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John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents


This is a story about an amazing couple, John and Pegge Hlavacek, I met only a few years ago, decades removed from their adventures as globe-trotting foreign correspondents. Their fascinating stories are from way before my time but they are timeless because they personally speak to adventure, romance, intrigue, news, and history that they were there to experience and witness for themselves.  Their life together was like something from a movie or a play or a book. John has published a series of memoirs written by himself and by his late wife Pegge that document much of their intrepid adventures.  As my article notes, they don’t make couples like this anymore.  The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Prior to meeting, John and Pegge Hlavacek were young, intrepid reporters filing stories from news making capitals around the world. Then, when fate brought them together in Asia in 1951, they forged a life together that fed their mutual curiosity and hunger for adventure. It was all so Bogey and Bacall. Two dashing Americans falling in love in post-colonial India and the promise of its new democracy.

He was a breezy foreign correspondent. She, a posh former reporter-turned-public affairs officer. After marrying in Bombay and honeymooning in Rome, their whirlwind life took on all the intrigue and romance of a movie as they trailed after news from one exotic port of call to another. There was travel to fantastic spots. Hong Kong, Delhi, Darjeeling, the North Pole. Interviews with compelling world figures. Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Dalai Lama. Memorable sights. The Taj. The Himalayas. Meeting visiting Chinese and Soviet premieres. Visiting palaces, temples, ruins, museums. Haggling in crowded bazaars. Rushing to catch trains, planes, boats, ferries. And, always, hurrying to meet deadlines and beat the competition.

Just like they broke the mold with Bogey and Bacall, they don’t make couples like the Hlavaceks anymore. What a match they made. He with his boyish enthusiasm, rakish charm and rugged good looks. She with her fresh, feisty, unspoiled spirit and down home wile. As exciting and enchanting a lifestyle as they led, what made it more storybook was that when Pegge met John, she was a widowed mother of fraternal twins she had with her first husband, who was killed in China. Gallant John took on the instant family and he Pegge soon added three children of their own.

The Hlavaceks’ years chasing stories and kids are told in two new books authored by Pegge, Diapers on a Dateline and Alias Pegge Parker, a pair of great reads written in her clean, colorful prose style. She actually wrote the manuscripts in the 1960s, but when she could not find publishers she put them away. After being stricken with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, John, who still cares for her at their Rockbrook area home in Omaha, unboxed the pages, read them again, and impressed, sent them off to an editor friend, who agreed they deserved a life in print. John then got them published via iUniverse, a vanity press in Lincoln, Neb.

Now 86, Hlavacek is proud of his wife’s work and glad, after all these years, to have finally seen her accounts of their rich lives on bookshelves. “She is a much better writer than I am,” he said. “Pegge has the gift of putting down in words a picture. She’s an excellent writer. I’m just a journeyman.” In a reflective mood these days, he’s writing his own memoirs from the diaries he kept and the letters he wrote during his early years overseas. In conversation, this unadorned man blithely recalls one fascinating chapter after another of his and Pegge’s foreign adventures, leaving the listener, if not himself, awed by the sheer magnitude of their stimulating lives.

A native of LaGrange, Illinois and a graduate of Carleton College (Minn.), where he was a star athlete, Hlavacek originally came to the Far East in 1939 to teach English in Chinese mission schools. He went on a fellowship from the Carleton-in-China exchange program, which his football teammates signed him up for while he recovered from appendicitis. The way it all came about, he said, is indicative of “how accidental my whole life is.” It was not the last time his life took a major detour as the result of some seemingly random act. Not a religious man, he chalks up all these events to “serendipity,” saying: “I’ve got a little star following me around. All of my life, nothing’s been planned. It just happened.”

Going to the other side of the world then was far from routine. “My folks were not too thrilled with the idea of my going,” he said. “In 1939…all they knew about China was famine and disease, and they thought they would never see me again. It was like going off to war.” War came soon enough.

In Peking, he took intensive language courses. By the end of his stay at the mission schools, where his status as the only American made him “a celebrity,” he spoke passable Chinese. On holidays, he traveled widely in-country and also got his first glimpses of India and Pakistan, visiting Rangoon, Calcutta, Agra, Dehli, Peshawar, the Khyber Pass and Kashmir. The first of two schools he taught in was comfortably outfitted. “We had a cook and a bearer and a valet.” At the second, situated on an old temple site, life was more “primitive,” he said. “I just had a little room for my office and another room for my bed. We had vegetable oil lamps.” He enjoyed his time over there. “I liked the Chinese. I got along with them very well. I had a ball.”

With the outbreak of WWII, he felt compelled to help the beleaguered native populace and, so, he signed on with the International Red Cross. He “fell in” with a group of Welshmen driving medical supplies over the Burma Road, a “rugged” job, as daunting for the red tape as the conditions. “Every time we went out, we had to get permits from the local officials to show where we were going and what we were doing,” he said. “Much of the road was mountainous, with switchback turns. Trucks had accidents. They got stuck in mud. Springs broke. Batteries died. But, fortunately, none of the people I was with ever got killed.”

He saw flashes of the war from places like Chintang and Chungking. “Japanese bombers would go over us, heading for Chengtu. One time, I was fortunate to survive a bombing raid,” he said.” We were down in a hotel dugout when a bomb landed on the front of us and another on the back of us. There was a lot of explosions.” After his Red Cross duty ended, he applied his language skills to the U.S. military attache as a decoder and interpreter, helping track troop movements.

In another example of the way things have fallen into place for Hlavacek, he was in a Chungking hotel one “cold, dreary, wet night” in February 1943 when he struck up a conversation with John Morris, eastern manager for the United Press news service. Hlavacek recreates the scene: “We had lots to drink and we were sobering up in the morning in front of a big fireplace when I said, ‘Mr. Morris, what does it take to be a United Press correspondent?’ He said, ‘What have you done?’ And I told him, ‘I’ve taught English and I speak Chinese.’ ‘You’re hired,’ he said. Thus, without a shred of newspapering experience, Hlavacek talked his way into a foreign correspondent’s job he made his life’s work the next 25 years.

One of his early assignments overseas saw him covering the American 14th Air Force commanded by Major General Claire Chennault. “I got a big scoop. I was the only American journalist when they evacuated the city of Heng Yang. The Japanese were coming down from Changsha. I was in the last jeep leaving the city.” On their way out, U.S. forces destroyed key installations to spoil the invaders’ advance, and by joining-in the patriotic Hlavacek found himself part of the story. “We blew up an airfield. We threw grenades into buildings to make them burn up,” he said. “It was a great story and I sent it in and they (UP editors) killed it. It never got published. You see, we had censorship at that time.” But his actions were recognized when he received a citation from Gen. Chennault for aiding the military.

It was not the last time Hlavacek aided those in need. His wife writes about a 1955 episode in which he and another journalist pulled wounded Indian protesters to safety after Portuguese troops fired on them. It was all in the line of duty, he said.

After Heng Yang, Hlavacek fell ill. Recuperating back in the states, he got a baptism-by-fire on the UP’s New York night cable desk. Sent back abroad, he rose through the ranks to bureau chief in Bombay, getting news from London by Morse code, editing and printing it off and then sending it out to papers via bicyclists. His territory extended across all of India and into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ceylon. He employed stringers, but also reported, snapped pics and, later, shot TV footage himself, often doing all three on one story. “I got to know how to do all this just by doing it,” he said of his self-taught news career. It helped, he said, “to be nosey.”

He was there for the press conference announcing the partition of India. He lived through the Bombay riots of 1946 and ‘47. He once walked two hours with Mahatma Gandhi. He saw Nehru’s rise to and fall from grace and power. Everywhere he went, the big affable American was known for his good humor and winning way with kids. Besides a few scrapes with rebels, including being imprisoned in Nepal, and some bouts of dysentery, he emerged from Asia unscathed. The bachelor lived and breathed news in his UP post, which saw him cover everything from riots to celebrations and untouchables to heads of state, but nothing prepared him for the dark-haired American girl who stole his heart.

A native of Harrisburg, Pa., the former Margaret Lyons displayed an early aptitude for spinning tales and seizing opportunities, like the time, at age 17, she convinced the publisher of the Harrisburg Telegraph to start a youth column, Teen Topics, which she wrote while still a high school student. She wrote under the pen name Pegge Parker, which remained her non de plume the rest of her writing life. The column proved so popular that when she decided to try her luck in Washington, D.C., the publisher kept it as a regular feature. In the nation’s capital, Pegge landed a night reporting job with the Washington Times Herald, where she became a pet of its owner, Cissi Patterson, who liked the way she took the measure of congresswoman Clare Booth Luce in a piece. Plucky Peg’s wartime reporting from the homefront included first-hand features she did on maneuvers with the Tenth Armored Division and the Paratroop School in Fort Benning, Ga., complete with pics of “the Amazon girl” atop a Sherman tank and harnessed in a control tower chute.

One of the biggest exclusives she scored was an interview with Margaret Mitchell, who had retreated from public life after the sensation of her book, Gone With the Wind, and the mega-hit movie made from it.

Soon, however the beltway beat’s political wrangling and society finagling grew tiresome for Pegge. Her restlessness peaked so much that, in 1943, she got as far away from Washington as possible by taking a reporting job with the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska. The great white wilderness, then not long removed from its untamed gold rush days, proved a rich news source for the young journalist, who met its salty characters, viewed its rough-hewn beauty and traveled to its remotest regions, even venturing to the Aleutian Islands and the North Pole. One of her stories, about a lottery awarding a gaudy cash prize to anyone guessing the exact time the ice breaks on a river, was published in the Readers Digest. Years later, Pegge said of her time in Alaska, “I loved every minute of it.”

Wanderlust called again in 1949 when, without knowing a word of the language, much less a single solitary soul, she embarked for China. She went, minus even a reporting gig, on pure blind faith things would work out. They did, too. The New York Daily News picked up the stories she filed from the Great Wall, Shanghai, Peking and the frontier mountain regions. Even though he didn’t know her yet, Hlavacek appreciates the spunk she exhibited then as “the girl on the go. Where I just kind of went along with things,” he said, “she went out and pursued them.”

It was in China she met and married her first love, Doug Mackiernan, an American scientist serving as an American vice consul in a distant and politically sensitive part of China. She bore him fraternal twins. When Communist-fired tensions rose there, she and the twins went to live in America, where Pegge got the news he’d gone missing. Weeks passed before it was confirmed he was killed by Tibetan border guards while fleeing China. At the time, the Chinese publicly accused Mackiernan of being a spy, allegations Pegge and U.S. officials refuted. Years later, it was revealed MacKiernan had indeed been a CIA agent.

Grief-stricken, she accepted her husband’s old post. Leaving the twins in the care of his parents in Boston, she went off to serve as a vice consul in Lahore, Pakistan before ending up a public affairs officer in Karachi. It was in Pakistan she met John. Despite a testy first encounter, the news hounds knew they’d found their match.

“We didn’t like each other at first. You have to understand, she was working for the government and I was a reporter, and there’s a natural antipathy there,” he said. Then there was the way he upbraided her for leaving her children at home while she went gallivanting about Asia. She explains in Diapers on a Dateline how, at first, she was enraged at his impudence. Then, she felt guilty, because she knew he was right. Finally, she was fascinated by this man who took such interest in reuniting a mother and her children. The die was cast. Their Bombay marriage took place in 1952 in the chapel of St. Xavier’s College, presided over by a friend of Hlavacek’s who was a Spanish Jesuit priest.

Headstrong personalities are bound to clash, and while John and Pegge have enjoyed 51 years of marital harmony, there’ve been times they’ve butted heads. “We’ve had our fights,” he said. “We’re both competitive.”

Raising five kids largely in a downtown Bombay hotel, with the family’s suite also serving as an office to Papa John, who was often away on assignment, the Hlavaceks somehow made it all work. Pegge ran things while he was gone, the ever-present typewriter strewn with diapers and toys. As if not hard enough making ends meet with seven mouths to feed, 11 counting the family’s bearer, driver, cook and their beloved aiha (nanny), Tai Bhai, the UP’s chintzy pay and shoestring budgets made matters worse. Pegge writes humorously about her obsession with shopping for bargain trinkets and relics from the wallas (peddlers-merchants) she could never refuse. The couple’s many homes have been adorned with the artifacts and just plain junk they’ve acquired over the years.

What hardships the family endured, they will tell you, were more than made up for by the enriching experiences they shared among themselves and with the world.

The Hlavaceks broke some of their biggest news stories in India. John befriended Tenzing Norgay, head sherpa on Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic Everest ascent, and told his tale for the first time in a UP story syndicated around the world. When John learned famed Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossillini, then married to Ingrid Bergman, was having an illicit tryst with a much younger married woman, he enlisted Pegge to get the scandalous goods, and she did. Pegge also made a splash when she co-authored a story with Nehru’s sister about the Indian prime minister.

When the rival Associated Press cut into UP’s India market, John lost his job in 1957. With things looking bleak he then received — “out of the blue” — the Council of Foreign Relations’ Murrow Fellowship at Columbia University, a windfall, he said, “which saved our bacon.” The family lived a year in New York. Hankering to be where the action was in the Cold War, he studied Russian for an expected Eastern bloc assignment, but instead he and Pegge followed their nose for news to the Caribbean and the region’s growing political strife. The family lived in Jamaica, a haven for the rich, the famous and the infamous.

From their hillside bungalow near San San as their island base, John fed radio and TV reports to NBC News and he and Pegge filed stories for Time-Life. They did pieces on exiled dictators Juan Peron and Zeldivar Batista, who despaired to the Hlavaceks, “They call me a murderer,” and John nabbed a world beat exclusive on the assassination of Rafael Trujilla. On a lighter note, the couple cultivated stories on famed composers Rodgers and Hammerstein, fading matinee idol Errol Flynn, evangelist Billy Graham and James Bond author Ian Fleming and they hobnobbed with the vacationing Kennedys and Johnsons and Princess Margaret.

With Castro’s ascent to power in Cuba, John went there as NBC’s primary correspondent, getting jailed and deported once for pressing too hard on a story. He interviewed all of Castro’s cabinet, but never “got to” the leader himself.

By 1964, Hlavacek’s network contract was up and his search for a news gig brought him and his family to Omaha’s then-NBC affiliate, KMTV, for whom he became a news analyst and roving correspondent. In a rare move for a local station, then news director Mark Gautier and general manager Owen Sadler let Hlavacek, with Pegge at his side, go far afield for news gathering sojourns, including trips to Vietnam, Africa and Europe. His Vietnam dispatches from the battlefront, which profiled ordinary GIs from the heartland, proved popular. He was a one-man crew, too — reporting, writing and filming. Between his field reports and analysis, he was part of a serious era in local TV news that’s long gone. “Well, it’s all fun and games now. Mark Gautier was a strict newsman. He didn’t believe in the happy talk that’s all the rage now,” said Hlavacek, who marvels at the instant news allowed by today’s digital-satellite technology and “the big production” TV makes of things.

Pegge’s pen was busy, too, as she wrote columns for the Sun Newspapers and Council Bluffs Nonpareil, among other publications, and hosted a radio show.

In the ‘70s, Hlavacek, a Democrat, scratched an itch to run for public office, losing a Congressional bid before winning a seat on the Omaha City Council. By showing his political colors, he found his journalism career closed. “Nobody would hire me,” he said. Still needing to earn a buck and looking to stay put in Omaha, where the family had put down roots, he started a travel agency, TV Travel, that capitalized on his and Pegge’s globetrotting expertise. After selling the business in 1983, he and Pegge remained in Omaha but continued hopscotching the world for pleasure, including several trips to China, where they visited old haunts and new sites.

Their grown children, all Westside High grads, are doing well. Two are doctors. One’s an airline pilot. Another’s in e-commerce. And still another’s an author.

Now, John’s days revolve around Pegge and memories of their high times. He takes her to an adult day care, after which they go to the Swanson branch library, where they pore over newsapapers. “We’re news junkies,” he said. “She’s at her best in the morning. She knows who I am and everything else. But at night she’s not quite sure whether she’s in Harrisburg or in Omaha. It’s rather discouraging…this terrible disease. I don’t know how many more years we’ve got.”

Rummaging through a lifetime of mementos at their home, everything he comes across evokes a story from their halcyon days as reporters. “I’ve got lots of stories,” he said.

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  1. June 21, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks. If there’s anyone you know who might dig it, please refer or link them to the site.

    Like

  2. August 29, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    I don’t think I ever saw this article before. Amazing work here.

    Like

  1. August 11, 2018 at 4:29 pm

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