Hal Gulliver: Editor led Atlanta newspaper through civil rights era

Hal Gulliver, a former Atlanta Constitution editorial page editor and columnist, considered an astute observer and analyst of Georgia’s political scene in the 1970s and beyond, died March 24 in Valdosta.

Gulliver backed a relatively unknown peanut farmer in his first failed bid for governor and continued to support Jimmy Carter in 1976 when few political pundits gave him a chance of becoming president.

Through his column, Gulliver supported Carter in his second campaign for governor while the newspaper endorsed his opponent, Carl Sanders.

“Carl Sanders had been a good, progressive governor in his first term,” Gulliver said in a 2006 interview, “and I could understand why the paper endorsed him. The Republican candidate that year was Hal Suit, a former WSB-TV anchorman. I went down to Carter’s headquarters for the victory celebration the night he defeated Sanders in the primary. He had been miffed, to say the least, that the Constitution had not backed him. As I shook his hand, I said, ‘Congratulations. Is there anything we can do for you now?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said with a smile. ‘Endorse Hal Suit.’ ”

No formal services are planned. In lieu of flowers, family requests donations be made to Pruitt Hospice, 407 Cowart Ave, Valdosta, GA 31602 or Alzheimer's Association online at www.alz.org, according to Music Funeral Home, which handled arrangements.

Harold Strong Gulliver Jr. was born in Valdosta on Sept. 25, 1935. The son of Harold Strong Gulliver, head of the English department at Valdosta State College, and Augusta Belle Rentz.

He had returned to Valdosta after his career, where he spent his last years in a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients.

Gulliver was a gifted student who took part in the prestigious directed studies program at Yale University. After graduating in 1957, he studied for a year at the Free University of West Berlin. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and then landed a job in 1960 as a reporter for The Macon Telegraph. He left to become public relations director at Valdosta State, then joined the Atlanta Constitution as a reporter.

In 1962, he married Marian Godwin, an aspiring actress from Valdosta who had studied in New York under Helen Hayes and who turned down a year’s contract with MGM after Gulliver proposed.

Three years later, Gulliver left the Constitution for a job with with the state Insurance Commissioner, but later returned as editor of the Constitution’s editorial pages from 1975 to 1982. Gulliver followed in the footsteps of predecessors Ralph McGill, Gene Patterson and Reg Murphy by taking often-unpopular positions on civil rights.

In 1984, he was awarded the NAACP’s Langston Hughes Journalism Award with the inscription: “Your writings eased the pains of desegregation.”

Gulliver left The Constitution in 1982 to attend law school and eventually open a practice. That year, his son, Harold III, a rising junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died after a fall in a freak accident. His death was a devastating blow from which Gulliver never fully recovered.

“They say that you get over something like that in time,” Gulliver said in 2006, “but you don’t.”

Friends and co-workers remember Gulliver as an ebullient storyteller who knew everyone associated with Georgia politics. He often enjoyed lunch at the Commerce Club, where he was friends with the judges and politicians who gathered there. But he was not above shaking things up.

Former Congressman Wyche Fowler said, “Gulliver could out-think, out-drink, and hoodwink almost any politician who needed a comeuppance. He loved the freedom to skew in print all scoundrels, and did it with a mischievous wit that bruised but did not scar.”

George Berry, former Atlanta Aviation Commissioner and senior vice president for Cousins Properties, said Gulliver turned heads in that staid establishment by bringing in guests such as the late Rev. Hosea Williams.

“Hal had some indescribable, unfathomable quality that drew people to him,” Berry said.

Bill Shipp, who was Gulliver’s associate editor on the editorial board, considered Gulliver an extraordinary journalist. He was “the brightest, most intellectually honest and compassionate editor that I ever worked for,” Shipp said.