By Tom Baxter
I had the honor of being among the last people to call Dick Pettys a colleague. He’d left the Associated Press to become editor of InsiderAdvantage Georgia a couple of years before I left the AJC to become editor of its sister site, the Southern Political Report. We were two old print guys who had found our way to the other side of the digital divide.
When Dick finally made good on his promise to move up to his dream place in the mountains a few years later, I took over InsiderAdvantage Georgia for a while. Even in his self-designated retirement, Dick – who had settled with his wife Stephanie in a small apartment in Habersham County waiting for that dream place to get built – would monitor the streaming video of the legislative session and cover what I couldn’t get to. From a distance of a hundred miles or more, he was still the sharpest observer of what was going on.
But before all that, and before all the years when I knew him as the Capitol’s main AP guy, Dick was the Scout master for a troop which included my stepson, Josh. Although the requested attire for men at Sunday’s visitation service was blue blazers and khaki pants, in memory of his customary dress at the Capitol, it’s that Scout uniform I’ll always remember him in.
All the accolades about how fair and balanced and dedicated he was as the “dean” of Georgia legislative reporters are true, but they really don’t click into line and describe the man as he truly was until you picture him in that uniform. He just wore the blazer and the khakis to call the least attention to who he really was: a true straight arrow in a building filled with crookedness.
There’s no telling how much money Dick Pettys saved the state over the years, but it would be enough to erect a state building in his honor. He did this not with any brilliant investigative stories, but by showing up in a lot of places and watching, by reading bills and asking about the fuzzy particulars, by remembering the tricks people tried to pull long enough to call them out when they tried to pull the same tricks again a few years later.
Simple things, you might say, but all manner of mischief can be uprooted by the patient repetition of those simple things. Sometimes all it takes is one set of eyeballs or one question to thwart a naked grab for money or power. That makes it all the more disturbing that there are fewer eyes watching government these days, and fewer mouths to ask the questions.
Dick grew up in an Atlanta where cows still grazed where Ansley Mall is now. He never spoke about much of that with me, but it seemed to me he possessed both an insider’s and an outsider’s eye, intimately familiar with the way things worked but distant enough to see when it wasn’t working right.
Ambling through the Capitol halls amid all the backslappers, chewing on his Nicorette in measured bites, he often looked like a worried man. From his point of view there was a lot to worry about. I think he came from a moral perspective that he always kept but never imposed. He didn’t expect the world – as reflected by the clamorous, all-too-human throng he reported on — to get much better, but he was resigned to make of it what he could.
The even-handedness of which so much has been said in the past week was evidenced by the presence Sunday of many of those he wrote about over the years, including U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and former Gov. Roy Barnes. (A funeral mass will be held 3 p.m. Tuesday at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Cleveland, Ga.)
Anyone aspiring to a similar reputation should note that Dick’s even-handedness was accomplished without the erasure of his personal opinions. There were some politicians for whom he had a genuine affection, but there were others he simply loathed. He held both to the same standard, and you would be hard put to figure out from reading his copy which was which.
In his interview with Bob Short for the Reflections on Georgia Politics Oral History Series, he’s generous toward those he covered, remarking more than once on how some past governor “didn’t get the credit he deserves.”
“I was privileged to watch some pretty good folks deal with some pretty hairy problems,” he said.
It was the rest of us, really, who were privileged to know him.