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John M. Purnell, retired Eastern Shore reporter, dies

John M. Purnell, a veteran reporter who worked for Eastern Shore newspapers and earlier for The Palm Beach Post, died Thursday from undetermined causes at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The West Ocean City resident was 73.

John Michael Purnell was born and raised in Ocean City. He was the son of William H. Purnell, who owned the Atlantic Hotel on the boardwalk at Wicomico Street, and Sarah Lynch Purnell, who helped operate the business with her husband. The family’s ancestral roots go deep into Worcester County.

A 1962 graduate of Stephen Decatur High School, he obtained a journalism degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he edited the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, and also did post-graduate studies at Penn State.

Jerry Ceppos, former vice president of news for Knight Ridder, who is now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, knew Mr. Purnell from their college days.

“I succeeded John as editor of The Diamondback,” said Mr. Ceppos, who graduated from the College Park campus in 1969. “He was the person who taught me that our job was to question authority — and he really convinced me how much fun journalism could be. He found humor and solace in everything.”

“He was a crackerjack journalist from the beginning,” he said. “He was better prepared than any of us and he innately understood journalism. When we were on The Diamondback, he loved helping younger people. He would spend lots of time with them and didn’t believe in hierarchy.”

“He was an Ocean City native and who really knew the town,” said James Fisher, a former colleague who worked with Mr. Purnell at the Worcester County Times in the mid-2000s. “He knew its streets and he knew its weaknesses.”

“I remember he wrote a series about jobs in Ocean City that he had held for a day,” recalled Mr. Fisher, who is now communications manager at Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. “He sold Thrasher’s Fries and worked in the amusement park. He really liked that one.

“He wanted to tell people what it was like. He liked telling stories about the out-of-the-way and lesser-known people. He just didn’t want to cozy up to the mayor, for instance.

“John was a very creative writer who knew reporting wasn’t just about dry facts,” said Mr. Fisher. “He was very friendly to reporters who were a generation younger than he was and he told great, great stories about his days working on the Palm Beach Post.”

Mr. Purnell’s lifelong infatuation with newspapers began at age 5 when he worked as a section inserter and then as a delivery boy for the Ocean City Post.

“Later I was a newsboy for the Baltimore papers and I was a jumper for the Evening Star, out of Washington — a jumper jumps off the trucks and shoves the papers in the racks,” he told The Palm Beach Post in a 1981 profile. “It was some kind of progression, I guess. I was always interested in papers.”

After college, Mr. Purnell traveled in Europe and the Middle East and lived in London until his savings were depleted. Then he returned to Maryland, working in Baltimore as a reporter for the old News American and then The Baltimore Sun.

In 1971, he traveled to Florida and landed a job on The Palm Beach Post, where he handled a variety of assignments. While serving as a one-man bureau in Belle Glade, Fla., he was arrested and jailed for trespassing while reporting on migrant-labor conditions at a sugar cane farm. His conviction was later thrown out on appeal.

“My predecessor carried a loaded pistol in his glove compartment. He advised me to do the same, but I had always tried to use my mouth to get out of situations,” Mr. Purnell recalled in the 1981 interview.

In order to better communicate with South Florida’s expanding Spanish-speaking population, he took leaves of absence from the newspaper to study Spanish in Bogota, Colombia and Salmanaca, Spain.

In 1972, he transferred to the paper’s West Palm Beach bureau and covered business, features, courts and education.

Other assignments included the 1976 Guatemala earthquake that killed 23,000 people and injured more than 76,000, and the controversial execution of convicted murderer John Spenkelink at the Florida State Prison in Raiford in 1979.

Mr. Purnell eventually left Palm Beach and joined the staff of the Washington Times, where he was a metro reporter and columnist.

“He never bought the idea that the Washington Times played second fiddle to the Washington Post and I admired him for that,” Mr. Fisher said.

In the mid-2000s, Mr. Purnell’s life circled back to Worcester County when he joined the reporting staff of the Worcester County Times, where staffers also contributed to the Beachcomber, a weekly.

He retired in 2008.

“He loved journalism and was the consummate newspaper guy. His big passion was the news,” said Marilyn Alva, a former Palm Beach Post colleague and longtime friend who lives in New York City.

“John could hold so many facts in his head,” said Ms. Alva, who met Mr. Purnell while a student at College Park. She retired last year from Investor’s Business Daily.

“His hobby was newspapers,” she said. “He read The Baltimore Sun and Washington Post every day and the New York Times on Sundays, plus at least two local newspapers, The Daily Times and the Worcester County Times. On Fridays he got two weeklies — The Dispatch and Ocean City today.”

“Reporting is a totally immersing job,” Mr. Purnell said in the 1981 interview. “It’s a reporter’s responsibility to familiarize himself with his subject matter and the persons and issues involved. Sometimes I worry that I’m too intense, and I have to fight that. I don’t want to lose objectivity, but I enjoy the experience of being involved in public affairs, writing about the issues.”

Graveside services for Mr. Purnell will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 7 at Evergreen Cemetery, 10601 Assateague Road, Berlin.

He is survived by two brothers, William H. Purnell Jr. and Charles D. Purnell, both of West Ocean City; a nephew; and two nieces.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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