Former U.S. Press Secretary dies at 74
by Denise Strub
Jan 12, 2014 | 4102 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Larry Melvin Speakes, 74, former deputy press secretary to President Ronald Reagan and former managing editor of The Bolivar Commercial, died Friday at his home in Cleveland.

“He was thoughtful and pleasant to be around at all times,” said Delta State University President Emeritus Kent Wyatt, who added Speakes helped in acquiring appropriations for the university’s aviation program, which is the only one of its kind in Mississippi.

“We appreciate the leadership he gave to our country,” said Wyatt.

“He was a likeable and well-respected person,” said U.S. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.

“He was an easy person to be with and a professional journalist. He was well liked by other journalists.

“We were students together at the University of Mississippi and he was working for Sen. James O. Eastland when I was elected to the House of Representatives. Larry was a very well respected person on Capitol Hill and in Mississippi,” said Cochran.

“He was a delightful fellow and very medial savvy,” said Delta State President Bill LaForge, who added when he was in Washington, D.C., Speakes invited him to his press office for a tour.

“He was cordial and helpful and would take time for Mississippians,” said LaForge.

After Ronald Reagan won the election of 1980, Speakes worked with the transition team and subsequently was named deputy press secretary working under Press Secretary Jim Brady who was injured in the assassination attempt in March of 1981.

For six years, Speakes served as acting press secretary and held the title assistant to the president and principal deputy press secretary.  

In a statement issued from Los Angeles, former first lady Nancy Reagan said that she was "saddened to learn about Larry, who served Ronnie with great loyalty in one of the toughest jobs in the White House.

"He stepped up in very difficult circumstances and was an articulate and respected spokesman day in and day out, including some very historically significant moments," Reagan said. "It is a source of special sadness to know he suffered from Alzheimer's disease."

Reagan died in 2004 after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Republican Haley Barbour, who served as Mississippi governor from 2004 to 2012, was political director of the Reagan White House when Speakes worked there.

He said Friday that it wasn't unusual to have tension between the political office and the press office, but he and Speakes had a good working relationship.

Barbour said that within the Reagan administration, people generally admired Speakes' handling of the press, although Speakes could be abrupt.

"Sometimes, that meant reporters didn't get everything they wanted, and sometimes it meant they didn't get anything," Barbour said Friday. "But, Larry knew who he worked for."

Peter Roussel, who worked with Speakes in the Ford and Reagan press offices, said Speakes conducted more than 2,000 press briefings. "Larry set high performance standards for himself and for those who worked for him," Roussel said.

Weeks after leaving his White House job in 1987, Speakes said during a speech at East Texas State University that he often thought about the day Reagan, Brady and two others were wounded when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire.

"Shortly before the president left that day to go the Hilton Hotel to make a speech, I said to Jim, 'Do you want to go with the president, or would you like me to go?' And he said, 'I believe I'll go,'" Speakes said. "And had it not been in that one split second, I would have been exactly where Jim Brady was at that moment an hour or so later. ... It's not a day goes by that I don't think about that."

Speakes was born Sept. 13, 1939, in Cleveland to Harry Earl and Ethlyn Fincher Speakes.

He grew up in Merigold, graduated from Merigold High School, and received his bachelor’s of arts degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Speakes began his newspaper career at Ole Miss where he served as editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian.

After college he became editor of The Oxford Eagle and later returned to the Mississippi Delta where he served as managing editor of The Bolivar Commercial.

Several years later he became general manager and Editor for Progress Publishers in Leland.

In 1968 Speakes moved to Washington, D.C., and served as press secretary to Sen. James O. Eastland until 1974.

In the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Speakes was named staff assistant at the White House where he served as press secretary to the Special Counsel to the president in the Watergate hearings.

After President Nixon’s resignation, he was named assistant press secretary to President Gerald Ford.

During the presidential campaign of 1976, Speakes was press secretary to President Ford’s Vice Presidential candidate, Bob Dole.

After the election was lost to Jimmy Carter, Speakes worked for Hill and Knowlton, a public relations firm in Washington, DC.

He resigned in 1987 and became a vice president at Merrill Lynch in New York.

Speakes wrote a best seller book in the late 1980s, “Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House.”

He returned to Washington in 1988 and eventually held positions as vice president of communications and public relations with Northern Telecom and also the U.S. Postal Service from which he retired in 2008.

A private graveside service was held Friday at North Cleveland Cemetery.

He is survived by a daughter Sandy Speakes Huerta of Cleveland; sons Scott Speakes of Cleveland and Jeremy Speakes of Clifton, Va.; six grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Memorials may be made to Sunny Seniors, an Alzheimer’s Respite program at 107 S. Victoria Ave., Cleveland, MS 38732 or the Alzheimer’s Association of America, 322 Eighth Ave. 7th Floor, New York, NY 10001

On-line guest register may be viewed and signed at www.clevelandfuneralhome.net.