A State House Institution
Thursday, November 30, 2006
There was a time when Tom Stuckey held raucous annual parties for political leaders in Annapolis that often ended with him seated at the piano, singing ribald numbers with the Maryland governor.
He once pried loose a closely-held budget secret by getting his roommate to drink a source under the hardwood tables at Fran O'Brien's. "He came stumbling in at 3 a.m. and dropped the budget on my bed and said, 'There!' " Stuckey recalled.
Over 43 years, he became the Helen Thomas of Annapolis -- a reporter who was such a fixture of the press corps, they named the press room in his honor this year.
Today, Stuckey, 67, ends his reign as the Associated Press's longest-serving State House bureau chief, departing for retirement as one of the insular state capital's last links to a different political era.
His work chronicled the tenures of seven governors, the shooting of Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace, civil rights demonstrations on Maryland's Eastern Shore, corruption scandals that shook Annapolis and the two Republican administrations that served as bookends to a lengthy career.
"It just happened," is how the slim, unassuming man explains his longevity.
Stuckey, who was born in East Texas, started working for the AP in 1962 while a graduate student at the University of Texas. But when a job opened in Baltimore, he abandoned his studies and headed east. Among his first stories in Maryland was a July 5, 1963, report detailing an investigation into whether pesticides were contributing to the demise of the bald eagle. Within the year, he moved to Annapolis and, drawn to the picture-postcard vistas and freewheeling culture of the state capital, he never left.
Those quaint traditions have been slowly supplanted by more rigid political realities.
Former governor Marvin Mandel, who became House speaker just after Stuckey arrived, recalled fondly the days when reporters and lawmakers shared a suite at the Maryland Inn, where they would unwind after a day's work.
"We were able to talk freely with reporters," Mandel recalled, "say what was on our minds without having to worry about how it was going to look in the next morning's paper."
Stuckey agrees that there "was less of an arms-length relationship," though he doesn't think anyone pulled any punches. His coverage of Mandel, whose tenure was marred by marital problems and corruption allegations, was unflinching. At one point he described the governor's time in office as grist for a best-selling novel.
Still, Mandel, as with most politicians, looks back fondly on Stuckey's coverage, which they say had a quality that never exposed his political views. At the close of Stuckey's 43rd legislative session in April, Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) described him as "the prototype for what we should have -- always -- in the press."
Politicians and others have had something of a falling out with the media in recent years. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took the extreme step of banning two Baltimore Sun journalists during his tenure.
But none of that touched Stuckey.
"I think it was Tom's quiet but assertive manner," said Linda Stowell, who served as his editor from 1991 to 1997. "He asked them the hard questions, and they'd answer because he wasn't in your face, he wasn't obnoxious."
It was a manner that evolved in the pressure cooker of wire service reporting, which puts a premium on reporting that comes in quickly and accurately.
Stuckey recalled his most taxing day as the one when Wallace, the Alabama governor seeking the presidency, visited Maryland in 1972. When Wallace finished speaking to a crowd in Laurel, Stuckey ducked out to call his editor. He missed the gunshots.
"I thought I was going to be fired," Stuckey recalled. But he dashed back to capture the scene as Cornelia Wallace bent over her husband, blood staining her bright yellow outfit. And when Stuckey's chief competitor got lost on the way to the hospital, Stuckey filed the first bulletin.
"My brother called me from Dallas and said it was the top story in his paper," he recalled.
The scoop earned him one of many shots at a promotion. But, Stuckey said, he turned them all down, preferring the steady rhythm of Annapolis, where he will stay upon retiring.
On Tuesday, Stuckey sat with 20-year State House veteran Lou Davis for a television interview on the brick plaza beyond the State House steps. The two laughed about the politicians they have seen come and go in their tenures.
"You want to rank the governors?" Davis asked with a smile, camera rolling.
But the dean of the press corps, careful to maintain objectivity and balance to the end, demurred.
"Not ready to get into that yet," he said. "Maybe later."