January 30, 2016 8:23:52 PM
The heft of the gold felt good in the palm. A smooth, super-size coin was passed from person to person. It was the Pulitzer Prize. A real one.
It is certainly the first one I've seen up close and personal, if you don't count Hank Williams' posthumous Pulitzer that I think I saw in Nashville. So I probably held the show-and-tell trophy a little too long when it came my turn.
Veteran editor Stan Tiner brought the prize to share with the audience. His former newspaper, The Sun Herald, won it in 2006 for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. "It belongs to you, too," he generously told a group gathered at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.
"We never talked one time about the Pulitzer Prize," Tiner said, describing the weeks of tough work immediately following Katrina. When the big prize came anyway, the staff celebrated with sweet tea and cookies before quickly going back to the job of covering the storm-ravaged coast.
You somehow can see those long weeks and months in Tiner's eyes. It changed him. Same as it changed everyone who was here in August of 2005.
"Katrina became the story of our lives," he said, making a profound if simple statement. With one satellite phone and a borrowed press in another town, he made sure the paper never missed a day publishing.
"Often people rise when thrust into a situation," Tiner said.
In a celebration of the 100th year of the Pulitzer, a panel of journalists and a "rock star" poet, Gulfport native Natasha Tretheway, pondered its power. Charles Overby, who led the Jackson newspapers to gold in 1983 for coverage of education reform, was moderator.
Charlie Mitchell, now a University of Mississippi journalism professor, described the "mystical and affirming power" of seeing a newspaper printed immediately after any natural disaster. His former paper, the Vicksburg Post, won the 1954 Prize for its coverage of a deadly tornado, using rain water from gutters to process film.
His only claim to that Prize, Mitchell quipped, "was being born six months later." Decades later when he was an editor in Vicksburg, "it was rarely mentioned, but you knew it was there."
Not all Pulitzers go to newspapers, of course. Already a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Tretheway first thought she would not write about a post-Katrina Mississippi coast, her home. Then, she said, her "silence spoke too loud," and the book "Beyond Katrina" was born. It dealt with her own family's ordeals, including a grandmother who died before she could make her way back home and a brother who landed in prison on drug charges.
I had read much of the post-Katrina coverage and was impressed. But hearing about the daily obstacles left me in awe.
Reporters were carefully allotted only enough of the newspaper's precious gasoline to get to a story location and home again. Editors, ad sales staff, reporters -- all of them delivered the newspapers, distributed for free. Circulation doubled in the weeks after the storm. A tough job, producing a newspaper, on the most normal day. A logistical battlefield after Katrina.
Mitchell said it succinctly, newsman that he is, underscoring the point made by all about the power of Pulitzer Prizes: "It's about keeping faith in the trust that people have in us ..."
The rest is just sweet tea and cookies.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected]
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