Remembering Dolph Honicker

Friday, February 19, 2010 at 4:55pm

Dolph “Bunny” Honicker never lost his passion. That much is evident from the extensive columns and comments that turn up in a Google search of his name.

Until just a few months before he died on Feb. 11 at 79 years of age, Honicker was the same verbal pugilist on behalf of left-wing causes that those who knew him during his 37 years in the Tennessean newsroom remember vividly. The man was a rare breed: a righteous ideologue who was fun to be around, no matter what your politics might be.

Honicker spent his last years in LaGrange, Ga., where he had begun his journalistic career with the La Grange Daily News. That newspaper's full obituary is available at this link. Plans for a memorial service have not been announced, but an RIP page on Facebook is here.

Honicker helped break the biggest story of his life at age 24, while working at Alabama's Montgomery Advertiser. He was in Montgomery Circuit Court on Dec. 5, 1955 when local seamstress Rosa Parks was fined $10 for refusing to leave a seat in the whites-only section of a city bus.

His story that day gave Montgomery's citizens the first indication that the African-American bus boycott organized in prior days was succeeding. "Several buses seen on downtown streets today carried nothing but white passengers from front to rear," Honicker wrote.

Honicker was primarily a copy editor and news editor at The Tennessean. By the 1970s, he and wife Jeannine had become high-profile protesters against nuclear power — and Honicker never built much of a firewall between his political passions and the job of being a supposedly detached and unbiased journalist.

The specter of an ardent leftist with potential influence over a large daily newspaper apparently concerned the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1976, news emerged that the FBI had recruited Tennessean copy editor Jacque Srouji as an informant, in part to keep watch over Honicker. Time magazine reported that Srouji may also have acted as a agent provocateur, trying to entice Honicker into committing illegal acts.

Higher-ups at the paper, including editor John Seigenthaler, fretted for decades about Honicker's politics but kept him around out of respect for his talents. "He was a gifted journalist and a great friend," Seigenthaler said today.

One former staffer today recalled the night in 1986 when news broke of the Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. "Our copy chief was a freaking wreck," the former copy editor remembers. "Seig had told him, in no uncertain terms: 'Do not let Bunny touch that story.'

"First page proofs come down from composing, and Bunny starts looking them over, peering over those glasses. Then it comes: 'The headline should say such and such. This paragraph is wrong. This should be changed.'"

"Bunny, you know you aren't supposed to touch that story," the copy chief told him. Honicker replied:

"If your copy editors weren't such dumbasses, I wouldn't have to."

A high-volume verbal set-to ensued, then abated -- that's just how things were in the newsrooms of old. (The rival Nashville Banner's employee handbook included the rule "no brawling in the newsroom.") The former copy editor remembers the chief, in the aftermath, "clenching and unclenching his fists, looking like his head would explode."

Finally, the exasperated colleague delivered one last salvo: "Besides, Bunny, you went to Auburn, g__-d__n it, what do you know?"

Honicker finally pushed his agenda too far in 1996, when he was already set to retire. As Nashville Scene media critic Henry Walker reported at the time, editors came down hard on Honicker for using Tennessean letterhead to make Freedom-of-Information-Act requests to the Tennessee Valley Authority regarding his personal political interests.

After being called on the carpet and, as he put it, "berated like a naughty school kid," a furious Honicker made the whole affair public and submitted his resignation, but was persuaded to hang around through his retirement date.

Walker, a Nashville attorney, today said Honicker "exemplified the passionate journalist who seems to have largely disappeared from the city rooms of mainstream dailes" and noted that 'he was also an unorthodox but very competitive tennis player and my friend."

In recent years, Honicker wrote occasional columns for the La Grange Daily News. One of his last ones, published in October 2009, showed him still in high dander, this time against a fellow liberal:

"When I voted for Barack Hussein Obama last November," Honicker wrote, "I voted for an elephant gun that would sweep the corruption, mendacity and militarism from the Cheney/Bush White House. Instead, to date at least, it seems we've wound up with a Daisy air rifle that scatters harmless shots in all directions."

Ken Whitehouse contributed to this story