Whoever said “Never meet your idols” must not have met Ron Littlepage.
Fans of the legendary journalist who retired from The Florida Times-Union last month after 39 years with the paper, 28 as a columnist, will miss the crisp staccato that years in the newspaper business gave his writing, the thoughtful inflection of his sentences, the sharpness of his rebukes. Even Littlepage’s critics have derived pleasure from his work, albeit some of them from insulting his intelligence, opinions and common sense. (And his beard, of course.)
Many local politicians will miss him very little … until one of their enemies misbehaves. Then they, too, will long for the voice of Ron Littlepage to come crackling from of the page like shots from a firing squad.
In print, he is a giant. His prose on the environment, government spending, justice, downtown development, humanity, boiled peanuts and fish camps so captures the essence of this time and this place as to encapsulate it for
In person, he is unassuming, soft-spoken, quick to laugh and quicker to think. Two days after Christmas, he arrives for a lunchtime interview at Palms Fish Camp in a ballcap, red flannel shirt and good mood. Though it’s a Wednesday and a grey, chilly one at that, the restaurant is filled with smiling faces, cheerful conversation infusing warmth over the pleasant wafts of cracker cooking.
As he shares snippets of wisdom, experience, anecdotes and a secret or two over a red snapper sandwich and salad, Littlepage has no idea he’s being named Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year. Unable to resist the small gift of a big surprise, a fan decided to let him find out in much the same way his column’s subjects learned their fate at the end of his pen: by reading it in print.
Born Ronald L. Littlepage in January 1948, he spent his formative years in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his parents owned an eyeglass- and lens-making company. His were pious intents after high school; he told his former T-U colleague Matt Soergel last month that he’d intended to become a minister until “I discovered beer and women” while attending Baylor University. After graduating with a degree in English and minor in journalism, he did a brief turn in law school before deciding that wasn’t a good fit, either.
He then took to a Volkswagen camper and joined many of his generation searching for something—truth, meaning, adventure, fun—on the winding roads of America. Littlepage had always loved writing and wanted to be a writer—though he says that he doesn’t have the talent to write fictional novels—but at the time, he wasn’t sure what direction his life would take beyond the next state line. When the phone rang during a visit home in 1970 and a journalism professor from Baylor asked if he’d like to work for UPI in Houston, he said ‘yes.’
It wasn’t a completely unprecedented decision; after all, he has ink in his blood—his grandfather had been a police reporter in San Antonio. “I always had admiration for what he did,” he says. Still, if the stars hadn’t lined up, it’s anyone’s guess what might have become of Ron Littlepage. “If I hadn’t been in Corpus Christi that day and gotten that phone call, it might all have been different,” he says.
Like many journalists, Littlepage learned the trade on the job with copy editors, the AP Stylebook, mistakes and veteran reporters and editors as his guides. Eight years later, he got another call, this time from his first boss at UPI, Darrell Mack, who by then was working for the T-U, asking if he wanted to move to Jacksonville. In September 1978, he started working at the paper where he would spend most of his career, beginning a life in the city that would become as much his muse as its politics and struggles the cause of his (mostly) good-natured chagrin.
Littlepage laughs to recall how, after he became a columnist in 1989, his style caught some city officials off-guard. “Nobody had written the kind of column I was writing at the Times-Union. So I think it probably took [then-Mayor Tommy Hazouri] by surprise,” he says.
“I thought to be a successful columnist … you have to take strong positions with strong language, and you have to back them up, with the reporting,” he later adds. True to form, anyone who has even casually reported the goings-on in Jacksonville over the years has seen that increasingly grey (sorry, Ron) and balding (sorry, again) head pop up in the crowd at expected and unexpected spots. Among the press corps, he sometimes comes across as a bit of a lone wolf, but he mingles easily with reporter and powerbroker alike. His willingness to be there in the place where the thing is happening, talking to the people who are doing it, analyzing and digging into things that intrigue or bother him, gives his work a solid backbone that mere opinion-slinging cannot possess.
Though sharp his critiques have been, even-handedness has earned Littlepage the respect of peers and critics alike. He may have been hard on now-Councilman Hazouri in the past, but he is equally quick to commend him for leading the charge to eradicate the putrid smell of industry that formerly characterized the Downtown area along the river and for getting rid of the toll roads during his time as mayor.
He often writes on politics, but Littlepage has also often shared with readers an unsinkable love for the St. Johns River and other waters, appreciation of local culture and anecdotes from his home and family life. “The main thing is, don’t be a Johnny-one-note,” he recalls being advised early in his career as a columnist. “… I think that helped me develop a wider audience.”
Even given that there are infinite topics, it takes a lot of discipline and inspiration to write columns week in and week out—he said that, in the beginning, he’d do five a week, later three—for nearly three decades without the words becoming stale or tiresome; every writer who has been committed to a word count regardless of their motivation on a given day knows the frustrating blankness that can, on occasion, feel crippling. Littlepage imparted some simple advice on this matter: Get out of the office and talk to people.
“I got out and spoke to a lot of groups … I think that’s important,” he says.
One of the people with whom Littlepage has regularly conversed over the years is a figment of his imagination. Littlepage says he invented Jimmy Ray Bob in 1992 in a sort of nod to the legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko, whose character Slats Grobnik entertained readers until Royko’s untimely death in 1997. Whereas Slats was a stereotypical working-class Polish Chicagoan, Jimmy is a straight-talking, proud, redneck peanut-boiler from the backwoods of Florida. Through the vehicle of Jimmy, Littlepage has been able to talk about the things that everybody was talking about and nobody wanted to talk about officially, and things that may have been difficult to discuss, even for him.
In his final column, which he titled, “How do you say goodbye? Just ask Jimmy Ray Bob,” Littlepage’s old friend interrupted the beginnings of a sentimental reverie on the years gone by with a rebuke: “Cut the drama, Littlepage,” Jimmy Ray Bob said. “Everybody already knows you’re retiring.”
That flash of humor and sly, dry wit shines through in much of his work, even the odd news nugget pieces that he’d begin with “Mousing around the news of the day…” and break up into mini-chapters with a click. But when he’s speaking through Jimmy, you get the sense of the man Littlepage might have been had he not answered the phone in Corpus Christi that day, the man he both is and is not today. As obvious as his intelligence is, he is a simple soul who accurately describes himself as “a pretty easy guy to get along with.” An avid hunter, fisherman and gardener, Littlepage and his wife own a 100-acre farm comprising timberland and wildlife habitat in the Panhandle, where he plans to spend much of his retirement—when he’s not visiting the grandkids, of course. It’s easy to imagine him boiling peanuts over a grill and knocking back a few cold ones on a chilly day in early spring, with the most serious contemplation of the hour being whether to have venison or fish for supper.
Littlepage’s work shines in many areas, but on environmental issues it is unparalleled; his advocacy for our rivers, trees, air and land is passionate and well-reasoned. Now, as he enters this next chapter of life, the future of the ecosystem worries him.
“I’m very fearful for the environment,” he says. “I’ve been fearful for a long time, especially under Governor Scott. I’m more fearful with Scott and President Trump.”
As to the city that has been his home these four decades, he sees good things on the horizon … if it can get its act together and finally achieve its potential, which has proved so elusive throughout these many years. He also believes that the city needs to acknowledge that others—minorities, the poor—have been neglected in its quest to become the Bold New City of the South. “I think Jacksonville’s got to face the reality that a good part of the city has been left out,” he says. He told Soergel for the T-U last month that his one regret is not spending enough words on the plight of such folks, saying, “I probably should have spent more time writing about those people, raised in a broken home, severe poverty, bad schools.”
Even as he leaves his office on the St. Johns River, Ron Littlepage isn’t really gone. He’s left behind a bit of himself in everyone who has ever read one of his columns and taken his words to heart. And we can be grateful that he plans to continue writing, just not three columns a week, 52 weeks a year. Fast approaching 70, with literally thousands of column inches and millions of words under his belt, he’s certainly earned a respite. As indebted as Northeast Florida may feel to Ron Littlepage, a recognition which has prompted many to reach out to express their admiration and sense of loss at the news of his retirement, he is equally grateful for us and for what he calls his “great ride.”
“In a lot of ways, I won the lottery. Good family, got to go to college, lucked into journalism, a career I really loved and getting to write a column for 28 years, being part of the dialogue that’s gone on in the city. I’m lucky, I really am.”
So are we, Ron. Good luck on your next chapter. Click.
Click here to read some local, heartfelt trubutes to Ron Littlepage, our 2017 Person of the Year