Craig Pittman is the first guy to want to tell you about the Florida gentleman who wished to trade a gator for some beer, or the Sunshine State woman who rode a manatee. So he was only too happy to share with us his collection of stories on some of Southwest Florida’s most colorful characters (click here).
Craig, of course, is a serious journalist with many a prize for reporting on the environment. I’m thrilled to tell you about all that, but I will get back to the weird and wild before we’re done.
Born in Pensacola, he started to create his niche at Troy State University in Alabama, where the dean called him “the most destructive force on campus” for his muckraking work on the student newspaper. “I wrote about drug busts in the dorms,” Craig says, “and the university’s having a yacht for entertaining state legislators while cutting professors’ salaries to stay on-budget.”
All this preceded his years of newspaper coverage of hurricanes, wildfires and the Florida legislature—and his latest run on the environmental beat at the Tampa Bay Times since 1998.
And how about this for enterprise? With fellow Times reporter Matt Waite, he produced a two-year series on the disappearance of Florida’s wetlands. Some critical evidence came from the team’s review of satellite images of the land from 1990 and then from 2003 (with a lot of that land now paved over). “The Army Corps of Engineers supervises this,” Craig says, “and I guess they were too busy issuing permits for development, perhaps, to notice. They handed out 12,000 permits, with only one rejected.” In all, 84,000 acres of wetlands were lost in this way.
In each of its two years, the series won the top investigative reporting award from the Society of Environmental Journalists and led to a book on the subject as well.
There’s ever the twinkle in Craig’s eye as he goes about this business. “Covering the environment is the best job in American journalism,” he says, and, laughing, starts to describe giant African snails “as big as your hand who could eat 500 different kinds of fruit and vegetables and eat the stucco off the side of your house. Florida officials trained dogs to sniff out the snail mucus. Only in Florida do we have snail-sniffing dogs.”
He was still laughing when he told of a feral cat colony living in luxury near the Ocean Reef Club in north Key Largo. “It was near a wildlife refuge protecting wood rats,” Craig says, “and naturally the cats were eating the rats. So they had to breed more of the wood rats. Can you imagine the guy assigned the job of watching the breeding?”
There seems to be no end to the people who tickle his funny bone. Maybe his favorite is Ben Henry Pooley in the Panhandle. He was a mosquito control director who was known as “3-2 Pooley” because he was hired and fired by that margin by the county commission several times. Pooley had a radio show and was critical of many politicians. One such fellow (Leroy Johnson) running for county commission, Craig says, put out a hit on Pooley for $10,000. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement got wind of this and put an undercover guy in as the hitman. Pooley was taken to the woods, had ketchup (aka blood) smeared in his hair and was relieved of his pinky ring as further evidence of the hit. Leroy was confronted and had $9,000 on him, which he said came from campaign contributions. He never went on trial because he died of a heart attack three days later.
From his fascination with our state’s bizarre citizens and situations, Craig wrote a book called Oh, Florida—How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. Shortly after turning in his book manuscript, our muckraking reporter with the sense of the absurd was driving in downtown St. Petersburg with his 14-year-old son. “We spotted a woman up in a banyan tree playing an accordion and singing John Denver songs,” Craig says. “‘Why do you think she’s doing that?’ I asked my son. ‘It’s Florida, Dad. Who knows?’ he replied.” And so it is. Who couldn’t just love this idiosyncratic paradise of ours?