When Adon Taft began his news career as a 24-year-old copyboy at The Miami Herald, he never thought the job would lead him to working for the paper for 49 years, among them 37 as religion editor.
But as one of the longest-serving religion reporters and editors in the nation, he says the religion beat has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
In recognition of his many contributions to religion reporting and to the Religion Newswriters Association, the board voted to award Taft, 87, the 2013 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award. The RNA announced the award today (May 7, 2013) and Taft will formally receive the award at the organization's annual conference, which takes place in Austin, Texas, from Sept. 26 to 28, 2013.
Born in Pittsburg, Kansas, Taft always had a love for news. As a child, "I wrote stories and laid out newspaper front pages and pretended to broadcast college football and major league baseball games" and idolized NBC sportscaster Bill Stern, he says. His passion for journalism followed him to high school in Hyattsville, Md., where he was the editor of school's yearbook.
Even during more than two years in the Army after high school, from 1944 to 1946, Taft found a way to practice journalism during a short stint as a sports editor at the Army-run American University student newspaper in Biarritz, France. For most of the time, though, he fought as a member of the 100th Infantry division in southern France and Germany, for which he earned Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Upon discharge, he attended the University of Arizona, where he was the college paper's sports editor before graduating in 1949.
A journalism professor introduced Taft to the Miami Herald's managing editor and his quickly rising career began. Taft graduated to the sports department, where he put together race charts and was later named the polo editor. The polo teams moved out of the region and Taft spent a year covering county government in Fort Lauderdale before running a one-person bureau in Key West.
"Key West then was a real Navy town and the place where President Truman had the Little White House. I walked with him, along with big name pool reporters and a Secret Service escort, every morning down to the Carribe Restaurant where he had a cup of coffee," he recalls. "We also had the worst air disaster in U.S. history up to that time while I was in Key West. A Navy plane crashed into a Pan Am flight over the city and they plunged into the ocean just off the city." Taft returned to Miami where he continued to cover federal courts and offices until 1955.
"It was about that time that The Herald, like some other major newspapers, was beginning to recognize the importance of religion as news since men and women coming back from World War II were flocking to churches and synagogues with their families. Building of worship places was booming. Bishop Fulton Sheen was the second most recognized personality on TV after comedian Milton Berle," he says.
Because he was well-known in the office as an ordained Southern Baptist deacon, managers asked Taft to become religion editor. He held the position full-time for 37 years. For his last three years as a full-time staffer, he covered the aging beat, and continued to cover aging as well as religion for six years as a part-time writer.
Among his stories: the effect of Vatican II reforms, the birth of liberation theology, the rise and fall of televangelism, the explosion of the charismatic movement, the growth of interfaith efforts and the rise of Islam.
"Our field of religion was impacted during my time by great discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, a proliferation of new translations of the Bible beginning with the Revised Standard Version in 1951, Supreme Court rulings removing Bible reading and prayer from the daily schedule in the public schools," says Taft.
"For me, many of those developments were best described in terms of the people I met in covering the stories, such as William Albright, the greatest Biblical archeologist of the 20th century and such a master of the Semitic languages that the best educated American rabbis studied under that Methodist genius at Johns Hopkins. One of his students was Father Raymond E. Brown, the priest whose ordination I covered at St. Rose of Lima Church in Miami Shores, who became the first Catholic appointed to the faculty of the Union Theological seminary in New York, one of Protestantism’s leading institutions. He became the Catholic Church’s leading Biblical scholar. He was the authority on the writings of the apostle John."
As a reporter, Taft met and wrote about some of the biggest names in of the 20th century. They included Mother Teresa, Corrie ten Boom (author of The Hiding Place), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King and Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral.
Taft's work earned him a place in Time magazine in 1960, which dubbed him "pastorate of the press."
According to Time:
When Adon Taft goes to church, someone is forever mistaking him for the minister. The error is understandable because Taft looks and acts like one. He is tall, deacon-grave, bespectacled, softspoken; above his generous brow, from which the hair is steadily receding, there sometimes seems to hover a nimbus of reflected light. He neither smokes nor drinks, goes to church 200 times a year, is married to a church organist, and reads the Scriptures to his two young daughters. Taft's calling is not spiritual, except at one remove. Adon Taft, 34, is a working newsman and one of the nation's best in his field.
His work not only earned him accolades in the press but among journalistic organizations. A longtime RNA member who also was a key member of the Florida RNA chapter in the 1980s and 1990s, Taft served as RNA's Vice President in the 1960s and won the Supple award for feature writing. He also won the the Religious Heritage of America Faith and Freedom Award in Journalism, the award for coverage of religion in the secular press from the National Religious Publicity Council, the R.S. Reynolds Award for Religious News Coverage from the General Council of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida RNA and First Place in Non-Deadline Religion Writing from the Florida RNA. (The Florida RNA chapter has since closed.)
In his spare time, he taught social sciences at Miami-Dade Community College and journalism at the Miami Christian College and Florida Bible College. He was also a guest lecturer at Travecca Nazarene College, the University of Florida and the University of Miami, and earned an M.A. in history from the University of Miami. In 1978, Taft began broadcasting a weekly religion news program on Miami's ABC affiliate, which lasted several years.
"Interestingly, many of the issues within religion in those days remain the same today despite all the discoveries, developments and personalities that have come along. Among them: homosexuality, inerrancy, race relations," Taft says.
"It also seems true that news coverage of religion has come almost full circle. When I started, religion news was considered sermon topics and times of services. At its height, at the Herald we had three pages of church news and one page of synagogue news a week on a regular basis with a jump to five and two on holidays plus front page or local page features throughout Lent or Holy Week or High Holy Days and often on any day in any section of the paper when warranted. Now, the number of religion writers on major papers has dropped from 2 or three to maybe one part-timer. More often than not the field is considered to be more the topic of ethics than any broader view of religion."
Now retired in Brooksville, Fl., near Tampa, with his wife Alfrieda, Taft still is writing. He pens occasional columns for Hernando Today, the Miami Herald and numerous other publications.