Leonard Pitts Jr., a mainstay as a news and features columnist at The Herald for 13 years, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary Monday.
Pitts' prize came after years of writing on issues ranging from popular music to race to family life in the modern era.
''I'm going to Disney World,'' quipped Pitts, after thunderous newsroom applause erupted when his prize was confirmed.
The Pulitzers, which are awarded by Columbia University, are considered journalism's top honor. The Los Angeles Times won five Pulitzers, and The Wall Street Journal was awarded two. The Toledo Blade won for investigative reporting, and The New York Times won the Pulitzer in public service for stories examining workplace death and injury.
Pitts, 46, has captivated readers for years with insightful, often highly personal, columns. His column on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks drew a worldwide response, and his work is widely reprinted in papers around the country.
Writing, he said in an interview, was his passion from a young age.
''When I was 5 years old, I called myself a writer,'' he said. ``When I was 12 years old, I started sending things to magazines, which appropriately sent them back.''
Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler said Pitts' singular achievement is diving into ''those issues that are really closest to us emotionally,'' often reaching conclusions that challenge commonly held beliefs of those on both ends of the political spectrum.
''He can be tough and he can be tender,'' Fiedler said. ``Agree or not with his conclusions, you can't read his columns without coming away smarter for the effort.''
Pitts agreed that one of his goals in writing is to deconstruct public issues and perceptions, often yielding results that surprise even him.
''Most people think whatever they think, but a lot of times it's unexamined,'' he said. ``I try to intrigue one reader, which is me.''
STARTED IN MUSIC
Pitts, a native of Southern California, joined The Herald in 1991 as a music critic. He had been writing about pop music for 15 years and was once the editor of a black tabloid in the Los Angeles area called Soul, now defunct.
He later made the shift to broader social and political topics, in part, because ''I didn't have to pretend to take Britney Spears seriously,'' he said with a laugh.
Pitts, who was joined in The Herald newsroom by his wife, Marilyn, lives in the Washington, D.C., area. The couple have five children.
He is perhaps best known for a column headlined We'll go forward from this moment.
The column, which ran on Sept. 12, 2001, began:
``It's my job to have something to say.
``They pay me to provide words that help make sense of that which troubles the American soul. But in this moment of airless shock when hot tears sting disbelieving eyes, the only thing I can find to say, the only words that seem to fit, must be addressed to the unknown author of this suffering.
``You monster. You beast. You unspeakable bastard.''
The column struck an emotional chord rarely seen in American journalism. Within two weeks the column had drawn 26,000 e-mails and been read aloud by Regis Philbin on his morning talk show.
''This is a wonderful thing at any point in the career of a journalist and in the history of a great newspaper,'' Herald Publisher Alberto Ibargüen said. ``But it's especially sweet coming for such a wide-ranging body of work. For years, many have thought that he deserved this recognition -- and certainly after his incredible 9/11 column that, literally, went around the world.''
It is the 18th Pulitzer for The Herald, whose previous winners include humorist Dave Barry, crime writer Edna Buchanan, cartoonist Jim Morin and editor Gene Miller, who won twice.
The Herald was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year in the breaking-news reporting category ''for its immediate and distinctive search for the cause of the Columbia space shuttle disaster,'' said the Pulitzer website.
Seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle broke apart Feb. 1, 2003. The paper was cited for coverage of the first day and also for a series of exclusive reports -- written from Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California -- in the first month after the tragedy.
Many of the reports were written by Herald staff writers Joe Mozingo, Ronnie Greene, Manny Garcia, Curtis Morgan and David Kidwell, under the direction of Judy Miller, managing editor/news.
Also writing or contributing to the 10 stories cited in the entry: Martin Merzer, Phil Long, Jason Grotto, Lisa Arthur, John Dorschner and William Yardley of The Herald, and Seth Borenstein of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau.
Among Pulitzers awarded in the arts, the prize for fiction went to Edward P. Jones for The Known World, a historical novel about a black slave owner.
The prize for drama went to Doug Wright, for I Am My Own Wife, his tale of a real-life German transvestite who survived the Nazis and Communists.