By Martin E. Comas, Orlando Sentinel
5:13 PM EDT, May 22, 2013
Charley Reese, a retired Orlando Sentinel columnist who for decades argued forcefully for less government and more personal freedom, died Tuesday. He was 76.
Reese, who lived in Seminole County, died of respiratory failure after a long illness, family members said.
A self-described "constitutional purist," he started working for the Sentinel in 1972 and two years later began writing a column that would continue through 2001.
"He was more concerned with the individual, and he felt that the government should be more of a servant of the people," said Manning Pynn, a friend and a retired Sentinel editorial page editor.
Reese's writing developed an intensely loyal following during a time when metropolitan Orlando was a decidedly more conservative region than it is today.
Still, Reese did not always follow the conservative line, and sometimes embraced a libertarian viewpoint instead. His readers did not always agree with him, said Jane Healy, who was a longtime Sentinel editorial page editor.
"He was very blunt, and he told it like it was," Healy said. "Nothing was too controversial for him. He really was one of a kind."
By the mid-1980s, his column was being published nationwide and his following grew. In 1999, C-SPAN viewers named Reese as their favorite columnist in a poll.
Reese's last Sentinel column was published July 29, 2001, but his work continued to be syndicated by King Features until 2008. His last column for King alluded to health problems as part of the reason for ending his long run.
When family members asked Reese about his favorite column several weeks ago, he pointed to the "545" column he wrote for the Sentinel on Feb. 3, 1984. It still resonates with his fans today.
"He said it was the one column that people always remember him for," said daughter Alice Reese Gawronski of Winter Park.
The column argued that all of the country's problems rest with the 545 people who are granted power in Washington, D.C., through the Constitution — 435 representatives in the U.S. House, 100 senators, nine Supreme Court justices and the president.
"When you fully grasp the plain truth that 545 people exercise complete power over the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist," Reese wrote. "If the tax code is unfair, it's because they want it unfair. If the budget is in the red, it's because they want it in the red. If the Marines are in Lebanon, it's because they want them in Lebanon."
In his final column for the Sentinel, Reese acknowledged that he had "made a lot of people quite angry" over the years. But that didn't bother him.
"As a writer, I've always written without regard for the consequences," Reese wrote. "I've always figured that once I've told the truth (as best as I can determine it at the time), then my job is finished. How people choose to react to that truth is not my concern."
Before he would start writing a column, he would immerse himself in research.
"He was the most well-read man I've ever known," Gawronski said. "In the hospital, someone started talking about Russian literature and [writer] Dostoyevsky. And Dad could hold up his end of the conversation."
Born in Washington, Ga., Reese grew up in Georgia, East Texas and the Florida Panhandle. In 1955, he got a job as a reporter for the Pensacola News. He later was hired as a caption writer with Planet Newspapers in London.
In 1957, Reese returned to the United States and served two years in the Army. He later served as a speechwriter for Florida Gov. Claude Kirk.
In his private life, Reese was a soft-spoken man who didn't prefer the limelight, his daughter said. However, he often gave speeches to local organizations.
"He was very quiet," Gawronski said. "He had a few close friends. And he wasn't a real social guy. But I was always really amazed that he would give speeches around town. He would have note cards with a few notes and would speak for about an hour. But if he was at a party, he would sit in a corner and talk to maybe one or two people."
In his columns, Reese often spoke out against gun-control laws, calling them "an effort by elitists to control the people, whom they naturally fear."
He also reversed his position on Israel. After supporting Israel for years, Reese wrote that the Palestinians "had indeed been done a grave injustice."
In his last Sentinel column, Reese wrote: "I've had a lot of fun in the newspaper business, in politics, in the Army, as a reserve deputy, and in the advertising agency business. I plan to have fun as a retiree."
In addition to his daughter, Reese is survived by sons Benjamin Reese of Pensacola and Ted Reese of Milton; and six grandchildren. Reese's wife, Gretchen, died in 1996.
A Community Funeral Home & Sunset Cremations, Orlando, is handling arrangements.
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