Pulitzer Prize winning Columbus reporter, ex-UGA football team chaplain McBride dies

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 26, 2013 

Known in Columbus for helping the Ledger win the most coveted award in journalism, the Rev. Claude Walton McBride made an impact worthy of a lifetime even after he left his native city's newspaper.

McBride, who was a pastor of a small-town church in Louvale, Ga., and the chaplain of a big-time football program at the University of Georgia, died Friday at Athens, Ga., his home. He was 81.

McBride's son, Walt, said he died from liver disease as a result of diabetes.

Although he pastored UGA royalty -- from Vince Dooley to Herschel Walker -- McBride also reached out to the common folks. One day, he knocked on the dorm door of a student to tell him his father had died, and the student lamented he couldn't drive home because his car had broken down.

"Here, take mine," McBride said.

That's why his son likes to say his father "knew only one sermon but a thousand ways to preach it: a sermon about love."

McBride graduated from Baker High and UGA, where he was a varsity cheerleader, member of the Redcoat Marching Band and the men's glee club, before he returned to his hometown to become a reporter.

Even while he was at the Ledger, McBride pastored New Hope Baptist Church in Louvale, where he met his wife-to-be, Gayle Gordy. He will be buried at that church in a private ceremony. A public memorial service will be conducted Sept. 22 at Milledge Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, where he was pastor emeritus.

In addition to Gayle and son Walt, he is survived by daughter Wynter and five grandchildren.

His first date with Gayle was at the Country Club of Columbus celebration of the Ledger's 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The citation honored the newspaper for "complete news coverage and fearless editorial attack on widespread corruption in neighboring Phenix City, which were effective in destroying a corrupt and racket-ridden city government."

McBride's stories about tracking gangsters equally enthralled and appalled his family.

"His mother was really scared that he would cross that river," Walt said, "much less report on those people."

Covering another news event gained McBride a different kind of fame but also showed his dedication as a reporter. He broke his leg when he inched too close to one of the race cars during a soap box derby. Walt laughed at the memory and said of his father, "When he was passionate about something, he was all in."

McBride was the youngest member of that four-man Pulitzer reporting team, but he left for a stronger calling two years later and earned a bachelor of divinity and a master of theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. After pastoring churches in Henderson, Ky., Jacksonville Beach, Fla., and Calhoun, Ga., he returned to Athens in 1964 to lead Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, where he served for 20 years and became the UGA football team's chaplain.

In 1983, he became associate director of the university's alumni relations. McBride also continued to influence crowds beyond the church and UGA. He was the guest speaker at hundreds of events as his alter ego, "Happy Calhoun from Possum Gap," dressed in tattered overalls and flashing a gap-toothed grin.

"He retired from the pulpit but not from the ministry," Walt said. "He loved life, and he loved people."

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