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Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

Nehru and Gandhi at the opening of the Indian ...

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As a kid I watched John Hlavacek on a local network television affiliate’s newscasts and documentaries, and as a young man I was aware of him serving on the Omaha City Council, and operating his own travel agency. I vaguely knew that he had been a foreign correspondent.  It was only a few years ago though that I met him for the first time and got to know more of his story.  He and his late wife Pegge were both reporters in the Golden Age of American journalism.  Their life stories of living and working around the world are as amazing as those of the historical events and figures they covered.  In the last few years John has had published several books authored by himself and Pegge that recount their adventures. I have also posted the story I wrote about John and Pegge and their adventures, but the following piece is about John and two old reporter friends of his from back in the day.  The three men hadn’t seen each other in decades until John arranged for their meeting in Omaha for a panel discussion.  I covered the event and wrote this story for  The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


They were three young lions of American journalism when they met far from home, a long time ago. John Hlavacek of Carleton College (Minn.) and Jim Michaels of Harvard were green United Press foreign correspondents based in post-World War II India. In wartime Hlavacek trucked medical supplies over the Burma Road for the International Red Cross. Michaels drove an American Field Service ambulance. Each was imprisoned there: Hlavacek for days; Michaels for months. New Yorker Max Desfor covered the war in the South Pacific as an Associated Press photographer.

The paths of these three men crossed in 1946, when their lives-careers intersected with India’s historic bid for independence from British colonial rule. Last spring, they came together for the first time in 60 years with the publication of a book, United Press Invades India, by Hlavacek, an Omaha resident who invited his colleagues to participate in public forums about their intrepid reporting days. The men shared stories and observations during two panel discussions in Omaha.

After being out of touch all that time Hlavacek began the process of reestablishing contact with his old colleagues while working on his memoir. Facts needed checking and where Hlavacek’s memory faltered, he relied on Desfor and Michaels to fill in the blanks. By the time the book was completed, Hlavacek suggested he and his comrades reunite. The men still correspond today.

John Hlavacek

The book that helped bring the old colleagues together was Hlavacek’s second volume of memoirs based on his overseas adventures in India and China, where he taught English in an American mission school in Fenyang as part of the Carleton in China exchange program. Hlavacek now has a third volume of memoirs out, Freelancing in Paradise, that recounts the years he and his wife Pegge, a fellow journalist he met and married in India, filed stories from the Caribbean for national media outlets. He’s also published two books authored by Pegge about her own far flung news career and the couple’s remarkable feat of raising five children while working in India, New York, Jamaica and Omaha.

For Hlavacek and Michaels, now in their late 80s, India began long, distinguished careers in journalism. As bureau chief in Bombay, Hlavacek built up UP’s presence there and under his aegis the news service proved a formidable rival to their bitter rival, the AP. He won what’s now called the Edward R. Murrow Fellowship for study at Columbia University, he covered the Caribbean and after moving with his family in the early 1960s to Omaha, where he was a television news correspondent/commentator, he filed a series of reports from Vietnam on area residents serving in the war.

Michaels got the scoop of a lifetime when he broke the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. He joined Forbes Magazine in 1954, was made editor in 1961, a post he held until 1999. He’s credited with turning Forbes into one of the world’s most read financial pubs. A VP today, he can be seen Sundays on Forbes On Fox.

Before India, Desfor already made memorable images: of the Enola Gay crew upon their return from the mission that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; and of the Japanese surrender to the allies on the USS Missouri. Soon after his arrival in India in 1946, he snapped a famous picture of Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in an unguarded moment of friendship. “You see the interchange, the compatibility, the simpatico. It’s just an enormous moment,” he said. The iconic pic was used as the basis for a popular Indian postage stamp.

Desfor won a Pulitzer Prize for news photos for his work in the Korean War. In all, he shot five wars, many conflicts and much civil strife. He later served as an AP  photo executive/editor before retiring in 1979. That same year though he joined US News and World Report as director of photos. He made his 1984 retirement permanent, but he’s till snapping pics, only now with a digital camera. He’s 93.

Max Desfor posed in front of picture taken of himself during the Korean War

These young lions turned wise old men of journalism reunited for panel discussions in Omaha in 2006. They took to their role as pundits well. They spoke about the momentous events they reported on, the way the news biz has changed and how the India and China of today differ from the developing nations they knew then.

Hlavacek said the troika may be the only surviving American journalists to have met Gandhi. While his colleagues minimize Gandhi’s ultimate influence, Desfor said “he had a moral effect” of lasting import. Michaels said by the end Gandhi was “almost irrelevant” for opposing “industrialization or modernity. Had Gandhi lived, he said, “he would have been loved but nobody would have paid attention to his views.”

The ascetic led a huge movement yet was quite approachable. Unlike today’s restrictive climate, the press had unfettered access to major public figures then.

“A journalist’s access to events in those days was so much more intimate than it is today,” Michaels said. “Gandhi was a world figure, yet he had these prayer meetings when he was in Delhi that the public could come to. If you got there early you could sit right up in front and ask him questions. Or, as John (Hlavacek) did, you could go right up to him and ask for an interview. Today, you wouldn’t be able to get through the masses of hired guards, spin meisters, the whole lot.”

“Once, I wanted to interview the number two man in the cabinet of Independent India, Vallabhbhai Patel, a very important figure in Indian independence,” Michaels said. “So, I drove up in my little car to his place, knocked on the door, a servant answers and says, ‘What do you want?’ I say, ‘I’m from the United Press of America  — I’d like to interview Vallabhbhai Patel’ He says, ‘Wait a minute,’ takes my card and five minutes later ushers me into the garden, where Patel and I had tea together and I had an interview. That kind of immediacy today simply does not exist.”

When Hlavacek wanted to interview Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Muslim leader in the free India movement, he simply stopped by his flat. He had similar access to presidents (Nehru, Indira Gandhi), religious leaders (the Dalai Lama), royalty (Aga Kahn) and dictators (Juan Peron of Argentina, Zaldivar Batista of Cuba).

“There are many great stories I had the opportunity to cover,” Hlavacek said. “It was interesting. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of worries from time to time, too. And you were always in competition. You were always trying to beat someone.”

“It was a wonderful era for being a correspondent,” said Desfor, who with his Speed Graphic made pictures of great personalities that “will live forever in history books. This is what gives me such great pleasure,” he said.

When Michaels arrived at the scene of the estate where Gandhi lay fatally shot, he was among the first there. The grounds were open and he could move freely about to ask questions and make observations. After sending off his first dispatches at a nearby cable office, he returned to find the area cordoned-off by police and a large group of reporters and peasants gathered outside the closed and guarded front gates. The reporters there earlier with him were now inside.

“I thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to get beat on this story. I better do something,” Michaels said. “So I went around the back. I knew the area pretty well. And I climbed through the hedges and, wow, staring me right in the face was an Indian constable. I desperately searched in my wallet for my old Geneva card, which I carried as an ambulance driver during the second world war. I flashed this card, which was very impressive, and he said, ‘OK, sahab.’ So I got in. I saw as they brought Gandhi’s body out on the balcony for the people to see. I saw a famous woman photographer (and correspondent) for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, thrown out physically when she refused to stop taking pictures.

“I saw all these great Indian leaders sitting around crying. I witnessed Nehru, the first prime minister of India, get up on the wall with tears streaming down his face declaring, ‘The father of our country is dead.’ I witnessed all these scenes.”

The phalanx of competing news groups was far smaller then, too, compared to the unwieldy mobs that descend on news events today.

“The independence of India was one of the great events of the century. It was huge news. Yet it was covered by less than 100 journalists,” Michaels said. “When Hong Kong became independent less than a decade ago, there were 8,000 journalists covering it and the ones that got there had to cover it by watching it on TV. Today, everything is staged. Access to events is tightly controlled.”

In the process, Michaels said, “something is lost between what you read and what happens. The whole nature of the profession has changed — I don’t think necessarily for the better. The news business today belongs more to presenters.” “You have to be an actor,” Hlavacek interjected.” “You have to be a performer,” Michaels agreed, “and what you get is filtered through these presenters.”

Another major difference between then and now is the rate at which news is disseminated. Filing stories from the field in Third World nations once meant getting the news out via mail or cable or teletype, all of which took time. Sometimes just getting from a news event to a dispatch office could take hours of travel. Now, stories can be filed from the most remote or dangerous regions, even war zones, almost instantaneously due to satellite phone lines and the Internet.

“The speed of communication is what’s really changed,” said Hlavacek, who adds “the 24-hour circuit” of news coverage puts hard copy newspapers in a tough spot. “You used to break a story in a special edition. It’s too late now.” Michaels believes the ever growing online info world “is killing newspapers.” To those who worry a point-and-click universe prevents analysis, Hlavacek said, “No, it doesn’t, but this is spot news and it never did. Analysis can come later.” He marvels at “the emergence of the Internet” and is encouraged that “there’s so much information out there. I don’t think you can control it. At least I don’t see that you can.”

The dynamic economies and rising technocracies of India and China have caught the men’s notice. Michaels often goes back to India, where he’s interviewed current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Michaels said India’s ascendancy “is one of the great unheralded revolutions of our time.” He said the planned socialist state under Nehru and his successors resulted in an India that “stagnated from the time of independence right through 1989.” Michaels, who calls  Singh “a very impressive man,” credits him with engineering “a revolution from the top” that urged Indian leadership to abandon the old system in favor of “a free enterprise model.” The result, he said, is a “booming” economy. While India prospers, its caste system’s inequities still pervade the society, said Hlavacek, who’s also been back. The India-Pakistan divide, they agree, is one born of religious-political differences.

Last fall Hlavacek visited the mission school in Fenyang, China he taught at under Japanese occupation. On his 10-day China trip he was most impressed by all “the change,” he said. “That’s the difference.” He said while China is still “ostensibly a Communist country, they’re the greatest capitalists in the world.” “They call themselves Communists,” said Michaels, who’s been there, “but everybody winks and nobody really believes that.” The journalists believe China and India will grow as trading partners with each other and with the U.S. as their economies continue to grow. As the world changes at an ever faster rate, Hlavacek said journalism remains “a higher calling.”

For three old men, a lifetime of curiosity has not waned. The world is still their oyster. The news, their metier.

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