'Master craftsman of big story' dies

St. Petersburg Times/March 21, 2007
By Craig Basse

St. Petersburg -- Charles L. Stafford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the St. Petersburg Times and its national correspondent for two decades, died at 83.

Mr. Stafford died of leukemia on Monday (March 19, 2007) at his home in Springfield, Va., according to a son, Michael.

The 1980 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting was awarded to him and fellow reporter Bette Orsini for their investigation of the Church of Scientology.

Tensions were especially high when Mr. Stafford and Orsini published their work. Times executives and reporters, notably Orsini, had been repeated targets of church attempts at intimidation and harassment.

Then, late in 1979, a federal judge in Washington unsealed 20 boxes of records seized in an FBI raid on church headquarters. Mr. Stafford used the confidential files in writing his series.

"Charles Stafford was a master craftsman of the big story," said Eugene Patterson, who was a Times editor and chairman when Mr. Stafford and Orsini won the Pulitzer.

"Reporters fed their patches to him, and he wove the tapestry," Patterson said Tuesday "He was a strong, fine man, and it rang in all it he wrote."

Other colleagues echoed Patterson.

"He was one of the best reporters I ever knew," said Mike Moscardini, assistant North Suncoast editor and a Times editor since 1972.

"He had a very graceful and mature tone to his writing," said Moscardini, a former national editor who supervised Mr. Stafford.

To Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan, he was "the consummate deadline reporter."

"I remember one of the political conventions - I think it was in Atlanta and that would make it 1988 ... when the speeches were running late and we were drawing ever closer to deadline," she said. "Charlie was writing the lead. He had to do it in such a hurry. I couldn't believe it would possibly make sense, and there it was in the morning paper ... like poetry ... you would never have guessed how rushed he had been to produce the lead story of the day from a makeshift press box on the floor of an overcrowded convention."

The 14-part Scientology series recounted the turbulent history of the Church of Scientology since its secretive arrival in Clearwater in 1975.

The series earned the Times its second Pulitzer, one of journalism's highest awards. The first honored a reporting team headed by Martin Waldron in 1964.

Commenting on the Times' expose, the Pulitzer Prize board noted:

"Four years went by before the series began, four years of suit and countersuit, harassment, smearing of Mrs. Orsini's husband's reputation, rifling of files, fake accidents and finally the trial in Washington that brought convictions and sentencings (of nine Scientologists on Dec. 7, 1979)."

Mr. Stafford's years in newspapers were marked by a talent for making complex issues clear. He made dry documents sing.

His reaction to winning the Pulitzer was customarily low key:

"Well, I'm a little overwhelmed, you know, and feel a great deal of pride in having something I did be recognized as being a little bit out of the ordinary," he said.

His reports on the development of the space shuttle and the first flight of the shuttle Columbia were honored in 1981. With Fay Joyce, a Times colleague, he shared the Westinghouse Foundation Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A native of Grafton, W.Va., he was a journalism graduate of West Virginia University.

As an Army private first class in World War II, he fought in the Leyte campaign and the battle for Okinawa.

Charles Lee Stafford reported in his native West Virginia as well as in Baltimore, New York City and in Tampa for the Associated Press and for the Tampa Tribune, which made him its Washington correspondent.

He joined the Times in 1968 and retired in 1989.

His wife of 54 years, Alice Kathryn, died in 2003. Survivors include two sons, Michael F., Burke, Va., and Charles L., Bedford, N.Y.; a daughter, Kathryn S. Benton, Springfield; and nine grandchildren.

A funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Messiah United Methodist Church, Springfield.

The family suggested memorial contributions to the church.

Advent Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Falls Church, Va., is in charge.

Information from Times files was used in this story.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.