Born December 5, 1903, in Sullivan, Indiana, Nelson Poynter started doing double duties as a newspaper carrier and cub reporter after his father bought the St. Petersburg Times in 1912. He wrote his first story for the Times in 1914. It was about Tony Jannus, the pioneer commercial aviator. In 1925, he received a BA degree from Indiana University, followed by a master’s degree from Yale in 1927. Mr. Poynter knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life. "There never was any question what my career would be. Journalism was in my blood from childhood."
Before he became general manager of the St. Petersburg Times in 1938, he was editor and publisher of the Clearwater Sun and the Kokomo [Ind.] Dispatch; advertising and business manager of the Washington Daily News, editor of the Columbus[Ohio] Citizen and business manager of the Minneapolis Star.
In 1935, Mr. Poynter began buying stock in the St. Petersburg Times from his father and by 1947 he had become the majority stockholder. After having been editor of the Times since 1939, he became president of The Times Publishing Co. in 1953, on his father’s death, and chairman of the board in 1969, a post he held until his death at the age of 74. His life was full of a wide variety of experiences. He activated the U.S. Information Agency during World War II, and in 1948, he and his wife Henrietta founded the noted legislative news service, Congressional Quarterly. Committed to carrying on his philosophy of independent journalism to new generations of journalists, he began plans for The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, USF—St. Petersburg’s neighbor to the west.
During his lifetime, Poynter was honored in many ways for his special contribution to the betterment of our society. He was past honorary president of the Society of Professional Journalists/Sigma Delta Chi and an Associate Fellow of Silliman College, Yale University. In 1958 he received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award given by Indiana. He also received honorary doctorates from Stetson University College of Law in 1962, From Florida State University in 1970, from Eckerd College in 1973, and from the University of South Florida in 1978.
Mr. Poynter’s favorite slogan was that St. Petersburg and the West Coast of Florida should "the best place in the world to live." He committed his newspapers to the pursuit of that goal, including campaigns for racial justice and enlightened government at all levels. In 1964, the St. Petersburg Times was awarded a Pulitzer prize for meritorious public service.
Education was a passion with Mr. Poynter. James Reston affectionately called him "a great headmaster." He set himself a goal of paying back a million dollars each to Indiana and Yale for the debt he felt he owed them for training his mind. From local school bond issues to ground-breaking for new universities, he could be found leading, for he was a firm believer in the axiom that the future belongs to the young.
In 1950, when the Merchant Marine training base at Bayboro Harbor was deactivated, Nelson Poynter started a campaign to persuade the City of St. Petersburg to donate the land to the state. He committed himself to donate $500,000 to help buy additional land for expansion and was the principal contributor and fund raiser for the first St. Petersburg campus library. On June 15, 1978, Nelson Poynter, his wife Marion, business and civic leaders, educators, and students took turns with eight gold-painted shovels to break ground for the first phase expansion of the campus. A few hours later, Nelson Poynter suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died that same evening.
On May 15, 1981, the original campus library, now Bayboro Hall, was dedicated as a memorial to Nelson Poynter. The new Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, proudly continuing the Poynter tradition, was opened in 1996.