aunt Barbara, was my father’s sister. After my own mother’s death, when I was 20, Aunt Barbara played a big part in my family’s life. She was my father’s fishing buddy, gin opponent, and teaser/teasee. She was one tough lady who had a wonderful sense of humor and during my father’s last illness, I remember praising her for her iron butt capacity to sit by a hospital bed for hours at a time.
    Jack was the nearest thing our family had to a celebrity, and my father was quite proud of his accomplishments–especially the Milledgeville series. The down side of the celebrity was that at least once, Daddy was disqualified from jury duty in some political corruption case in Atlanta because Jack was his nephew.
    Thinking about what made Jack tick and reading the comments on this site, it seems to me that one of his primary qualities was the belief that there was no small injustice and that telling the truth about an injustice was the least one could do. Two examples come to mind. In the Nixon era, I accidentally discovered from a friend in a small Georgia town that Nixon was appointing someone to a U.S. marshal position who had a serious history of racial intolerance. As I was wont to do when something like that crossed my view, I contacted Jack and told him what I knew. Appointing a staunch racist to a law enforcement position may have been good Southern strategy, but Jack clearly thought it was wrong. He interviewed my friend who was a very brave lady, and he did a story on the appointment. I think it went through, but at least the record was there.
    A few years before that, I was a draftee in Vietnam at a headquarters company at Long Binh, when I discovered that it was no accident that the company was an all-white company. Specifically,
    one of the powers that be had decided that having blacks in the company was not conducive to harmony. Because the assignment was a pretty safe assignment, not being at Long Binh had some definite consequences in terms of not being shot at. In any event, this general policy manifested itself specifically in the case of a black sergeant who was on his third tour and had “accidentally”
    been assigned to the company. He was there for a few days, and then someone decided that he needed to be transferred on security grounds.
    The exact ground given was that two decades before, he had apparently done something in support of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign.
    Because I was pretty sure that the real reason was that he was black and would spoil the “racial purity” of the company, I wrote Jack, and I believe he did a story on the sergeant’s situation.
    At the core of Jack’s belief system was a fervent understanding that abstract systems of injustice are built on smaller more particular decisions that must be ferreted out and discovered through hard work, perseverance, and sometimes luck. I honor
    his memory.

  55. Jack was a huge influence in my life and I was happy to know him for 37 years. I was office manager in the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times from 1973 – 2002 (I started there right out of college), and Jack was one of 13 reporters, editors and support staff that made up the bureau when I began my long tenure with the L. A. Times. I look back now and realize what a ball I had working in the Bureau – the fascinating stories, the hectic, but wonderful times at the political conventions, the gradual increase in the size of the bureau, which meant moving to bigger quarters, and Jack was the central part of all of this to me. He mentored me in many ways – I learned a great deal from him about loyalty and honesty and hard work, and he just plain made me laugh! After he became bureau chief in 1975, we would hold breakfast sessions with VIPs in Washington and I would clear off the tops of desks to put some coffee, juice and sweet rolls out, until we had, I think it was Hubert Humphrey, who asked “Where are the eggs?” From that point on, Jack had me bring in eggs and sausage and bacon, as well as the sweet rolls, so that all future guests would be happy. Jack used to love to recount THIS story. Years later, we moved into much larger quarters and had our own room to hold the breakfast sessions in and, at that point, we began to have them catered. They were never the same after that.

    I watched the Washington Bureau grow from 13 people to over 55 in the years I was there. I still maintain a fond place in my heart for the many people that I worked so long with there, and there were many, many people who came and went during my years at the Bureau. Jack was the one who kept us working together as a real family – there was no backstabbing or fighting over stories that I ever saw while I was there. I left before the serious downfall of our great newspaper (Jack had retired less than a year before I did), and I am so happy that neither of us were there to watch that happen. When Jack and I would talk after we both had left, either on the phone, or at one of our L.A. Times Wash. Bureau gatherings (at one point there were more alumni at those functions than current employees – it meant a lot to us long-timers to get together with each other, even after leaving the paper) we would talk about how awful it was that such a great newspaper was being dismantled, piece by piece.

    Throughout many of the years, Jack and Barbara would graciously host the Bureau welcomes, farewells, and celebrations at their home and there was never any thought, as far as my husband and I were concerned, of missing one of these functions. It was a lot of fun to hang out with Jack and Barbara and the rest of the staff outside of work. Jack and Barbara attended my wedding in Richmond, Virginia and I was so glad. Jack CARED about us and always asked how the family was. He was genuinely interested in what was happening in your life. Things were always interesting with Jack around. I loved to listen to the stories he told about his early days as a reporter – and there were quite a few of those. My favorite was the story about when Jack was a young 19 year-old reporter at the Biloxi Daily Herald and he was asked to do a phone interview with the great baseball legend, Stan Musial, one of his heroes, who was staying at a hotel in Biloxi. He excitedly wrote a story for the paper, only to find out the next day, that the man was a phony. But Jack got the last laugh when he met the real Stan Musial 41 years later and recounted his story. If you haven’t read about this, just Google Stan and Jack together and it will come up – it’s a real treat.
    When I think about the political VIPS that I spoke to over the phone and met in person over the years I worked for Jack, it is mind-boggling. He knew EVERYONE and would pursue anyone, no matter how high up, if it meant getting a good story. He was so devoted to his work. Sure, I saw some confrontations over the years (we all know Jack could get a bit verbal at times, especially if it was about something he truly believed in and was excited about), but, as you can surmise by reading all of the other tributes from those who worked for and with Jack, there was never any ill-feeling that lingered. Jack was fair, he was dynamic, he was smart and he had a way with people. Even many of those that he hounded for stories throughout different administrations would remain close friends with him during and after their stints in the government. That’s the way Jack was – he got CLOSE to people. What I saw over my years at the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau, through a number of publishers and editors, was a true respect for a gifted journalist and a leader and mentor of journalists, who formed a nationally acclaimed Washington Bureau in a time when newspapers were great. I loved him and will miss him dearly, as I know we all will. This world was far richer with Jack in it.

  56. Joan McKinney

    As a southerner, I feel personally indebted to Jack for his courage and clarity during the civil rights revolution.
    The country is indebted, too, and certainly our craft. Joan McKinney

  57. Hodding Carter III

    So the toughest of them all is gone, and the most persistent, and among the most Southern, and for more years than you could count, just about as fine a companion for long nights and great stories as you could want. And, of course, if you were a Mississippian, the best of a breed nurtured in a state (though he adopted it as his native state, birth certificate to the contrary) that produced more than its share of great newspapermen.

    Talking with him in his last days about the l95os and l960s in Mississippi and the South, when all of us were young, I was reminded vividly of what really mattered and matters now. Passionate intensity, certainly, and a profound conviction that tough stories well reported and well told could and can make a difference even in the bleakest of times. Jack knew just how dark a chapter had been written in American history by Mississippi’s racism, and he never quit trying to exorcise its demons and bury its executioners. But he never turned his back on it. Never.

    His sources were legendary and his digging a textbook example of how a reporter should go about his trade. The cliched phrase pertains: Jack Nelson was a reporter’s reporter. Equally meaningful ,if you care about journalism’s soul, over the years he proved repeatedly that no source was sacrosanct, no one was entitled to a free ride. J. Edgar Hoover, among others, would rise up from his long overdue grave and testify with a mewling amen to that.

    I was always proud that I gave Jack’s name to the man who was trying to shop the Merdian Klan entrapment story, gave it because I knew he would go after it with dogged determination to its bitterly disillusioning conclusion. And so Jack did, and not just once, but with a later book that proved that age did not mellow murderous haters and ignoring the past was a sure prescription for its repetition.

    Ah yes, as all his friends knew and he never tired of acknowledging, with his marriage to Barbara Jack was a man increasingly at peace with himself.
    It was a great, great life.

  58. Bert Lance

    Jack will be greatly missed by all who knew him,but he will be remembered as a person of hohesty and integrity who brought change and great change it was to journalism..He was a” truth agent” who searched it out no matter who was involved, and he found it.More importantly, he published it. For this he willhave a place in the history of his chosen profession.

    I had the privilege of receiving phone calls- no matter where I might be- and personal visits with tough questions that continued until they were answered to his satisfaction.
    He was quite a journalist as well as a man.
    I shall miss him.

    Bert Lance

  59. To paraphrase John Irving in “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Jack Nelson is the reason I believe in journalism. I started as an intern for the LA Times in the Washington bureau in 1987 when Jack was a bureau chief, and it’s fair to say I wouldn’t have been at the paper for the next 15 years, maybe not in journalism at all, if it weren’t for him and his dedication to the craft of newspapering.

    He was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, taking me and others under his wing and passing on his passion for the business. Early on in my intership, I remember a line editor told me Jack wanted to talk to me about a tip he wanted me to check out from an old source in Atlanta. “Jack Nelson wants to talk to ME?” I gulped. I’d obviously heard all about his heroic journalism and read his old clippings and books on the civil rights movement, but up close, he was even more impressive. (He was a clever manager too: he and Mary Pat used some creative accounting to extend my intership for well over a year in a sort of off-the-books arrangement until the beancounters in LA discovered it. He didn’t like bureaucrats.)

    I was lucky enough to start in the D.C. bureau when it was near its apex, with an impressive body of scoops, keen analysis and enterprise reporting by Jack, Ron Ostrow, Dick Cooper, Bob Jackson, Gaylord Shaw, Norm Kempster, Jim Mann, Doyle McManus, Joel Havemann, David Savage, John Broder, and on and on. Even to a green 22-year-old, it was clear that Jack was the linchpin of the place and its moral compass.

  60. Cheryl Arvidson

    For all the wonderful words that have been written by admirers of Jack on his brilliant journalism career, his incredible skills, and his amazing value as a colleague, friend and mentor, I find nothing more moving than Jack’s own words, which appeared in The Washington Post obituary. In an interview as part of a Syracuse University oral history project in 2004, Jack said, “A reporter likes to pride himself on being as objective as he can, and . . . tell both sides of the story. Well, there’s hardly two sides to a story of a man being denied the basic right to vote. I mean, where do you get the other side? . . . There’s no two sides to a story of a lynching, a lynching is a lynching.”

    Rest easy, my friend.

  61. Kelly Nelson

    Jack Nelson was a lot of things… witty, charismatic, courageous, and ambitious, to name a few. Though we all know him for lots of things, not many of you know him as a Pop-Pop. So, in the expose style that made Jack Nelson a legendary American journalist, here he is, Jack Nelson: Pop-Pop.

    As early as I can remember we took family vacations to Hilton Head Island. We dragged Pop-Pop & his wife, Bar-Bar (our step-grandmother but would not a grandmother by any other name still be a grandmother?), every night down to the giant oak tree to watch Greg Russell perform. How many times we actually subjected Pop-Pop & Bar-Bar to songs like “Flying Purple People Eater” we may never know.

    I remember, too, that we would always eat seafood at the restaurant across from the big oak. It always blew me away that Pop-Pop would pull out his credit card and pay for the entire extended family’s meal. He must have been loaded, we were all convinced. It had to be because Pop-Pop was on television, though the show was called “Washington Week in Review” and not “The Pop-Pop Show” as Dad sometimes joked. Our Pop-Pop was famous and we were proud to grow up as Nelsons. We even visited the set of “Washington Week in Review” once. We thought we were hot stuff, so to speak, because we were hanging out in a real television studio & we were with him, Jack Nelson, superstar.

    The children in school never believed us that our Pop-Pop was famous because they had never heard of Jack Nelson. It was not until 7th grade that someone–my seventh grade English teacher– finally knew who the famous Jack Nelson was. Finally someone understood how important my Pop-Pop was!

    As we got older, we began to visit Pop-Pop and Bar-Bar at their home in Maryland instead of going to Hilton Head for vacation. At one particularly “interesting” time in my adolescence–I must have been 16 or 17—-we were invited to join Pop-Pop and Bar-Bar for a very prestigious event celebrating the retirement of the head of the U.S. Marine Corps Band. At the time of our invitation, I was sporting forest green hair. Out of respect for my adored grandparents, I bleached my hair so as not to arrive with a dark green coif. Two things happened… one, my hair was fried white with a subtle hint of green in certain light and two, my Pop-Pop and Bar-Bar told me that they would have just as gladly taken me with green hair as my own natural wheat straw color. I did not understand unconditional love until that moment.

    As for unconditional love, my dad once said that he couldn’t love me anymore if I was a Bill-O’Reilly-lover and voted Republican. Now that may not sound like the kindest thing in the world but it was just that, the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me! I realized that my dad knew something that my Pop-Pop knew, how to love without restriction or condition. This is not a characteristic commonly associated with Nelsons but I’ve only experienced this from three people in my life… Pop-Pop, Bar-Bar, and Dad. Coincidence? I’d like to think it is not.

    At the age of 19, I gave birth to Jack Nelson’s first great-grandchild, Kailey Nelson. The child of an unwed teenage mother, Kailey Nelson was lucky enough to keep Pop-Pop’s surname. At almost 11 years of age, Kailey has many fond memories of Pop-Pop from her lifetime.

    One memory that Kailey and I share is that of our last visit before Pop-Pop found out about the cancer. We visited the house in Maryland along with my sister, Lindsay, her daughter, Skyla, and our cousin, Kayla. Because there were so many of us, we went out one day in two separate cars. Pop-Pop, with Lindsay & Skyla in tow, was leading the way. For those of you who don’t know, Pop-Pop was a very “assertive” driver. (Insert your own stifled snickering here if you’ve ever ridden in the car with him.) Bar-Bar, a far more cautious driver, had a time trying to keep up. Lindsay was on her cell phone with Kayla, who was with us in Bar-Bar’s car. We were all laughing hysterically at the “Dammit!” this-and-that which Pop-Pop & Bar-Bar were exchanging whilst trying to agree on a driving style. It still makes me giggle and I suppose it always will.

    And of the many things that make me giggle, there are also those that will always bring tears. I will always miss the thick Mississippi drawl saying “Hello there, sweet girl!”, the “r”s coming as more of an “ah” than an “arr”. This was the standard Pop-Pop greeting whether in person or over the phone. If in person, this was always followed by a sweet Pop-Pop kiss on the cheek. These are things that cannot and will not be replaced.

    Before the cancer got Pop-Pop, though, there were a few things that I had to make sure he knew. First, I wanted him to know he was my hero. I wanted Bar-Bar to tell him because for me to tell him would be for me to acknowledge, at the time, that Pop-Pop was leaving. I wanted him to know, too, how much his unconditional love meant to me, which I was able to do in a birthday card.

    I could say more, but I do want the world to know that Jack Nelson was more than a civil rights hero, a great writer, and a celebrated leader. Jack Nelson may have hidden it from you but now he’s been exposed for who he truly was… Pop-Pop. And Pop-Pop, you will truly, truly be missed!

  62. Steve Clark

    I worked in Jack’s bureau from 1979-2000. Jack was a great boss, fine man and wonderful friend. The picture of him sitting at his Coyote terminal brings back a million memories and all the memories of Jack are good ones. Rest in peace.

  63. Hugh Trout

    I met Jack over 30 years ago through my former wife. We had many common interests and, fortunately for me, we became steadfast friends. In our early days of knowing one another Jack, as head of the LA Times Washington Bureau, gave many fabulous parties. Indeed, his wife Barbara quipped that Jack was the Sol Hurok of Washington journalism. I came to believe that Sol was lucky to be mentioned in the same breath as Jack.
    I was often invited to their parties and met many well-known and interesting people, a combination that I came to realize was not as common as I once imagined. Since I was a physician, Jack proclaimed that I would be the “bureau doctor” and would often suggest to members of his bureau as well as others that they consult me about their medical problems. Because I am a vascular surgeon and know little about most medical problems, my role evolved into one of trying to find the appropriate physician to help Jack’s friends and acquaintances. This arrangement seemed to work. People could accept or reject my advice without offending Jack and I would receive credit without having to provide the actual care. The benefit to me was enormous. I had the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the lives of some of Jack’s friends and I was able please Jack.
    Not long after we met, back in the 80’s, I had a small dinner party at our house and suggested that each of us predict the presidential nominee for each party as well as the eventual winner. When it was Jack’s turn his first sentence was: “I don’t know anything about politics.” That was an attention getter since nothing could have been further from the truth. He then followed with: “But I can tell you one thing for sure and that is that no former grade B Hollywood actor will ever be elected president of United States.” (this is a slightly sanitized version). Jack often used this anecdote to teach that in politics nothing is certain, as the last couple of years have clearly demonstrated.
    Jack loved to play tennis and we played frequently together. His strokes were unorthodox and he was as tenacious as a pit bull. After a long point he would often squat down as though he was completely exhausted. His opponent, however, would pay dearly for relaxing on the next point. Jack would unleash his outside-in forehand drive that, if it landed in the court, was virtually unreturnable. He would then saunter into position for the next point without any acknowledgement that once again he had suckered you.
    Jack liked to win. He would never ever cheat but it was not beneath him to manipulate the circumstances in order for him to be victorious. One winter, when we were vacationing in the Caribbean, Jack introduced me to a rum drink called a “Painkiller”. I drank two of them and Jack had three. He then proposed a tennis match. The courts were hot, the sun was blaring, the winds were gusting, and my ability to move was in question. My judgment, such as it was, was that Jack had had more to drink than I and that surely I would prevail, so I accepted the challenge. When Jack hit the ball to me, I remember how difficult it was to decide which of the three balls that were coming at me was the one that I should swing at. I also remember how carefully Jack kept score. It was 6-2, Jack’s favor. We played a lot of tennis but that was the score he most always cited.
    Over the years I began to reflect that in a town and a profession that pay attention to academic pedigree, Jack had little going for him. I further came to realize that he didn’t seem to care. Why was he so confident and successful when he had so little formal education or training? I think the answer lies in the fact that he had exceptional insight and extraordinary self awareness. I believe he early on recognized that he had an almost savant’s ability to remember the who, where, what, when, and hows that are central to good journalism and, in addition, he had an unimpeachable moral ethic. These two traits combined with tenacity and the love of his chosen profession made him essentially impregnable. He feared no one. Not crooks, racists, editors, owners, colleagues, Presidents or even heads of the FBI.
    His self awareness allowed him to resist promotion to more senior management positions. It wasn’t that he didn’t think he could do those jobs, it was simply that he believed his current job best suited his talents. Though he and I never talked about this, I have come to believe that Jack took his innate skills, added boundless optimism and enthusiasm and transformed his job into teacher-in-chief. He taught us all how to do our jobs better, how to improve our relations with others and to live a productive honest life. He also taught me not to drink and play tennis.
    Even when he was clearly dying he was teaching. During his final five day hospitalization, a month before he died at home, he was placed in a semiprivate room with a demented Polish patient who repeatedly proclaimed in a loud voice, “I vont a Russian woman”. When a private room finally became available after two interminable days and Jack was transferred to it he related his experience to the head nurse on the oncology’s floor. He was much bemused by her response “who doesn’t?” and frequently repeated the anecdote to his many visitors, thus teaching us that complaining about adverse circumstances that one cannot do anything about is futile and an amusing anecdote is much more interesting and palliative.
    Jack often invited me to the Gridiron Dinner and invariably sat me next to one of his most important guests. One year I was seated next to Edwin Moses who was in the midst of his 122 consecutive win streak in the 400 meter hurdles. I asked him where he trained and he replied that he mainly ran on the private golf courses in Los Angeles. I then asked him if they let him do that and he responded without a scintilla of arrogance, “who could catch me?” When reflecting back on Jack’s life, I realize this response characterized Jack completely. He was not catchable by mere mortals.
    Hugh Trout

  64. Henry Weinstein

    My first meeting with Jack was emblematic of the kind of person he was and it left a deep impression on me. I met Jack in the spring of 1977 at the second IRE national conference in Columbuus, Ohio. Jack already was a famous journalist with a Pulitzer and fame for his Watergate and civil rights reporting. I was a young reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. I had gone to the conference largely to raise money for a defense fund for Lowell Bergman and Raul Ramirez, who had been abandoned by the Examiner in a libel suit for stories they had written about a problematic murder prosecution. We were in the early stages of fund raising and looking for prominent supporters in the journalistic community. I found Jack and Bill Minor at a Chinese restaurant, explained what was happening and what was at stake. Jack and Bill agreed to sign a fund-raising letter which was sent out around the country. It was very important to have journalists of their to establish the credibililty of the campaign. After a long court battle, Bergman and Ramirez prevailed in the California Supreme Court. Bergman went on to work for 60 Minutes and the New York Times; Ramirez is now the news director of KQED, the public radio station in San Francisco. Their careers might have been crushed but for the assistance of people like Jack. The following year, I joined the Los Angeles Times and got to know Jack much better. My admiration for him continued to grow through the years. More than a year ago, Jack agreed to be one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit a group of current and former Times employees filed against Sam Zell stemming out of his acquisition of Tribune Co., which had acquired the Times several years earlier. Jack didn’t have to do that, but when I told him we might be able to do some good by filing the lawsuit, he readily agreed. Taking a stand just seemed natural for Jack. The world was blessed to have him for 80 years.

  65. Jordan M. Simmons, III

    I first learned of Jack Nelson in 1970 while serving in the Army on a firebase in Vietnam. At that time his book, “The Orangeburg Massacre”, co-authored with Jack Bass was just reviewed in Time Magazine. Since I was shot and almost killed by SC State Troopers who fired weapons into demonstrating students on the campus of S. C. State University just two years earlier, my interest in the book (which centered on the shootings) and its authors was stirred immensely. I wanted to know more about this Southern white man who, in my mind, risked his life as a reporter writing about civil rights of African-Americans in the South. After retiring from the military, I finally got an opportunity to meet Jack Nelson here in Washington, DC. He invited me over for lunch and I was moved by his graciousness and grasp of history of the Civil Rights movement. I overstayed my parking meter time and got a ticket, which I gladly paid. Just prior to Jack’s illness, he invited me over to speak to his journalism students at the University of Maryland. He wanted them to hear first-hard about my experiences growing up in the South and my recollection of February 8, 1968 in Orangeburg. After class, Jack and I walked together across the campus back to our cars, and I could not help but think to myself, “what a fine individual”. Here was a person who was committed to not only writing facts with a passion during his early career, he was still at it, instilling in future journalists not to be afraid to write truthfully. I truly believe that Jack Nelson’s contribution to improvement of the civil rights of all citizens of our country is most difficult to measure.

  66. Sue Ducat

    I first met Jack in 1981 when I first joined the staff of Washington Week in Review.

    While I have many memories of Jack, one stands out above all others: Jack once saved my marriage.

    Less than three weeks after getting married, Stan and I travelled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. The night before, on the se of Washington Week, Jack had asked me where we’d be staying. When I told him PBS staff had been assigned to the Days Inn at Farmers’ Market, Jack’s eyebrows arched in amusement. “Well, Sue, if there’s anything I can do for you while you’re there, please call, OK?”

    When Stan and I checked into our hotel room, the air conditioner was broken, and the bed looked as if an army had walked across it. My new husband looked at me. “My dear,” he said, “I’m going home.” I picked up the phone. “Jack, I need your help,” I said. “I thought you’d be calling me,” Jack replied. “Let me see what I can do. Three hours later, Stan and I checked into the Ritz Carlton. Thanks to Jack, we enjoyed a second honeymoon.

    That same year, Jack helped find the funding for a documentary about the journalists who covered the civil rights movement. It grew out of a conference, held the year before at the University of Mississippi, which Jack helped organize. He invited me to cover it. Over dinner one night he suggested I make a documentary about the conference. “Great idea, Jack — but PBS doesn’t have the money,” I replied. “You leave that to me,” he said. And once again, he came through. I’m glad that today’s service included a couple of clips from that program.

    Jack instilled in me a love of going after a news story, and not letting go till you had all the facts. If you were doing all this on deadline, even better.
    Those lessons, and his many kindnesses to me over the years, remain in my mind. I feel blessed to have known him.

  67. I’ve always liked Jack Nelson. I guess it’s because we are of a kindred spirit… namely that our investigative reporting is motivated by our love of truth and concomitant inclination to use truth to remedy cultural ills and maladies afflicting the body politic. Long live the Divinely truthful Spirit of Jack Nelson!

  68. From The Rural Blog

    It’s difficult to imagine a journalist being praised more broadly and deeply than Jack Nelson, who died last month, was praised today at a memorial service in his adopted hometown of Washington. As his former deputy at the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau, Dick Cooper, noted, “Many journalists have exposed serious wrongdoing and gotten something done about it,” but fewer have revealed outrages like the Orangeburg, S.C., massacre, even fewer have “earned the trust of millions of television viewers” like Jack did on “Washington Week in Review” and very few have “built news bureaus that were to Washington what the Yankees are to baseball,” always in contention and often on top. “I’m not sure anyone but Jack did all those things. Not many came close.”

    And to that list of accomplishments add: the leading supporter of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (which his family has designated as recipient of memorial gifts), a pugnacious son of the rural South who took on its racism, and a great friend, evidenced by the same qualities that made him a great reporter, Energy Department official Skila Harris said: “his drive, his passion, his hard-headedness, his soft heart.”

    (For the rest, see

  69. Joyce Beattie

    Jack hired me in the winter of 1987 to cover Carolyn Shield’s desk after she resumed working fulltime for Jody Powell. My first transcription was the breakfast coverage of Arizona Governor Bruce Babbit as he prepared himself for a 1988 Democratic presidential bid. These breakfasts were a great opportunity for me to meet a variety of Washington personalities I knew from television and print stories about their lives and ambitions. Jack treated them all with equanimity, respect and courtesy. He had a real talent for putting people at ease. Though it’s hard to imagine now, Dick Cheney came to an event hosted by the L.A. Times. Jack’s leadership style made the bureau a special place to work; everyone wanted to give their best and they did. It was a privilege to work for him.

  70. Jube Shiver, jr.

    Shortly after I joined the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau in 1993, Jack and his wife Barbara accepted an invitation to my house warming party. After an hour or so I noticed I hadn’t seen Jack and Barbara. I thought they had left until I discovered Jack outside in the yard with my father, who was recounting how he had built his own home, a second home that I now occupied, as well as houses for dozens of other middle class black families unable to get mortgages loans in Northern Virginia in the early 1960s. “Your dad was telling me about how he built this community,” Jack said after I caught up with him. “He’s an amazing guy.” The impact was apparently mutual because when I told my father I was on my way to see Jack after he was discharged from hospice care in October 2009, my 86-year-old father, who now has dementia–said, “isn’t that your old boss from the LA Times.” I recounted this to Jack when I last saw him in October, telling Jack, “most days my father can’t remember what happened last week much less last year. The fact that he remembered you after that single meeting says a lot.” There are a good number of great journalists. And Jack, no doubt, is among them. But among those who are both great people and great journalists, Jack is virtually, non pareil.

  71. Belatedly, goodbye, Jack. I learned only today that we had lost you. The world is the lesser for it. In large part, I am what I am because of you.

    In the spring of 1961, the then managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Bill Fields, came to the University of Florida School of Journalism on a recruiting mission. As managing editor of the student newspaper, I was only one among a parade of seniors he interviewed that afternoon. Within a few weeks the offer came in: $65 a week, an additional $5 a week if I agreed to work the night shift.

    I also had offers from The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel, for more money. My mentor/journalism professor, the legendary (in Florida) H.G. “Buddy” Davis, didn’t hesitate: “Take the Atlanta job,” he said. “They win Pulitzer Prizes every year. They have Ralph McGill, probably the greatest journalist the South has ever seen. Martin Luther King has just moved back there from Alabama. All the action of the 1960s will be there.” In my memory (perhaps it’s only in my imagination), Buddy took a deep breath and said, “And they have Jack Nelson.”

    I went to Atlanta. Soon after I arrived in the newsroom, in the summer of 1961, I was asked by Fields what I aspired to. “I want Jack Nelson’s job,” I said, as though shaking my fist at God, not understanding the dimensions of my challenge.

    So I started to watch this guy, Jack Nelson, as he worked. I don’t think he ever knew I was watching. Others remember the great public events of his career, the punch from the Milledgeville doctor, the headlines he made, his incredible investigative digging, his dogged pursuit of racists and racism. What I remember most vividly is Jack sitting at his desk in front of an enormous stack of very intimidating paper, reports, data. He would dig through that stuff like a child digging through a room full of horse manure looking for the horse that must be there. And Jack always found his horse.

    He went to Harvard on his Nieman Fellowship a year after I arrived. I continued to do the run-of-the-mill stories that rookies are handed. And when he returned from his year at Harvard, I continued to watch Jack, digging through his mountains of paper. I can’t do that, I kept telling myself. You have to if you want to be like him, my self kept answering.

    Well, I’m here to tell you that when Jack moved on to the Los Angeles Times, I slid over to his desk and, not too long after, found myself being assumed as his successor, if only for a few years. Very soon after that, he went to Selma to cover that fateful march. I was among the reporters in the Constitution newsroom demanding to know why we were not there, why we were only using AP wire copy to cover the most important civil rights story of the day.

    Eventually, I think, I made my mark. And while I think I can attack a typewriter (a computer keyboard these days) with the ferocity and speed of a Jack Nelson, I could never manage to plunge into a haystack of data and come out with the stories he could. My work was more undercover, pretending to be someone else and then slipping out to do my reportage of what I’d seen, be it in the Atlanta City Prison, on Skid Row, in gay bars, or tracking police harassment or outright brutality against prostitutes and gays. I won my share of awards for all this — including nominations for both a Pulitzer and a Nieman — but never won either big prize. Jack won both, and thereby proved himself the far superior investigative reporter.

    But I learned many things from watching Jack. Tell it like it is, no matter the cost, no matter whom it hurts. Write it clear, write it loud, don’t back down. Okay, so I couldn’t dig a story out of a mountain of paper. But I could stay with the facts until the story was revealed. And that I learned from Jack, just by watching his doggedness in action.

    When journalism lost Jack, it lost an anchor in reality. It’s now a cliché: Journalism isn’t what it used to be. Jack was of the day when news was news, not opinion. I left news at the end of my Atlanta sojourn in 1969 because I wanted to engage the issues of the day, not just report them. I’ve never regretted that. But it was because I watched Jack, and aspired to be like him, that I came to understand those issues more profoundly than I could have ever learned any other way.

    Thank you, Jack.

  72. Kerry Luft

    I met Mr. Nelson only once. But I will never forget it.

    To start at the beginning: When I was in college at Northwestern University, there was one internship every student wanted – the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. We knew that the LAT bureau was a world class news operation that could slug it out with anybody on any given day, and win its fair share. More importantly, though, we knew that LAT interns got to write stories and weren’t just go-fers for the fulltime staff.

    My motivation was a little more personal. I wanted to work for Jack Nelson.

    I knew that he was the finest of reporters, but I also knew that he was from Biloxi, not far from the town where my own family spent our summer vacations. I admired his work – he was the man who beat Woodward and Bernstein on some of the best Watergate stories! – and I also figured that as a Southerner, he’d be a pretty nice guy.

    I didn’t get the internship. Instead I wound up at the Chicago Tribune, and nearly 20 years after my disappointment I found myself in Los Angeles at the 2000 Democratic convention as a Tribune editor. The last night of the convention also was my birthday, and my boss decided to buy me a few drinks at the hotel to celebrate.

    That was special enough, but what made the evening unforgettable is that sometime around 10, Mr. Nelson walked into the hotel lobby with Dick Cooper. My boss, who knew them both, waved them over and for the next hour or so I sat spellbound as this wonderful man reminisced about Biloxi, boxing against Bay High School in Bay St. Louis, and a life in journalism. I am afraid I contributed very little to the conversation, because I was slack-jawed, pop-eyed and downright enthralled.

    It is awfully nice to meet your heroes. It is even nicer when they turn out to be everything you dreamed they would be.

  73. Mike nelson

    To those responsible for producing and all who attended my father’s memorial, I would like thank you all. Words can’t do justice to describe my experience with Dad his final days. Just know, he enjoyed his 80 years and10 days. He remained himself to the end. For that I am especially thankful. I enjoyed friends and neighbors helping the family andkeeping our patient ‘s spirits up. We really mean that.

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