Gov. Lester Maddox, nearing the end of his term when Pettys began working for The AP at the state Capitol in 1970, called him “the long-haired devil” but continued to keep in touch with Pettys by phone long after he left office. To the statehouse press corps, Pettys became known as “the dean,” who over the course of 35 years developed a vast institutional memory and a knack for mentoring newcomers.
Pettys, 66, died Monday at his north Georgia home outside of Clarkesville. His son, Richard R. Pettys Jr., said he suffered a massive heart attack.
“He was an excellent reporter who got the facts right and wrote it well,” former Sen. Zell Miller, who knew Pettys for decades, said Tuesday. “I’m really sorry he’s gone because he had a lot of Georgia history in his head and I kept hoping he would write a book. I had tremendous respect for him.”
When Jimmy Carter ran for the White House in 1976, The AP assigned Pettys to travel with his campaign. His news stories helped introduce Americans to the peanut farmer who would become president. Decades later, in November 2002, Pettys was breaking the news that Georgians had elected Sonny Perdue their first Republican governor in more than 130 years.
Pettys retired from The AP in 2005 but spent several more years writing on Georgia politics for the Web site InsiderAdvantage Georgia.
“For years, Dick was every Georgian’s eyes and ears on the state budget and those who controlled it,” said Maryann Mrowca, the AP’s assistant bureau chief for the South Atlantic Region. “Even when politicians did not like what he reported, they knew he was fair, accurate and kept the same eagle eye on all in power to make sure they were held accountable for their actions and inactions.”
An insider with a reputation for evenhanded reporting, Pettys had the ear of everyone from governors and House speakers to low-level clerks and was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Tuesday he admired Pettys for upholding “the highest standards of reporting and excellence.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes said he learned early in his political career to always shoot straight with Pettys, and to return his phone calls. Barnes recalled receiving a teasing message from the reporter, who had become impatient waiting for a comment from the governor’s press office.
“He sent me an e-mail and says, ‘I need to talk to you. Do you want me to just make up what you’re going to say or do you want to talk to me?’ ” Barnes said. “I picked up the phone and said, ‘I’d rather you hear it from me.’ He would never do that. But he was just telling me how frustrated he was.”
Bill Shipp, a longtime political columnist and a Georgia journalism institution in his own right, knew Pettys from the beginning of his career covering politics.
“Dick over the years set the standard for the rest of us as a down-the-middle reporter who knew how to bring the news to everyone in a clear, concise and unbiased manner,” Shipp said. “He was the best there is.”
Michael Giarrusso, AP bureau chief for Arizona and New Mexico, worked with Pettys at the statehouse in the early 1990s.
“He taught me so much in the time I spent covering the Georgia Legislature,” Giarrusso said. “Never compromise your ethics or morals to get a story. ... Never back down to bullies, even if they are in high office. Don’t dare show bias in anything you do. And it was OK to have fun.”
Sonya Ross, the AP’s Race and Ethnicity editor, covered the Georgia Legislature from 1989 to 1992 with Pettys.
“Dick was a golden person, and he was always just so respectful and so good,” she said. “I’m just really shocked. I learned so much about politics just being around him.”
Aaron Gould Sheinin of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Capitol bureau recalled the Georgia Senate honoring Pettys upon his retirement from the AP. The chamber allowed him to speak from the rostrum.
“First time that had happened,” Sheinin said of such treatment for a reporter. “We joked and called him ‘The senator from the 57th,’” a play on how the senators – who hail from 56 districts around the state – address one another on the floor.
Over the years, Pettys butted heads with many of those he covered. His son recalled hearing of one instance when Pettys revealed and disrupted a legislative plan to carve out a sweetheart congressional district for then-state Rep. Sam Nunn.
“In the rotunda of the Capitol, Sam Nunn comes up to dad and sticks his finger out at dad and says, ‘You have nullified me.’”
Yet Nunn and other leaders knew they would get fair treatment from Pettys, the son said.
“He prided himself on being fair and balanced before fair and balanced was cool,” he said.