Ocean City Today

John M. Purnell

Jan 25, 2018
John M. Purnell

printed 01/26/2018

Ocean City

John M. Purnell, a longtime journalist and Ocean City, Maryland native, died Jan. 18, 2018 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after a brief illness. He was 73.

Purnell was an award-winning reporter for The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Florida in the 1970s and ‘80s before he joined the Washington Times in Washington, D.C., where he worked for several years as a Federal metro reporter and columnist.

Purnell also wrote for the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore News American and Worcester County Times.

During his long career in newspapers – which began at age 5 as a section inserter and delivery boy for the Ocean City Post – Purnell covered everything from murder trials to human-interest features.

“I was always interested in papers,” he once told Thom Smith, an editor at The Palm Beach Post, who wrote a piece on Purnell.

Among his many assignments for The Palm Beach Post were the 1976 Guatemalan earthquake and the controversial 1979 execution of convicted killer John Spenkelink.

He would go all out in pursuit of a story. While reporting on migrant-labor conditions around Belle Glade, Florida in 1972, he was arrested for trespassing at a sugar-cane farm. His conviction was later thrown out on appeal.

“It’s a reporter’s responsibility to familiarize himself with his subject matter and the persons and issues involved,” he told Smith. “Reporting is a totally immersing job.”

To better communicate with South Florida’s burgeoning Spanish-speaking population, Purnell took time off to study Spanish in Bogota, Colombia and Salamanca, Spain.

He had a lighter side, too.

“He was provocative and very funny. And he always knew the latest gossip,” said Anne Krueger, a former colleague at The Palm Beach Post.

Growing up in Ocean City, Purnell was a regular at the Pier Ballroom on the Boardwalk. His dance skills won him and friend, Hazel Bunting (now Hazel Freeman), a spot on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” television show.

“He taught me five new dance steps,” Freeman recalled, and the two used them to clinch their audition for “American Bandstand.”

Purnell graduated from Stephen Decatur High School, and then went on to pursue a journalism degree at the University of Maryland in College Park, where he was editor of the daily campus newspaper, the Diamondback. He pursued further studies at Penn State.

Even though he pursued a different path, Purnell was proud of his family’s long history in hospitality in Ocean City. In the early 1920s his father, William H. Purnell, along with his father, bought the landmark Atlantic Hotel, on the Boardwalk at Wicomico Street. They rebuilt the hotel in 1925 after a fire destroyed the property.

Purnell’s mother, Sarah Lynch Purnell, whose father founded Ocean City’s first bank, helped operate the Atlantic for more than 60 years, including a time when the now-defunct dining room served as many as 1,500 meals a day.

The Atlantic Hotel is still operated by members of the Purnell family.

Survivors include, brothers, William H. Purnell Jr. (Kaye) and Charles D. Purnell; nieces, Charlotte A. Purnell (Scott Smith) and Tara Purnell Bruning (Scott); and nephew, William H. Purnell III (Jody) and their two daughters, Mae Elizabeth and Eva Daisy.

Purnell had been living in West Ocean City in recent years. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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