Caldwell, longtime Reporter publisher, dies at 81

Mar 1, 2021


Recalled for investigative reporting in 1970s–'80s, devotion to community

Editor | Lake City (Florida) Reporter

Don Caldwell, a legendary figure in Lake City history and the fiery former publisher of the Lake City Reporter, died Feb. 8 following a lengthy illness, according to family members. He was 81.

Caldwell was the publisher of the Lake City (Florida) Reporter for 28 years before retiring from the newspaper business in 1998. He succeeded his father, Ray Caldwell, who also served as publisher of the then-afternoon daily newspaper that was owned by the New York Times Regional Media Group.

Caldwell was known for driving young journalists through tough issue stories of the day and providing the details to the Reporter’s readers. He earned a no-tolerance reputation for exposing corruption and “good-ole-boy antics” in Lake City and Columbia County in the 1970s and 1980s.

Caldwell was publisher of the LCR when the newspaper launched several in-depth investigative pieces that tackled everything from exposing a local prostitution ring to racketeering to illicit confiscated drug sales by law enforcement officers.

Some of Caldwell’s initiatives led to indictments and convictions of the perpetrators, a fact he and the Reporter staff were honored for during a special New York Times magazine feature in 1983 that lauded Caldwell and his staff for excellence in local journalism.

He and his news staff endured death threats; his office windows were shot out one night in 1975 from five shotgun blasts from a passing vehicle. The drive-by retaliation was in response to stories about corruption in Columbia County that were printed in the Reporter.

Caldwell took great pride in his personal opinion column, “Uncle Myral,” which he wrote regularly. His column was a mainstay feature in the Reporter during his tenure, always appearing on the front page of the newspaper.

“Don Caldwell was a notorious figure in Florida journalism and a man of influence in Lake City history,” said current Lake City Reporter Publisher Todd Wilson. “When Don led this newspaper in the 1970s and ‘80s, he was a polarizing figure, and there was no middle ground. Some people loved him while others greatly disliked him. Putting it in perspective, for a newspaperman, being in the middle, that’s right where he needed to be and how he should be remembered.”

Caldwell was described as an “old-fashioned editor” and a “Southern gentleman” by Ronnie Brannon, who served a short stint as circulation director at the LCR before becoming the Columbia County tax collector.

Dennis Roberts, a former public defender in the Third Judicial Circuit, called Caldwell a “dedicated newsman” who reported the bad as well as the good.

“Some people resented him over that,” Roberts said.

That dedication and the watchdog role that the Reporter took on under Caldwell’s guidance, though, also made the paper a must read, said Vernon Douglas, who served as county judge in Columbia County before becoming a Third Circuit judge.

“He made the newspaper an integral fiber of the community,” Douglas said. “I mean you woke up and read the newspaper in self-defense. And I don’t mean just the obituaries; you read the newspaper so you’d see how you did that week.

“That was kind of the reputation of the newspaper when Don Caldwell was the publisher. It was a critical component of the community.”

Douglas, who became friends with Caldwell early during his career as county judge, said he had friends warn him about becoming friends with a journalist.

“I knew the man, and he was worthy of trust,” Douglas said.

Still, that friendship didn’t sway Caldwell when it came to doing his job, Douglas added.

Caldwell’s son, Clay, agreed.

“He stood by his principles,” he said. “He was either loved or hated, but he printed the facts. That was tough on him, I’m sure, but he always stood his ground.”

While he was tough on corruption in the community, Caldwell was also a major supporter of Lake City and Columbia County.

Caldwell spent a lot of time working with youth sports, especially coaching youth baseball at various levels in Lake City.

“Don also had a passion to see Lake City grow and reach its full potential,” Wilson said. “During his career, he gave a lot of his time and energy to fundraising for struggling causes and really put himself into the hands-on effort of making Lake City and Columbia County a better place to work and live. He loved this community and the people who live here, and he wanted to see everyone do their best.”

He also played a main role in the creation of the Blue-Grey Army and the Olustee Festival, as well as the numerous air shows that were held here.

“If it was good for the community, he was involved,” Douglas said, adding his friend was an intellectual that made others think, as well. “That would be a great legacy if you could be remembered as someone who caused other people to think what’s best, what’s good for the community.”

Roberts agreed that Caldwell pushed to make the community better, whether it was being involved in civic affairs or work behind the scenes.

“He loved his job and this community, and he loved his friends,” said Patricia Caldwell, his wife of 25 years. “We’ll all remember him as the late, great Don Caldwell.”

Caldwell, a Mississippi native, served honorably in the United States Marine Corps. Following his military service, Caldwell attended college in Mississippi and in Jacksonville, according to his wife. His love of journalism saw him land his first newspaper job at the Fernandina Beach News Leader before coming to Lake City to take on the publisher role.

Gateway Forest Lawn Funeral Home of Lake City is in charge of arrangements, which were incomplete at press time.

Publisher Todd Wilson contributed to this report.