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Ray Jenkins won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for exposing political corruption.
Ray Jenkins won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for exposing political corruption. (PERRY THORSVIK)

Ray Jenkins, a former Evening Sun editorial page editor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was a press aide to President Jimmy Carter, died Thursday from heart failure at his Guilford home. He was 89.

“Ray was a fine Southern gentleman who offered us a bit of guidance and wisdom from another time that helped us as Northerners understand that part of the country a lot better,” said Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Evening Sun and Baltimore Sun editor.

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“He came from a Southern tradition and was a wonderful newspaperman who had a great take on the different issues that came up,” said Mr. Imhoff, a Mount Washington resident. “He offered sound wisdom without making him sound like a know-it-all.”

G. Jefferson Price III, former longtime Baltimore Sun foreign editor, was on Mr. Jenkins’ editorial staff.

“I only worked for Ray Jenkins for two of my 35 years at the Sunpapers, but he was one of the most thoughtful, enlightened, gracious and fair-minded men I’ve ever known,” said Mr. Price, a Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, resident. “His intellectual stream was vast, and he had a marvelous, often self-deprecating, sense of humor.”

Carrell Ray Jenkins — he never used his first name — the son of Herbert Jenkins, an International Harvester salesman, and his wife, Eunice Thornton Jenkins Maples, a homemaker, was born in Sylvester, Georgia, and raised on his family’s farm in south Georgia.

After graduating from Camilla High School at the age of 16, Mr. Jenkins entered the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, from which he graduated in 1950.

Mr. Jenkins began his career as a reporter in 1951 with the Columbus, Georgia, Ledger, and was a member of the team that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for exposing political corruption in Phenix City, Alabama, an Army post town near Fort Benning, Georgia. His stories about gambling, prostitution and corruption culminated in the arrest and indictment of the city’s mayor.

He was promoted to city editor of The Ledger, a position he held until 1959, when he joined the staff as city editor of the Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Alabama, and later was promoted to its editorial page editor. In 1976, he became editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.

Two years later, he became editor and vice president of the Montgomery Advertiser and Alabama Journal, which were published by the Advertiser Co.

He spent nearly two decades covering the civil rights movement.

Mr. Jenkins earned a reputation for being a “fiercely independent man who stuck by his liberal political philosophy when it was in and out of favor,” according to a 1991 Evening Sun article.

Shortly after arriving in Montgomery, Mr. Jenkins befriended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he met the civil rights activist in his basement office.

“From that first meeting, Dr. King noted that Mr. Jenkins was the first Montgomery reporter ever to contact him and interview him,” Nancy Jenkins-Chafin of Richmond, Virginia, wrote in a biographical profile of her father.

“It was the beginning of a professional relationship and friendship that enabled him to provide readers in a deeply segregated South with a deeper understanding of Dr. King’s mission and his personal convictions,” wrote Ms. Jenkins-Chafin, editor of the Virginia Episcopalian. “He followed Dr. King on the civil rights trail, including the Selma march and the March on Washington.”

“The most significant story I ever wrote,” Mr. Jenkins told The Evening Sun in 1991, “was a routine story I wrote in 15 minutes and that didn’t even carry a byline.”

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Mr. Jenkins’ 12-inch story was about an advertisement in The New York Times in 1960 that requested funds to defend Dr. King in a Montgomery perjury case, while at the same time castigating Alabama justice and Alabama officials.

“Jenkins’ story set in motion a series of events that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark New York Times v. Sullivan libel decision. The decision stiffened criteria for public officials in libel cases,” reported The Evening Sun.

Another personage he covered during his tenure in Montgomery was George C. Wallace, the governor of Alabama and outspoken foe of the civil rights movement.

Mr. Jenkins explained in a 1979 Alabama Journal interview that the Advertiser was "generally known as the anti-Wallace paper."

“And that’s probably accurate,” he said. “But my personal relationship with Wallace is fairly good. ... I have a big respect for the man’s political ability. But we rarely have been on the same side of a political issue.”

Mr. Jenkins was 48 years old when he left the Advertiser-Journal in 1979 for the White House after accepting the newly created post as special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, which effectively made him the No. 2 man in the press office, which was then headed by Jody Powell, the president’s press secretary.

In a departing interview for the Advertiser-Journal, Mr. Jenkins explained that his role would not be one of policy-making but more like that of a “pool reporter who sits in on important meetings and then goes out and tries to give as accurate and as a complete picture as is humanly possible.”

He added that while he had lots of friends in the journalism community in both Washington and across the country, that in his new role “I sure as hell hope I’m able to keep them.”

“The White House is a good place to have been,” Mr. Jenkins told The Evening Sun, “not to be.”

In 1981, then A.S. Abell Co. publisher J. Reginald Murphy named Mr. Jenkins, who was then editor of the Clearwater Sun in Florida, editorial page editor of The Evening Sun.

“I’ve spent half of my time in newspapers writing editorials; it’s my first love,” he said at the time. "I feel more comfortable with writing than with the administrative side of the newspaper, and I’m looking forward to returning to the editorial page."

After his appointment to The Evening Sun, he explained his philosophy for the page.

“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the editorial page ought to be the repository of the conscience of the community," he said. “The editorial page ought to be interesting, well-written and well-reasoned,” adding, “except editorials ought to be short, and I tend to be windy.”

“Never one to take the trade too seriously, I recall his observation that ‘editorial writers are the ones who come onto the field after battle and shoot the wounded,’ ” Mr. Price recalled, with a laugh.

“Ray was a wonderful writer, a keen editor, a great boss and a great human being,” said Sara Engram of Ruxton, former Evening Sun editorial page director.

“The years I spent as his deputy were some of the most fulfilling years of my professional life. He was always encouraging me to take on new challenges, and in tough situations he always stood up for me and the staff,” Ms. Engram said. “Those were the days when newspapers had power, and Ray knew how to use it wisely and always with good humor.”

Mr. Jenkins’ daily work schedule saw him out of bed by 4:30 a.m. and working. He busied himself reading the day’s news in The Sun and The New York Times and scanning Associated Press files on his computer. He then began work on a daily editorial — sometimes two — for that day’s Evening Sun.

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He retired in 1991.

Mr. Jenkins who was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University from 1964 to 1965, earned a law degree from Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery in 1977, and was admitted to the American Bar Association and the Alabama Bar Association.

“I have had a lifelong fascination with the law, so I studied law at night school in Montgomery," he told The Evening Sun in 1981. “But I have never practiced law or any other dubious profession.”

Through the years, his newspaper work earned him numerous awards including the Ernie Pyle Award for human interest reporting and the annual civil rights award of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Jenkins, who was a frequent contributor and columnist for The New York Times, published his first book, “Blind Vengeance,” in 1997, which detailed the true story of an Alabama mail bomber whose crimes were racially motivated.

He was a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Hamilton Street Club.

A celebration of life gathering will be held from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Johns Hopkins Club, 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former Bettina Cirsovius, an artist and author; two sons, Mark C. Jenkins of Montgomery, and Samuel J. Jenkins of Memphis, Tennessee; and four grandchildren.

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