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September 24, 2018

Greene's True Colors

Cynthia Barnett | 11/1/2000
As Tommy Greene tools around the town of Madison in his green pick-up truck, folks stop him at nearly every corner to slap his back or ask his advice: "Who should I vote for in the county commission race?" a local lawyer calls to him in the post office. Being with a reporter today, Greene feigns disinterest.

As a weekly newspaper publisher, editor and reporter in this Georgia-border county for 35 years, Greene has won numerous journalism awards and was once one of Florida's most vocal champions of open government and First Amendment rights. He's also established himself as one of the state's most colorful characters: Most St. Patrick's Days, an out-of-town news team shows up to do a story on the jolly man who always wears green -- down to his underwear and socks -- lives in a green house and eats green grits. He says he painted his world green because, "I don't have what it takes to compete with the average person out there. If I hadn't been different, I would have been a flop."

Along with his monochromatic wardrobe, furniture, cars and office supplies, Greene is infamous for his quirky, often self-deprecating one-liners: "When FSU and UF play one another in football, I hope they both get beat because neither school let me in," he says in his sing-song Southern accent.

But under the aw-shucks, emerald veneer is a shrewder man who plays Wizard of Oz to Madison County. Plenty of folks here clearly adore him. But others view his green world and his newspapers as screens that he hides behind while trying to control as much in Madison as he covers. Even his best friend admits the dumb country boy bit is an act. "He tries to fool me and you both," says developer Jimmy Davis.

Greene was born in Madison in 1938, the son of a timber merchant who was the largest distributor of railroad cross-ties in the Southeast. He spent his boyhood in his dad's swamps, where gangs of men carried out the backbreaking work of extracting turpentine or logging timber. He graduated high school, he says, only because his dad "had something pretty heavy on the superintendent." He dropped out of colleges in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, failing English seven times before he came home to marry his high school sweetheart, Mary Ellen. She has green eyes, and her mother was a Green.

Greene says he spent a grueling year logging and farming on his own before he decided he wanted a better life for his family. The idea to start a newspaper came to him at 3:30 one sleepless morning. He says that by daybreak, he and Mary Ellen were making the rounds of Florida's weekly newspapers to learn the business.

Greene was energetic in distinguishing his new Madison County Carrier from its competitor, the staid, 100-year-old Madison Enterprise-Recorder. An intrepid photographer, Greene raced to nearby Interstate 10 every time he heard a wreck on his police scanner. Part of Greene's editorial strategy was to put blood-and-guts on his front page. "I had to do something different, so I went for the car wrecks, murders and bodies," he says. "My motto was: 'Put Tommy Greene on the scene, 24 hours a day.' " People in the community bought his papers, but to this day, some have hard feelings for Greene because he put a loved one's tragedy above the fold.

The other part of his strategy, Greene says, was crafting "hard-hitting editorials about how this government is caving in on us." Greene on crime: "The last public hanging was right here in Madison County. If I was the supreme ruler, I would bring 'em back. I would execute all criminals -- shoplifters, you name it -- and all of their lawyers, and then we would rid this country of thieves and we could sleep with our windows open." Greene on welfare: "It lets you earn more with a houseful of bastards than with a penful of hogs."

Greene says he's sent back all money he's ever received personally from the government, including jury duty checks and veteran's disability checks. He says he plans to refuse Social Security: "That way I can write an editorial about welfare, and I'm not a preacher who sobered up Sunday morning so he can preach about drunks." Greene has not refused government advertising dollars in his newspapers, however, and in fact has responded vindictively over the years to local governments that did not use his papers for public notices and other ads.

As Greene built his newspaper business, he used the power of his pen to lean on local officials. Once, when the sheriff busted a liquor still without telling Greene in advance, a miffed Greene raised questions in his news article about the lawman's possible involvement with the bootleggers. He ran the sheriff's home phone number on the front page, too. "That got his attention," Greene recalls. "And we was called from then on." Another policy: If anyone asked Greene to keep something out of his newspaper, he'd put it on the front page in larger-than-usual type. (Law-enforcement officials were immune; he often helped the cops, going so far as to draw his gun and aim it at fleeing suspects.)

As Greene shot pictures and wrote indignant editorials, Mary Ellen cleaned up his spelling and sold the ads. "My wife could sell toe tags in a hospital waiting room," he brags. Greene prospered. Eventually, he bought the Mayo Free Press and the Branford News and started another new paper, the White Springs Leader.

When the longtime owners of the Madison Enterprise-Recorder sold out to another newspaper group that stepped up competition, Greene shifted to twice-weekly publication and hunkered down for war. He says he lost thousands of dollars for two years before he finally bought the Enterprise-Recorder himself. Today, he owns the two Madison papers (one comes out on Wednesdays; the other, on Fridays) and Madison County's community-access television station, the first such station in Florida.

Greene's good deeds

Greene made loyal friends and readers by sticking up for underdogs -- at least those he determined were the underdogs -- and by doing people favors. Ask town residents about him, and they rattle off a litany of good deeds: the time he kept a local family's Canadian son from being deported; and the time he railed against the county's dangerous "S" curves so harshly -- running graphic pictures from fatal crash scenes in his editorials -- that the DOT finally straightened out the roads.

Says Teresa Stalvey, who teaches psychology at North Florida Community College: "Everybody in this county knows that if there's something unfair happening to you, all you have to do is call Tommy Greene." Would she call Greene before she'd call the law? "Yes," she says. "And the sheriff's my uncle."

But Greene's zealous pursuit of his agendas has made him plenty of enemies. And he's also pushed some questionable causes. In a case that divides the community to this day, Greene lobbied fiercely to get a proposed statewide hazardous waste incinerator located in the county. (The facility never got built.)

Good-old-boy politics

Greene also has long been accused of bias in covering local elections. Candidates who don't have his stamp of approval complain at best they get no ink -- and at worst they get vitriolic coverage. Property Appraiser Debbie Bassett says in her election campaign four years ago, her husband was accused of head-butting her opponent -- a pal of Greene's. The opponent filed charges, and Bassett's husband was arrested in July. Greene held the story until the last week of August, the edition before Mrs. Bassett's primary election. His front page screamed: "BASSETT ARRESTED."

Bassett and other local office holders not endorsed by Greene say their success shows that his control has weakened over the years and that his brand of good-old-boy politics is on its way out in Madison County.

But Greene still carries plenty of clout across north Florida. He's notorious for his annual "storytelling" parties, where governors and lawmakers feast on barbecue and share wild tales at a hunting lodge deep inside the thousands of acres of swamp and timberland Greene owns. "Several hundred people show up, and it's every congressman, every House member, every senator and every redneck from this part of the world," says former state Sen. Mallory Horne. (Actually, only the male members of those groups are invited.)

Over time, Greene has branched out into billboards, real estate and development. But the champion of access is secretive about those matters. Question him about his business dealings, and he lobs another one-liner: "You're waking up dogs that people don't even know is asleep," he complains.

Bassett, the property appraiser, says Greene -- who is constantly adding on to his eclectic, plantation-columned compound on State Road 53 (yes, it's green) -- refuses to pull permits for construction. Nor would he let her onto his property to assess his "treehouse" -- a weekend place only accessible by boat -- his hunting lodge or any other property he owns. She used a county plane to fly over and valuate them. "Until I was elected, his 'treehouse' wasn't on the tax rolls," Bassett says. "But every year, I continue to add value to it. Obviously, I haven't valued it high enough because he still hasn't come to see me about it."

Pat Lightcap, the longtime head of the region's mental health services department, says Greene's views on property rights, taxes and government officers are not unusual in this part of Florida. Part of the reason Greene remains popular among a large group of people in the county, says Lightcap, is that he expresses their views boldly.

Giving up his newspapers

But Greene says at age 62, he's tiring of his role. As former Mayor Bernard Wilson puts it, "I think Tommy's gotten real sick of everybody wanting him to be bully boy." Earlier this year, Greene turned both newspapers over to his daughter, Emerald Greene Kinsley. "It's hard shoes to fill because I've always been known as Tommy Greene's daughter," says Emerald, who shows a bit of rebellion by wearing her namesake color only two or so days a week.

Greene says he's retiring from newspapering for more creative pursuits. He draws and paints. He's in the middle of a striking, 20-foot Cypress wood carving of the history of the county. For years he's been recording tales of his own wild exploits and other stories he remembers about his equally rowdy father, for a memoir called "The Belly Side of Me and My Trashy Friends." He's also working on a film about north Florida, a game cookbook and a history of Madison County.

Madison is one of the oldest counties in the state, and Greene rattles off its history during a tour of stately plantation homes, crumbling shade tobacco barns and Confederate gravesites. The first Confederate officer killed in the Civil War, Capt. Richard Branford, was from Madison. Oddly, so was the first American hero of World War II, Capt. Colin P. Kelly. When Greene learned officials planned a bust of Kelly in a "Japanese garden," he nearly started World War III.

In the back rooms of the Enterprise-Recorder in downtown Madison, Greene houses a rich, musty collection of antiques from his family's past; an ancient yellow pine stump with five turpentine boxes cut into it, chippers, hackers and cups from the same trade. Greene claims he can't remember where he acquired the shiny white Ku Klux Klan robe with red tassles that hangs among his treasures. The current mayor of Madison, 84-year-old native Sumpter James, who is black, says while African Americans carry hard feelings about their people's treatment in the old turpentine industry and about Greene's stances on civil rights in the 1960s, "those days were different, and overall, I say he's an asset to Madison and Madison County because he calls it like he sees it."

While Greene says he's "trying desperately to let Emerald run this paper," others charge that he's still calling it like he sees it. Around town, lots of people doubt he's really given up control. His byline no longer appears in the papers -- except on some late-night accident photos -- but a new column called "Inquiring Minds Want to Know," by a J.F. Martin, has been causing a stir. The column runs with a photo of a sniffing hound dog. It's well-written and full of interesting -- but unattributed and unsubstantiated -- allegations. This summer, J.F. Martin attacked North Florida Community College, one of the best things Madison has going for it, and its dynamic president, Dr. Beverly Grissom. Officials at the college, as well as some community leaders, say they believe J.F. Martin is really Tommy Greene, and that this time he's gone too far. "Dr. Grissom is a very strong, intelligent woman who's done quite well, and that's not the way Tommy Greene's good ol' boy world likes it," says one elected official.

Greene claims that J.F. Martin is a pseudonym for a group of "intelligent, successful businesspeople concerned about our county." He volleys back another aw-shucks statement: "If it's well-written, then you know I didn't write it." Then again, Greene is notorious for elaborate practical jokes. He once had his weekend hunting guests believing they'd won the Florida Lottery -- he'd gotten up early Sunday morning to fake a winning ticket perfectly. He pulled it off so well, and held off telling so long, that the entire party of men packed their cars early and raced home to various parts of north Florida to celebrate with their wives and consider how they would spend their fortunes.

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