By Bob Allen
Career journalist and champion for a free Baptist press R.G. “Gene” Puckett died May 12, months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Puckett, 80, worked as a Baptist journalist longer than any person in the 20th century. He was a founding director of Associated Baptist Press and chairman of the board.
A native of Kentucky, Puckett was a graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
After pastorates in Kentucky and in Ohio, at age 25 he became editor of the Ohio Baptist Messenger and director of Baptist student work for Southern Baptists in Ohio in 1958. He left in 1961 to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dunedin, Fla.
In 1963, Puckett began work with the Western Recorder, first as assistant editor and later promoted to associate editor. In 1966, he was named editor of the Maryland Baptist, which also published the New England Baptist and the Penn-Jersey Baptist.
Between 1979 and 1982, he was executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit group founded in 1947 to defend, protect and preserve religious liberty and its corollary, the separation of church and state.
Puckett returned to journalism in North Carolina as editor of the Biblical Recorder in 1982. In 1990, he and other Baptist state paper editors formed Associated Baptist Press as a free and unfettered news service hours after the firing of the two top editors of Baptist Press by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. Puckett called that date, July 17, “a day to live in Baptist infamy” and editorialized about it each year on its anniversary until his retirement in 1998.
ABP recognized Puckett in 2011 with the Greg Warner Lifetime Achievement Award in Religious Journalism. Puckett credited his mentor C.R. Daley, who hired him at the Western Recorder, and contemporaries of Daley’s like Texas Baptist Standard Editor E.S. James; John Jeter Hurt, who edited both the Baptist Standard and Georgia’s Christian Index; and Reuben Alley of Virginia’s Religious Herald with teaching him about the integrity it took to be a Baptist editor.
“The effectiveness of any democracy depends on an informed constituency, and if Baptists don’t know, they can’t do,” Puckett said.
An endowment fund established in 2006 with a $125,000 lead gift from Puckett’s long-time friend, the late Ed Vick of Raleigh, bears Puckett’s name. Earnings from the fund support the ABPnews student internship program.
“Gene Puckett stood tall as a biblical and theological scholar; devoted churchman; exemplary husband, father and grandfather; and a professional journalist of the highest caliber,” said David Wilkinson, ABP executive director.
“Gene gave his best to his calling and to his craft,” Wilkinson said. “His hundreds of editorials across the decades stand as a tribute to the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his convictions as a Baptist Christian. His prophetic voice rang clearly, courageously and honestly, sometimes painfully so.”
Survivors include Puckett’s wife of 57 years, the former Robbie Lake of Mackville, Ky., two daughters and four grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 18, at First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. The family will receive friends following the service. Brown-Wynne Funeral Home at 300 Saint Mary’s Street is handling the arrangements.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial gifts to the Thomas Meredith Scholarship Fund at Wake Forest University Divinity School, 1834 Wake Forest Drive, Winston-Salem, NC 27106 or Associated Baptist Press, P.O. Box 23769, Jacksonville, FL 32241-3769.