By the time reporters like the Miami Herald‘s Mike Sallah and Carol Marbin Miller and Kimberly Miller of The Palm Beach Post took starter jobs at the Boca Raton News, 1960s-era Publisher Gus Harwell was long-gone to bigger jobs at Knight Newspapers. But his legacy as a reporter’s publisher continued to attract top young talent for years after he moved on to the Tallahassee Democrat and a corporate vice-presidency before retiring in 1995.
Harwell, who died last Friday in Port Orange at age 85, came to the News when Boca Raton had just become home to Florida Atlantic University. The sleepy little town was about to explode, and three much bigger South Florida newspapers were looking to scarf up subscribers and advertisers.
Harwell and his editor, journalism legend Buzz Merritt, faced the better-funded competition with a simple strategy: Hire exceptional staff, treat them exceptionally well, and cover the living daylights out of Boca Raton.
“If it didn’t happen in Boca Raton, it didn’t happen,” Harwell would say. And if it did happen in Boca Raton, the News was going to be first and best with the story.
“Gus was hands-on,” said Skip Sheffield, who worked for the News from 1969 until it folded in 2009. “He got his hands dirty in the composing room, pasting up the paper.”
He was hands-off, too. Reporters never knew that some of their biggest stories came from tips Harwell picked up on the party circuit … and how many calls he took at home from big shots needing to blow off steam about stories they didn’t like.
Good reporters, the kind Harwell attracted, are a cranky, high-maintenance lot. “We grumbled,” Sheffield said. “We didn’t appreciate how good he was, and how good we had it.”