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Veteran AP Georgia newsman Dick Pettys dies at 66

In a Monday Feb. 2, 2004 photo, Associated Press staff writer Dick Pettys, left, jokingly holds up a recorder to get offhand comments, to the laughter of House Speaker Pro Tempore Dubose Porter, center, and Majority Caucus Chairman Calvin Smyre, during a celebration of his 35 years with AP covering the State House, pictured after the general session at the capitol in Atlanta. Pettys, who was a fixture at the Georgia state Capitol for more than three decades and a well-respected mentor to other journalists, died Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 following a massive heart attack at his north Georgia home. He was 66. (AP Photo/John Amis)

In a Monday Feb. 2, 2004 photo, Associated Press staff writer Dick Pettys, left, jokingly holds up a recorder to get offhand comments, to the laughter of House Speaker Pro Tempore Dubose Porter, center, and Majority Caucus Chairman Calvin Smyre, during a celebration of his 35 years with AP covering the State House, pictured after the general session at the capitol in Atlanta. Pettys, who was a fixture at the Georgia state Capitol for more than three decades and a well-respected mentor to other journalists, died Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 following a massive heart attack at his north Georgia home. He was 66. (AP Photo/John Amis)

ATLANTA — Dick Pettys, a longtime political reporter for The Associated Press who was a fixture at the Georgia state Capitol for more than three decades and a well-respected mentor to other journalists, died Monday. He was 66.

He died following a massive heart attack Monday afternoon at his north Georgia home just outside of Clarkesville, said his son Richard R. Pettys Jr.

Pettys covered Georgia politics from the time of Govs. Lester Maddox and Jimmy Carter through the end of the Democratic Party's political control of the state and the election of Georgia's first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction.

"For years, Dick was every Georgian's eyes and ears on the state budget and those who controlled it," said Maryann Mrowca, the AP's assistant bureau chief for the South Atlantic Region. "Even when politicians did not like what he reported, they knew he was fair, accurate and kept the same eagle eye on all in power to make sure they were held accountable for their actions and inactions."

Dubbed the "dean" of the Capitol press corps, Pettys was a fixture under the Gold Dome for 35 years. An insider with a reputation for evenhanded reporting, he had the ear of everyone from governors and House speakers to low-level clerks.

His death stunned current and former leaders in Georgia politics and journalism.

"I'm very saddened. Dick was a newspaperman's newspaperman," said former Gov. Roy Barnes. "He was a fixture at the state Capitol and knew more about what was going on than anybody I knew. He was quiet but thorough."

Matt Towery, CEO of InsiderAdvantage Georgia, was Pettys' boss after Pettys retired from the AP in 2005.

"I'm heartbroken," Towery said. "He was a fabulous guy. There was only one Dick Pettys."

Bill Shipp, a longtime political columnist and a Georgia journalism institution in his own right, knew Pettys from the beginning of Pettys' career covering politics.

"Dick over the years set the standard for the rest of us as a down-the-middle reporter who knew how to bring the news to everyone in a clear, concise and unbiased manner," Shipp said. "He was the best there is. His profession, we journalists, will miss him."

Joan Kirchner, now deputy chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., worked alongside Pettys in the AP's Capitol office throughout the 1990s.

"He was a legendary reporter and a Georgia institution. And he was the best mentor I could have asked for when I arrived at the Capitol wet behind the ears not knowing who to talk to or what to do," Kirchner said.

"He taught me so much in the time I spent covering the Georgia Legislature," added Michael Giarrusso, AP bureau chief for Arizona and New Mexico who worked with Pettys at the statehouse in the early 1990s. "Never compromise your ethics or morals to get a story. ... Never back down to bullies, even if they are in high office. Don't dare show bias in anything you do. And it was OK to have fun. I never smiled more at work than I did working with Joan Kirchner and Dick Pettys."

Sonya Ross, the AP's Race and Ethnicity editor, covered the Georgia Legislature from 1989 to 1992 with Pettys.

"Dick was a golden person, and he was always just so respectful and so good," she said. "I'm just really shocked. I learned so much about politics just being around him."

Aaron Gould Sheinin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Capitol bureau recalled the Georgia Senate honoring Pettys upon his retirement from the AP. The chamber allowed him to speak from the rostrum. "First time that had happened," Sheinen said of such treatment for a reporter. "We joked and called him 'The senator from the 47th,'" a play on how the senators — who hail from 46 districts around the state — address one another on the floor.

Over the years, Pettys butted heads with many of those he covered. His son recalled hearing of one instance when Pettys revealed and disrupted a legislative plan to carve out a sweetheart congressional district for then-state Rep. Sam Nunn.

"In the rotunda of the Capitol, Sam Nunn comes up to dad and sticks his finger out at dad and says, 'You have nullified me.'"

Yet Nunn and other leaders knew they would get fair treatment from Pettys, the son said.

"He prided himself on being fair and balanced before fair and balanced was cool," he said.

In addition to Richard R. Pettys Jr., Pettys is survived by his wife, Stephanie S. Pettys; two other sons, William Howland Pettys II and Clement Nelson Pettys; a brother, William Pettys Jr.; and a sister, Barbara P. Macon.