From the civil rights movement to the Cuban Missile Crisis, newspaper editor Bill Baggs’ life and legacy
You may have seen the sign when you entered Biscayne Bay. It reads, ‘Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.’
Who was Bill Baggs?
That’s what author Amy Paige Condon asked herself the first time she heard about the park’s name. And in the years that followed, Condon kept coming back to that name in different life situations.
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Bill Baggs was the editor of the Miami News in the 60s — that paper no longer exists. But his award-winning work impacted historic events like the civil rights movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Condon met Baggs’ widow at a writing workshop and decided this was a story she needed to tell.
Her book is called “A Nervous Man Shouldn't Be Here in the First Place: The Life of Bill Baggs” and it’s the Sundial Book Club selection for the month of April.
WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Condon about her book. She shares anecdotes about his love story, his impact and his legacy. You can join the club here.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On his beliefs and mindset
We call people this now, we call them ‘futurists’ and he sort of had that mindset. He was always just a few steps ahead of everybody else because I think he was so wide-ranging in his interests. Another thing that I think helped him in so many ways is he had no sense of awe of people with titles and people with prestige because I think he just sort of saw that they struggle like anybody else.
I think he also had a really strong sense of grace. He said he was an atheist, which a lot of newspaper people at that time would say. But I think he actually had a real deep sense of something greater than himself and he always saw himself in service of that.
He considered himself lucky, but also that life was short. He had so much loss so early that I think he became one of those people that understood there was a ticking time clock and not a moment was to be wasted. So whatever moment you were in, seize it.
And he also had a great sense of grace in that he met people exactly where they were and wasn't terribly judgmental about what he thought. Some of the smartest people he ever knew were the people with the least amount of education and some of the least wise people he knew were making major decisions about how people should live.
On Cuba and Fidel Castro
Castro was on a goodwill tour after he won the revolution [in Cuba] all through the U.S., looking for somebody to fund him because they didn't have any money to run a government. He had been courting the U.S. media for a very long time.
Some of the newspapers, like the Atlanta Constitution, and the New York Times, had very favorable stories about this young, charismatic man coming down from the mountains and liberating this nation that had been under the throes of the mafia. Bill [Baggs] kind of saw through that and was going, ‘wait, wait, wait, you know, when the rubber meets the road, so to speak. How is he going to govern?’ Because this is a nation that has gone through one dictator after another, people promise freedom and peace and then don't fulfill it.
Castro was speaking before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. Bill was there, finally got this meeting with him. They sat there and they drank and smoked cigars and had a great old time. But he kept asking him questions the entire time and trying to get a feel for him. He comes back. He [Bill Baggs] starts writing columns basically that aren't necessarily favorable [to Castro] and starts talking about the challenges. But he also writes a letter to then-Vice President Nixon and says, you need to keep an eye on this guy because he talks a lot about revolution, but he doesn't talk a lot about governance. And then he wrote Castro a letter the same day that said, I appreciate the time that you gave me, basically, but I think you need to understand what a democracy is.
He worked very hard on resettlement for Cuban refugees. And he talked quite a bit about the need to find people jobs and to have dignity. He was amazing at being able to bridge divides because he also understood from Black Miamians that jobs that were promised to them were getting taken by Cuban refugees. He worked to create the sort of conversation, especially among the clergy, they worked together to sort of bridge this divide. People respected him, even if they didn't always agree with him. And that was the interesting thing is how many people said I didn't agree with half of what he said or wrote, but I respected him. And sometimes he changed people's minds.