Calamity struck on the way to the big interview on Hilton Head Island.
That was always the way for Leonora LaPeter. That was the jittery blonde’s byline when she wrote for The Island Packet.
Accidents always lurked as close as her shadow.
Twenty years later, Leonora won a Pulitzer Prize in April for her newspaper in Florida.
Yet it is inspiring to me that the winner of the grandest prize types by a sticky note a colleague put on her computer screen six years ago.
“I Do Not Suck,” it says.
In Florida today, the mentally ill and their families would have to agree.
Insane. Invisible. In Danger
Lenora Bohen LaPeter Anton was one of three writers to produce the “Insane. Invisible. In Danger” series that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune. They went over, under, around a through the state’s wall of secrecy to reveal that, while Florida cut $100 million in care of the mentally ill, violent incidents increased in wards across the state. Thirteen patients and a baby died in the state’s care.
The state claimed to not know it. And for all practical purposes, it did not care.
The editor of the series was Chris Davis, who was a reporter covering Ridgeland and Hardeeville for The Beaufort Gazette during the same time Leonora was at the Packet.
And back on Hilton Head in the mid-1990s, the topic on the day of Leonora’s big interview was water and sewer.
On the way to meet with the utility’s lawyer, Leonora witnessed a dog jump out of a van and get crushed by a car.
She was still shaky when the utility lawyer sitting across a round table advised her that we don’t need no Chicago-style journalism on Hilton Head.
She looked at him with big, thirsty eyes and responded with the power of a fire hose. She said she didn’t know anything about Chicago-style journalism. But she knows it’s unfair when the poorest Hilton Head islanders are being charged for water service they were not getting, and in many cases did not even have access to it.
In the Lowcountry
Leonora spent a lot of her childhood in Greece.
Her mother was doing archeology there as a Fulbright Scholar. She took Leonora on long walks through museums, stopping to peer at each display.
She was agreeable enough as a person, but she did not put up with baloney coming from sources, or from anybody else for that matter.
Fran Marscher Bollin
She was hired at the Packet in 1992 with a degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and experience at a smaller paper in Okeechobee, Fla.
Fran Marscher Bollin, who hired her, recalls: “I do retain the strong impression of her talent, skill and reliability. She was agreeable enough as a person, but she did not put up with baloney coming from sources, or from anybody else for that matter.”
Leonora covered the environment and health care, writing about the plight of sea turtles, birds, oysters and our pristine waterways.
She recalls writing stories on 30 consecutive days that mentioned the Upper Floridan Aquifer, the island’s underground water supply that was turning salty.
She said city editor Tony Tharp pushed her to a new level, and she was pushed by her editors, Bollin and Fitz McAden.
McAden said, “She was very driven. She was smart. She connected the dots. She was quiet, but she would ask the hard questions, and you could trust her reporting. I would ask, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ and she would bring me documentation. She is an old-style, shoe-leather journalist.”
In five years here, Leonora wrote volumes about controversial Hilton Head Hospital cancer doctor Rajko Medenica. She covered the trial when he lost a $13 million malpractice suit, which brought patient Muhammad Ali to the Hampton County Courthouse.
She still has a set of four mugs someone sent her in the mail, etched “Quack Buster.”
She wrote about being an extra in the movie filmed in Savannah, “Something to Talk About” starring Dennis Quaid and Julia Roberts. She was to be a waitress, quietly serving in the background, but calamity struck. She dropped a tray.
She is an old-style, shoe-leather journalist.
Leonora focused on every word and every detail, winning a state award for her account of this Lowcountry encounter:
A mid-morning sun pokes through a thicket of oak trees, throwing a patchwork of light on the ragged dirt road that curves through the entrance to the Oyotunji African Village near Sheldon.
A goat’s skull hangs to the side like a doorbell, and a sign nearby reads “You are leaving the U.S. You are entering Yoruba Kingdom.”
A white Toyota Corolla rolls down the dirt road toward the village, its driver an older man in a tie-dyed purple shirt and a tall red hat.
“Is someone helping you?” he asks, as the car rolls by.
He barely waits for an answer before honking his horn loudly four times and disappearing around a corner in the village. A peacock’s shrill cry breaks the ensuing silence, echoing high through the trees. A sheep and a few roosters call back.
‘Right Thing To Do’
Leonora won a national journalism award covering a trial for the Savannah Morning News.
And she worked at the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida before moving to the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, an independent, foundation-owned “writer’s paper” that has now won 12 Pulitzer Prizes.
Leonora feels fortunate to work at a newspaper that can turn two reporters lose for more than a year to make Pulitzer Prize-level discoveries and slam people between the eyes with it in simple prose.
“We all worked literally around the clock,” she said about the project editor and investigators Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Anthony Cormier. “We were going, going, going, going.”
She worked eight months to secure one searing video. And she worried that her daughter, who will enter the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this fall, wasn’t seeing enough of her.
We all worked literally around the clock.
Leonora LaPeter Anton
Project editor Chris Davis, a South Carolina native and graduate of Georgetown High and the University of South Carolina, has now edited four Pulitzer Prize winners.
Leonora said, “We’re calling him the ‘Pulitzer Whisperer.’ ”
“For me, “ Davis said, “it’s all about the discovery of the truth. It always has been.”
Here, he tried to discover the truth about where all the money was going that big bingo parlors were supposed to be giving to charity.
On Hilton Head, Irvin Campbell remembers knocking on doors on back roads with Leonora. They pored over Beaufort County tax bills that included public water “availability fees” many did not know they were paying. People paid for the availability of public water even when they could not afford to tie into the system.
Leonora’s 1996 Packet project called “Bungled Bills Prompt Paybacks” revealed that, over the previous four years, more than 219 parcels with no water and sewer service were erroneously charged at least $75,000 in fees that were supposed to be charged only where service was available.
It resulted in some of the island’s poorest citizens getting repaid with interest.
It was the right thing to do, regardless of how much they tried to hush us.
Campbell had recently returned to his native island after retiring as a U.S. Army major.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said last week, “regardless of how much they tried to hush us. When people confronted them, they tried to give them their money back and say hush up and go home. But that was not the point.”
Leonora said, “I’m just happy that the stories that I’ve worked on have helped people.
“As a result of these stories (in Florida), the state set aside millions of dollars for more employees, body alarms for employees, more psychologists, more therapists, and that’s really important to me.”
Now she’s back to her regular weekender stories, working on one about a man on death row for 40 years, a bishop who is leaving, and an area that has been labeled one of the worst places for kids in the country.
Her mother still spends half of each year on Hilton Head, publishing discoveries that began in Greece about the dawning of democracy.
And Leonora says she’s gotten better about being her own worst critic.
“One of the things that has part of my core is that I’m constantly in ‘I Suck Mode.’
“I’ve gotten a lot better, don’t get me wrong.
“But it’s one of the things that has pushed me, pushed me, pushed me.”