By CHRIS YAKAITIS, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - He worked in relative obscurity in a tiny, cramped office in the basement of the State House. His colleagues say that sometimes, they didn't even know he was there.
But his readers did. For more than 40 years, hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland got their news of Maryland government and politics from Tom Stuckey. His fellow reporters and the politicians he covered say when the longtime State House correspondent for the Associated Press retires on Nov. 30, it will mark the end of an era.
"There's probably no byline that's better known in Maryland," says Mike Silverman, managing editor for the AP in New York.
Barry C. Rascovar, a political columnist for the Gazette newspapers in the D.C. suburbs and himself a former State House reporter, calls Stuckey "a state resource."
"He was such a diligent reporter for decades... And yet he was so respected by generations of legislators and governors for his fairness, his accuracy and his balanced reporting," Rascovar says.
For dozens of small and mid-sized newspapers across the state, Stuckey, 67, has served as the primary source of news from Annapolis since coming to the State House in 1964. His dispatches on state government traveled across the AP wire daily to client newspapers.
Editors from those papers say Stuckey, a soft-spoken man with thinning gray hair, will retire with an unparalleled wealth of knowledge about state government that may never been seen again.
"He is just so knowledgeable about Maryland politics, the people who are involved in Maryland politics, how they think and what they do," says Denise Riley, executive editor of the Easton Star Democrat. "I think he's almost irreplaceable."
John W. Frece, a one-time friendly rival with United Press International's competing wire service, agrees that no one in the Annapolis press corps could match Stuckey's institutional knowledge of state history and heritage or his familiarity with Maryland's political players.
Frece joined the Annapolis press corps in 1978 and says for a while he was second to Stuckey in terms of experience covering the State House. "But it was like being second to Cal Ripken," he says. "It hardly mattered."
An East Texas native, Stuckey is the son of an oil field worker and a school teacher and the youngest of four children. He started working for the AP in Austin in February 1962 while still a graduate student at the University of Texas. But by the end of the year, he had relocated to Baltimore for an AP reporting position. He never finished his graduate degree.
"What have I done?" he remembers thinking after accepting the job. "I've been to Baltimore one time in my life - driving through on the way to New York, and all I remembered was the women out polishing the white marble steps which they used to do."
Less than a year later, Stuckey had moved to Annapolis. Apart from a brief nine-month return to Texas, he never left.
A few politicians tried to lure Stuckey away from the AP over the years. In the '70s, he was also offered the chance to become an AP editor and bureau chief in New Orleans. But Stuckey says he always knew he was better suited for reporting.
"I only stayed because I really liked it," he says. "Eventually [the AP] said, 'We're not going to offer anything else.'"
Frece says Stuckey's commitment to his job has become rare in a profession where reporters switch assignments or news organizations with increasing frequency. "It stuns me how few editors understand the value of [longevity]," he says.
Riley says for papers such as the Star Democrat, Stuckey provided State House reporting that was consistently reliable and devoid of any political leaning.
"He really works hard to make his stories fair and balanced," Riley says. "I was confident when I got a Tom Stuckey story that it was based on good facts, and we could play that story and not get blindsided by somebody the next day."
Adds Rascovar, who covered the State House for The (Baltimore) Sun in the 1970s: "He didn't play favorites, he didn't slant a news story. He just reported the facts and gave both sides of an issue fair play."
Stuckey keeps his political views to himself - even in his last weeks on the job. He says he enjoyed covering all eight administrations that came through Annapolis during his career and adds only that he thought Gov. Marvin Mandel was a particularly effective executive.
Mandel has nothing but praise for Stuckey, who he describes as "the epitome of what a good reporter should be. He reports the news; he doesn't try to make it." He says even when many reporters adopted a more investigative, antagonistic approach to covering politics, Stuckey remained true to the facts.
"With his personality, [politicians] knew that he was going to report it straight on - there wasn't going to being any magnifying, there wasn't going to be any change," Mandel says. "He is the type of person who reporters should look at for their own well-being."
In person, Stuckey is as unassuming as his political coverage. He stands about five feet, five inches tall and weighs scarcely more than 100 pounds. Though he never married, he lives in Bay Ridge with a family that he has adopted as his own, including two 14-year-old twin grandchildren. A handful of snapshots of the grandkids hang on the corkboard by his computer, next to a simple haiku written by one of them almost a decade ago.
Stuckey says he's not sure who will replace him as the next State House correspondent for the AP, or what his final story will be about next week. He won't even speculate on just how many Tom Stuckey stories have been printed across the state, saying only that he's written "millions of words."
For Stuckey, millions of words are apparently enough. He calls himself one of the rare reporters who doesn't want to write a book.
He says he has no immediate plans for retirement: "I'm going to wake up on December 1 and see what I feel like doing."
And as politicians such as U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., call to offer their congratulations on his long career, Stuckey seems almost embarrassed by the attention his retirement has generated. Hanging on the wall in the tiny AP office is a plaque that reads, "The Tom Stuckey Press Room - 'The Dean' of the State House Press Corps - Associated Press 1962-2006."
"The better you do it, the less anybody is going to know who you are," says Fraser Smith, senior news analyst for radio station WYPR in Baltimore. By that measure, he says, Stuckey was one of the best.