On the passing of political reporter Rebecca Ferrar (aka ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Becky Bear’)

Rebecca Lynn Ferrar, who died of a heart attack this week at age 72, was given the joshing nickname ‘Lucifer’ during 11 years in Nashville as a reporter on state government and politics for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

She was my professional colleague for those years and a friend both before the newspaper’s management sent her to the state capitol to beef up reporting on state-level government and after they sent her back to Knoxville to shrink such coverage in accord with nationwide media downsizing trends (and, it’s fair to add, to enhance coverage of East Tennessee government and politics).

A highlight of her post-Nashville work brought awards for coverage of “Black Wednesday” in 2007, when Knox County commissioners met behind closed doors to appoint successors to a slew of county officials thrown out of office by a state Supreme Court decision involving term-limit provisions in the county charter. She was a witness in the trial of a lawsuit filed by the News Sentinel and others that lead to invalidation of the appointments because they violated the state’s open government laws.

I called her ‘Becky Bear.’ In personal temperament, the red-haired woman could range from teddy bear tendencies that would make her suitable for cuddling by kids to the growling and snarling of a gut-shot grizzly. She was a remarkable character – a political junkie, caring mother, rabid Tennessee Vols football fan, hostess of frequent and lively parties, an intense competitor in the professional arena (at a time when there was a lot more competition among journalists than now) who often displayed a great sense of humor.

The ‘Lucifer’ label originated with Leslie Hafner, who got her start in state government by answering the phone at Gov. Don Sundquist’s press office back in the 1990s. (Today, Hafner is a lobbyist, having since served in various governmental positions including Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief legislative liaison and as senior advisor to House Speaker Beth Harwell.)

Rebecca laughed about being called Lucifer, said Hafner in a phone conversation, and “wore it as a badge of honor.” It was, after all, a joking label and, after getting to know Ferrar better than as a voice over the phone demanding immediate attention to her inquiries, “you could see her warmth.”

Ferrar worked a total of 27 years for the the News Sentinel, covering East Tennessee politics both before and after her stint at the state capitol. A UT graduate, she had worked for the Mountain Press in Sevierville before that.

A highlight of her post-Nashville work brought awards for coverage of “Black Wednesday” in 2007, when Knox County commissioners met behind closed doors to appoint successors to a slew of county officials thrown out of office by a state Supreme Court decision involving term-limit provisions in the county charter. She was a witness in the trial of a lawsuit filed by the News Sentinel and others that lead to invalidation of the appointments because they violated the state’s open government laws.

In her reporting, Ferrar was typically tenacious in insisting on prompt responses to questions and occasionally belligerent in reaction to the traditional political dodging of direct answers. But in her writing, Ferrar was an old-school professional who would set aside personal opinions – she had them on most topics — and ardently and successfully strive for objective, straightforward articles.

She was also on occasion at odds with her employer as a leader of the local newspaper union chapter that opposed a series of cuts in staffing and benefits. On her retirement day in 2011, Ferrar’s shouted parting profane comment in the newsroom – she used the ‘F’ word — reflected such sentiments and is legendary in Knoxville journalism lore.

Her family, including son Chris Ferrar of Denver, Colo., has scheduled a “celebration of life” memorial service for Sunday afternoon at Mynatt Funeral Chapel in Fountain City. The funeral home obituary is HERE. The News Sentinel story on her death is HERE.

An excerpt from the obit: “In lieu of flowers please donate to The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ); The Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE); or The Cat Shoppe in Nashville, TN.”

Rebecca was an SPJ and IRE member. She was also loved cats and for decades would name a series of household pets “Felix.” (One lived, as I recall, to the age of 19.)

Friends have also scheduled a wake on Nov. 16 at Knoxville’s Club LeConte.

Note: Tennessee Journal Editor Erik Schelzig looked through the publication’s files for references to Rebecca during her days on Capitol Hill. Here are excerpts from some of those he found:

January 31, 1994
If loose lips sink ships, state Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) could doom an entire fleet. Cohen was on a conference call with his secretary when she left a message on the answering machine of Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Rebecca Ferrar, but the secretary didn’t disconnect from Ferrar’s line. Ferrar’s answering machine then recorded Cohen’s conversation with his secretary in which Cohen, in very explicit language, trashed almost every member of the Senate Democratic leadership for a redistricting plan that gutted Cohen’s district — including Speaker John Wilder of Somerville. As it was, the Senate won a stay of the court order requiring new districts, and Cohen has been spared for now. Word had been that Cohen was singled out because his abrasive, arrogant style has alienated everyone in the Senate, although Cohen in the past said he has plenty of friends in the Senate. Well, had may be a better word.

September 23, 1996
“Whereas, Rebecca Ferrar proves that being 50 doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a grown-up; and whereas, Rebecca manages to get to work on most days before noon; and … whereas she makes all the state flaks quake and cower when she calls … now therefore, I, Don Sundquist, Governor of the State of Tennessee, together with Martha Ingram, Al Gore, and my beloved Bailey, do hereby proclaim Saturday, September 14, 1996, as the Rebecca Ferrar ‘Sounds Good to Me’ Semi-Centennial Celebration Day.” — Excerpts from a proclamation the governor signed for Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Rebecca Ferrar’s 50th birthday.

December 22, 1997
(Headline) Manning madness infects governor
In the minds of rabid Tennessee Vols fans, the failure of Peyton Manning to win the Heisman Trophy was the most outrageous occurrence since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even Gov. Don Sundquist weighed in, telling reporters, “It stinks.” Ah yes, Saturday, Dec. 13, a date that will live in infamy.

Last Wednesday, in a page-one story in The Tennessean, Sundquist was accused of racism by a Nashville NAACP official and by a local academic who gives reporters predictable responses when called about such matters. The basis of the charge? Sundquist referred to Heisman winner Charles Woodson as “this guy from Michigan.” Woodson is black.

The saga doesn’t end there. A day later the governor signed a petition to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, which awards the trophy, protesting “the flawed voting process and the regional bias” that resulted in Peyton’s not being the winner. The petition was presented to him by Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Rebecca Ferrar, who drafted it with fellow Tennessee football maniac Alisa LaPolt, a Nashville Banner political writer and former flag carrier in the UT band. House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh signed the petition, too.

Meanwhile, on the UT campus, school officials and Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe ceremoniously initiated a process — which ultimately will require city council approval — to rename a street Peyton Manning Pass. Don’t laugh. It’s better than Peyton Place. The star quarterback himself, still recovering from a knee infection, wasn’t present. The very next day, Athletic Director Doug Dickey said the school is considering retiring Manning’s No. 16 jersey.

A tip for the governor and UT fans everywhere: Forget the Heisman. It’s over. And put aside individual honors for a while and let Manning and all the other players focus on the real matter at hand — Nebraska.

Update/correction: Sonya Ferrar, Rebecca’s daughter-in-law, advises via email that the senior Felix the cat was 21, not 19, when he died.

4 Responses to On the passing of political reporter Rebecca Ferrar (aka ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Becky Bear’)

  • Mark Drury says:

    In a community of reporters with dark, cynical senses of humor, Rebecca was a leader. Because print reporters staffed the Legislature daily and TV reporters only occasionally, it wasn’t uncommon for me and my broadcast brethren to be treated as interlopers. Rebecca was always competitive, but courteous and I felt like I was a colleague to her. I was proud she included me in the circle of those Ned Ray considered “dog ass” reporters.

  • David Collins says:

    While I never had the good fortune to personally meet this great lady, her reputation and stories I did hear about her made her feel like a good friend–or the type person one would want to be a good friend of. I am afraid that she now joins the company of a vanishing breed of reporters. Those who aren’t afraid of the powers-that-be and are willing to charge in a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” type fashion into a good story. It is the reporters of her ilk that have helped our republic survive. Hopefully, there will be more to follow in her footsteps. Rest in peace Lady Ferrar.

  • Steve Adams says:

    Tom
    As always you did a great job capturing Rebecca. She was a fair and decent Ball of Fire!

  • Sue Allison says:

    Tom, no one knew her better than you did. I’m so pleased you wrote this perfect remembrance and I look forward to hearing your “eulogy” Sunday.

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