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A Lion in Winter

Marvin Edwards, Muckraker Emeritus

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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attack on Pearl Harbor, an occasion commemorated by the late, great Marvin R. Edwards in “Eternal Vigilance or Eternal Sleep,” his final Folio Weekly article. He was 20 years old when the bombs fell in Hawaii, and like most young men of his generation, the implications for his life were immediately apparent. Before the war, he’d been living in New York, born in Manhattan on June 29, 1921, a Cancer from the Year of the Rooster sent to the front lines of the American Century. Within a few years, he’d be fighting the war personally, dropping bombs on the Germans and breaking bread with the French Resistance.

A little more than a year after he wrote that article, Edwards was gone, at the age of 96. He died at home in Jacksonville, a city in whose politics and culture he played a key role shaping since moving here more than 70 years ago. The memorial service was held at a packed Temple Ahavath Chesed on Feb. 16. Frank Sinatra’s classic rendition of “The Impossible Dream” could be heard at the conclusion of the service, which included stories about the uniquely American life Marvin led, and the undeniable influence he had on this community.

Nowhere was his influence felt more acutely than here at Folio Weekly, where he spent almost two decades as one of the last great muckrakers, becoming in the process an animating force behind the scenes and a mentor to two generations of our reporters, including me.

After serving in World War II, then starting businesses and a family, Edwards turned his eye toward more quotidian concerns: the ins and out of political life. With a keen eye for detail and an extreme facility with the numbers, he took the I.F. Stone approach to data, and used the system’s own research to make his case. He was thus an irritant to three generations of local leaders, most of whom held him in very high regard nonetheless and often took his critiques under advisement.

It’s no surprise that the thoroughness Edwards applied to his work also applied to his personal life. “He was very principled,” says his son Jeff, holding forth on his father’s decades of activism while seated in a conference room at Beaver Street Fisheries.

“His father, my grandfather, was a mechanical engineer,” Jeff says, “and he went to work ultimately for a company called National Container Corporation, [which] manufactured the paper used in corrugated boxes, what they call ‘kraft paper.’ He was sent down here as a vice-president to build a boxboard plant on Tallyrand Avenue, which was recently torn down, and a paper mill in Valdosta, which is still there. The family moved down here in 1940; Dad would’ve been about 19 years old.”

Edwards soon went back up North for college, but he left there to serve his country, returning to finish his formal education after the war was won. He then returned to Florida for a cup of coffee in the family business. “When he came back, he settled in Jacksonville. My father, with a partner, started a company called Holly-Edwards Sales, and they went into the industrial supply business.” That didn’t last long—not because he wasn’t good at it, but because it wasn’t his nature to be part of a company. “He was more of an independent person,” Jeff says, “as opposed to playing with a team; he wasn’t a corporate animal. So he sold that business to my uncle, who had it for decades afterwards and was very successful at it; he was a natural-born salesman, so that fit him perfectly.”

“What Dad really loved was being an investment advisor, and advising people on stocks. So he started that business out of his house, and he did it for probably 60 years or better. He had a terrific track record. He didn’t promote himself a lot; he relied on his clients to refer people to him. He was very successful; he could’ve probably been more successful if he’d been more of a salesman, but that wasn’t his nature. He still did fine, and he had his independence to speak his mind, and that’s what he did.”

Edwards’ career as an activist began in the 1950s, when he worked with the Anti-Defamation League to expose KKK activity in this region. The pushback was immediate. “He did have people calling and threatening to burn a cross in his yard, because of his support for integration, equal rights and so forth,” Jeff says. From there, he focused on trying to improve public schools in Northeast Florida, which were then in a state of disrepair that was the stuff of legend.

“In the 1950s, even before I was born, he realized that the quality of the schools here was deficient,” Jeff says, “and he realized that the city was under-investing in the schools. The buildings were old, they were decrepit, and the conditions were bad. So he started fighting for better schools.” Once again, pushback was immediate, and severe.

“One of the things he ran into was that nobody wanted to hear it. The business community didn’t listen, elected officials didn’t listen, civic leaders didn’t listen. Over the course of time, he was involved with three to five different organizations that fought for better schools, and they ultimately said, ‘If you don’t start investing in these schools, you’re going to lose your accreditation,’ which was done by an independent party that came in and audited the quality of the schools.” And that’s exactly what ended up happening, in 1964.

It was the first time in U.S. history that an entire school system was discredited.

“It was actually a good thing, because it took that to get the attention of the community. So it took several years, but over time, they had it worked out to reaccredit the schools, but it had to be done one school at a time; every school had to prove itself. What they found out was that it was almost impossible to get into a college if you graduated from a disaccredited high school,” Jeff says. Edwards also played a key role in changing the way state dollars were allocated to local schools; the new scheme split the funds evenly among the schools, based on the number of students in the district.

Much of Edwards’ motivation on that issue drew from being a father himself. He sent his kids to The Bolles School, but they later transferred to Wolfson High School. “He wasn’t made of money,” Jeff says. “I mean, he did all right, but it was a sacrifice to send us to Bolles, a sacrifice to send us to college. But he believed the most important thing he could do was get his kids a good education. He used to always say, ‘They can take everything away from you, in terms of possessions, but they can’t take away your mind.’”

Edwards’ penchant for hoarding data created an invaluable resource for the students living in his house, as well as their friends in the neighborhood. “He had a library at home—mostly nonfiction, between three and four thousand books. We rarely had to go to the public library; whatever he wanted, he had a book on it. He had the Golden Encyclopedia, the World Book and the Encyclopedia Britannica. He subscribed to dozens of periodicals. We got the Times-Union, we got the Wall Street Journal, we got The Washington Post, we got The New York Times. The out-of-town papers, we got a day late. Newsweek, Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, Scientific American—I can’t even remember them all. In those days, before the internet, you actually had time to read them all.”

As the Consolidation era began in earnest, Edwards found himself faced with a seemingly endless array of topics worthy of his talents. “Once all the kids graduated and got out of the public schools,” Jeff says, “he moved on to other projects.” Blount Island, the Dames Point Bridge, the Skyway Express, The Riverwalk and the Shipyards—Edwards played a key role in muckraking on all these projects, and several others.

“A lot of times, reporters would be working on a story, and they’d call him about it, because they knew he had an opinion. They’d come to his house and use his files for their research.” One of those reporters was Steve Kroft, who went on to global fame as part of the legendary 60 Minutes investigative team on CBS. Another was Tom Wills, then a new reporter at WJXT, who eventually became the dean of Florida’s news anchors. Wills was among the many local luminaries who attended the funeral, and he has fond memories of those early dealings with Marvin Edwards.

“It was at his home,” he says, “and it was during the raging debate over building the Dames Point Bridge, which Marvin had a lot of questions about. I reached out to him for an interview based on previous statements he had made challenging the wisdom of the bridge project.” That was the start of a friendship that lasted more than 40 years. “I knew from the first time I met him I was in the presence of someone who was way smarter than I would ever be,” he adds, “and I’d better pay close attention to the things he had to say. I also knew if I did not get the story right, I’d be hearing from him.”

Edwards was a steady ally for would-be civic gadflies, with vast institutional knowledge of local affairs and a seemingly endless supply of materials from which to draw upon. “He was a critic who had thoroughly done his homework,” says Wills. “I still haven’t ever met anyone else who had as many relevant newspaper clippings on a subject as he always had.”

 

was just 21, a baby in this business, when then-editor Bob Snell first tasked me with writing my column, “Money Jungle,” which ran from 1999 to 2009. It was an honor, but also a challenge, an undertaking made all the more daunting by the knowledge that it often shared the fold with Edwards’ own “Paper Trail” column—a high-profile spot next to a guy who was already a local legend. Snell took me with him several times to personally collect columns from Edwards’ home, where the venerable crusader banged out copy on an old electric typewriter in a room filled with books and memorabilia. He had a modest, professorial style, kind eyes that had seen everything—including some things he may have preferred to forget. The education was, in a word, invaluable.

Variants on that story have poured in from far and wide since he took leave of this dimension a few months ago. In many ways, Edwards was the animating spirit for a publication fighting to find its own groove, and his work helped elevate “the Folio” to a sustained creative plateau that has lasted for years. He lived long enough to see that swagger resurgent under its current editor, the intrepid Claire Goforth, who edited his final article in 2017.

“My first experiences with Marvin were when I was a reporter for Folio Weekly,” says Anne Schindler, who now leads the investigative team at First Coast News; she was the magazine’s editor from 2002 to 2012. “He was a fascinating guy. His big contribution was his sort of archival knowledge of Jacksonville history, and his clippings collection, which I was always particularly curious about.” An apt comparison would be to the late I.F. Stone (1907-1989), who used similar methods while running his own paper in post-war Washington, D.C. Schindler continues, “When I would go to his house, he would pull out these piles and piles of newspaper clippings with perfectly ruled underlines all over them. He was diligent, to say the least.”

He began writing freelance articles for Folio Weekly, in the 1990s, and he’d begun his own weekly column, “Paper Trail,” by the time Schindler took over. “A lot of it was him lobbing bombs at city government and people who were greasing the wheels of the political machine. He knew them from way back, so he was able to basically predict everything that they were going to do,” she recalls. Frequent targets of his invective were JEA, then-mayor John Delaney and his team and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were the subject of Edwards’ first cover story in October 1997.

“Dad always approached politicians with some skepticism,” Jeff says. “He understood how the system worked.” Still, Marvin managed to maintain a good relationship with the franchise, making him a bridge of sorts between generations of city leaders. “They didn’t always agree with his conclusions,” Jeff says, “but no one questioned his facts.”

The county courthouse, initially estimated at a construction cost of $190 million, stoked his ire like few things ever did; he was prescient in labeling it as a boondoggle very early in the process. “In all likelihood, the $232 million figure is just a warm-up,” he wrote in September 2003. “The project is designed and underway, the competition is over. City officials involved in the selection process brazenly violated their own rules and millions of dollars hang in the balance, but there is no turning back.” As usual, he was right; the courthouse eventually opened on June 18, 2012, at a final cost of $350 million.

Toward the end of his life, the ordinarily reticent Edwards began to open up a bit about his service in World War II. He began with the Air Force, reporting to Moody AFB in Valdosta, Georgia in April 1943. He then went to Biloxi, then Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Montgomery, Alabama. At that point, he decided to be a navigator; he trained in Nashville and Monroe, Louisiana before joining the 492nd Bomber Group in Harrington, England. He became part of the Allied troops in March 1944, just three months before D-Day; he and his unit would play a key role in the liberation of occupied France.

He elaborated on these years in detail in his book Now It Can Be Told: Tales of the OSS, co-written with former Folio Weekly reporter Susan D. Brandenburg and published just in time for the group’s 75th anniversary in 2017. The book includes essays Edwards wrote while still a student at New York University, as well as polemics penned for various military papers in the field. “During my entire stay in Europe,” he wrote, “I only used celestial navigation once, and that was when the radar installation on the B-24 failed while over Germany, and I had to get a fix on the stars to find our way back to England.” With his usual eye for detail, Edwards tells vivid stories of his experiences on the front lines and in the skies above the European Theatre of Operations.

He eventually fell in with the legendary Office for Strategic Services, a military intelligence operation that was the forerunner to the CIA. “I suppose I can call myself ‘The Accidental Intelligence Officer,’” he wrote, “but that OSS assignment was a life-changer for me. … It was a big responsibility and an honor to be part of such a team. I learned quickly that there is nothing quite so exhilarating as surviving a mission and knowing that the goal was accomplished.” His efforts were recognized at the highest levels of multiple governments; he received the French Legion of Honor in 2013 and his unit received a Congressional Gold Medal shortly before his death.

Edwards spent his final years as active as ever, paced by brisk walks taken daily down Hendricks Avenue and colored with classic jazz from the ’30s and ’40s. He remained an information junkie right until the end, taking full advantage of his cable package. As his life’s culmination drew near, he was in hospice care, but even then he made sure that Helene, the love of his life, his wife of more than six decades, still got a gift and a card on her birthday—just a month before he died on Feb. 10. True to form, as a hybrid of the old school and the new, his last moments were spent listening to King of Swing, clarinetist Benny Goodman—on an iPad.

Edwards’ passing was noted with the requisite solemnity; it was the end of an era in local history as much as the loss of an old-school broadcaster or political leader. “The world at large has lost a hero,” wrote our own Senior Editor Marlene Dryden in these pages that week, “and the city of Jacksonville has lost its conscience, that little voice inside that lets us know when we’re wrong. We should take up the fallen standard and add our voices to the cause of right over might, to honor Marvin Edwards.” Edwards’ daughter Carolyn quoted Dryden’s homage at her father’s funeral.

Edwards took his leave at a time when the nation’s political tensions are at a generational high point, both locally and nationally; his son appreciates how valuable his voice would be right now. “This is how people like Hitler came to power,” he says. “Too many people keep their mouths shut. They see it, they know it’s wrong, but they don’t do anything about it. They want to be everybody’s friend. We see it in this country today. There are a lot of things that aren’t ethical, they aren’t right, and people are sitting on their hands. It’s dangerous, and a lot of people in this country are worried about it.”

The loss of Marvin Edwards hit this magazine particularly hard because he was a crucial component in making us what we are today. “Dad was outspoken, and his kids are outspoken,” says Douglas, his youngest son. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” The same is true for his many adopted “kids” in local media, all of whom owe Mr. Edwards a substantial debt, whether they met him in person or not. As we move forward without him, we strive every day to continue doing the kind of work that he would like us to do. We know no other way, because that’s how he taught us to do it. Rest in peace, sir, and thanks for everything.

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Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that Marvin Edwards was a Gemini.

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