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GLEASON (August 8) — It was a welcome-home celebration with classmates and high school teachers on Wednesday for Frank Gibson. Just one day earlier, the Gleason native was inducted into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame in an afternoon ceremony in Murfreesboro.
Meeting at Simply Southern restaurant, fellow members of the class of 1965 and teachers Edgar Floyd and Suzanne Russell enjoyed a brief time of reuniting. Gibson, now residing in Florida, had returned three years earlier to celebrate a fiftieth class reunion during the annual Tater Town Days.
It was a time to share memories, look at photos, and celebrate a classmate’s accomplishments. His career started locally while in high school and blossomed as he used his writing talents in the Army and later with a distinguished career at The Tennessean, working with John Seigenthaler.
In his acceptance speech, Gibson said, “A little over 53 years ago – in the darkness of 4 o’clock -- I climbed into the cab of a truck hauling brick from Gleason, my small hometown in West Tennessee, to Nashville.
“My “dream” was to be a sports writer. But, I was looking for any job that would allow me to go to college.
“A sports writer from The Tennessean had told me to look him up if I ever got to Nashville. I came knocking three weeks after graduation.
“After lunch he introduced me to his sports editor, Raymond Johnson, who very politely explained that The Tennessean was not hiring 18-year-old sports writers that week…
Six months after Mr. Johnson dashed those hopes I landed the assignment as weekend police reporter. Jerry Thompson was the regular beat reporter and got stuck training me. Jerry was fondly nicknamed “Tub.” That earned me, the 19-year-old kid from the country, the moniker of “Tub’s Cub.”
When high school basketball tournaments rolled around, Mr. Johnson borrowed me for 2-3 weeks to take scores on the phone. At the end of that assignment, he brought me the “good news.” I was getting my wish. The managing editor was transferring me to sports permanently.
I have an embarrassing admission. By then, “Tub’s Cub” had had dozens of bylines in news. Several were on the front page. A few were above the fold in a big Sunday paper.
Sports reporting looked less glamorous.
A few days after Mr. Johnson broke the news, I mustered enough courage get in to see “Mr. Seigenthaler” – the editor. He heard my appeal and over-ruled the ME, telling him covering sports and my class schedule at UT-Nashville were not a good fit.”
Fate worked to his benefit as he continued his career in news, but not in sports.
Frank Gibson’s career in journalism was marked as much by his work as a First Amendment champion and extraordinary contributions to open government as it was for its longevity.
Before the clock started on five decades as a professional, Gibson had been a “paperboy” for the former Memphis Press-Scimitar, had written dozens of school news columns for the Dresden Enterprise and McKenzie Banner, and reported hundreds of high school basketball and football game results to daily papers in Memphis and Nashville.
His 40-year career as reporter and editor at The (Nashville) Tennessean began four months after graduating in 1965 from Gleason High School in rural West Tennessee. That first assignment, as weekend police reporter, was interrupted by Army service with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service in Panama.
After his military discharge, he finished college at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he was editor of the UT Daily Beacon in his second year.
Gibson returned to Nashville to become The Tennessean’s City Hall reporter. He worked other government beats and had stints as investigative reporter, winning Associated Press and UPI awards as well as the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Award for Investigative Reporting.
His reporting career culminated as the newspaper’s Washington correspondent.
His 35 years of advocacy for open government and the First Amendment began immediately after returning to Nashville as a city editor in 1982. He developed legislation adopted by the General Assembly to improve enforcement of the state public records law.
After studying First Amendment law as a Journalism and Humanities Fellow at the University of Michigan, Gibson was elected national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He chaired SPJ’s national advertising campaign commemorating the bicentennial of the First Amendment in 1991. Called “Project Watchdog,” the theme was “If the Press Didn’t Tell Us, Who Would?”
Retiring as political editor of The Tennessean, Gibson organized and co-founded the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a collaboration of news media, civic and citizen groups and First Amendment lawyers. The organization is still operating robustly 15 years later.
He authored “Keys to Open Government – a citizen’s guide,” edited by current TCOG director Deborah Fisher. The title came from legendary editor and publisher John Seigenthaler, a Gibson mentor who once introduced him as “the holder of the keys to open government in Tennessee.”
Seigenthaler explained Gibson’s motivation and commitment as an open government advocate at his retirement from the newspaper.
“He was better than anyone I had ever known in tracking a paper trail,” Seigenthaler wrote. “He was better than I, and once I was good at it. So it was natural he would assume that role to keep records from being secret.”
During his tenure as executive director of TCOG Gibson answered more than 1,000 hotline calls for assistance and information from reporters and citizens. He served as president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition during that period.
He chaired TPA’s Freedom of Information Committee for 17 years until the press association named him fulltime public policy director in 2011.
A state Senate Proclamation noted his leadership in helping persuade Gov. Phil Bredesen to fund and the legislature to create the Office of Open Records Counsel to answer records law questions from citizens and public officials and to provide training for record custodians.
It cited his “long and distinguished career in journalism and advocacy for the public’s right to know,” noting that “Mr. Gibson regards journalism as the highest form of public service and has remained true to that precept throughout his exemplary career.”
Paul Tinkle, president of Thunderbolt Broadcasting, a TCOG member, characterized Gibson’s contributions more succinctly: “Frank Gibson retiring is like a library going to shorter hours.”
Frank and Kathy, his wife of 41 years, live near Tampa, Fla., around the corner from daughter Amy, husband David, and only grandchildren – Keely Caroline and Alexander Gibson Sullivan.