RIP: Dick Pettys

According to Matt Towery of InsiderAdvantage, veteran reporter on all things political in Georgia, Dick Pettys, has died of a heart attack. Pettys was 66.

Dick Pettys covered politics in Georgia for more than 35 years for the Associated Press, and later for InsiderAdvantage, before retiring to his cabin in north Georgia last year. Pettys had been honored on his first retirement by the Georgia Senate in 2008, but kept writing about Georgia politics, as those of us who cover that topic seem compelled to do.

As a brand-new reporter assigned to cover my first session of the Georgia General Assembly, I shared an office in the “press wing” of Coverdell Legislative Office Building with a very angry editor of an alternative news weekly. We were two doors down from the AP office, and occasionally, usually late in the afternoon, the odor of pipe tobacco would fill the hall and drift into our office.  I enjoyed it, but the editor, a non-smoker, would gripe -loudly- at me. “Why don’t you go find the guy and tell him to quit smoking?” I would ask. The editor would just stare at me as if I was a newly-discovered breed of simpleton. “It’s Dick Pettys,” he would sigh. “He knows about the exemption.” This was the mid-nineties, Georgia had just begun banning smoking in various offices, but the first law had an exemption for the Capitol –and legislators’ offices– and Pettys knew it because he had covered it. And the editor and I knew that this was Dick Pettys’ place, and we were just guests.

Pettys had a reputation for treating everybody with a level of fairness and respect that was exactly the same -which felt good if you didn’t deserve it. The chairman of Georgia’s State Board of Education was once trying to explain why the State’s SAT scores hadn’t risen as much as officials had wanted. The problem with the rankings, explained the chairman, was that Georgia tested nearly all our high-schoolers, while other states didn’t test nearly as many of their students. Pettys raised his hand. “Johnny, are you saying that the reason Georgia is ranked as low as we are is because we have more dumb kids than the other states, or that Georgia’s kids are dumber than the kids in other states?” The chairman, now a United States Senator, was in fact not saying such a thing, and clarified his statement for Dick Pettys, who nodded, and took notes, and wrote it up in a story.

Pettys lived and worked in an era before “fact-checking” became a media necessity. He was the fact-check. He will be sorely missed by many, and our prayers tonight are with his family.