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A Peace Corps Retrospective


Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

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Another anniversary story.  It was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and I just happened to know a few veterans of that renowned service program, and so after they agreed to share their stories with me, those experiences formed the backbone of  what I wrote.  One of the individuals I profiled served in Afghanistan and the other three in India. All of them were deeply affected by what they saw and did and at some level that experience has informed everything they’ve done since then.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.  On this same blog you can find my profile of one of these Peace Corps veterans – Thomas Gouttierre, and his affinity for and work with Afghanistan.

A Peace Corps Retrospective

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Forty years ago, the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers landed in Ghana and Tanzania, Africa. The young, bright-eyed Americans were a new kind of emissary. Neither diplomats nor missionaries, they arrived in far-flung destinations with the appointed task of helping Third World peoples learn skills and develop resources for overcoming tyranny, poverty and disease.

Trained in various service assignments, ranging from education to health to agriculture, the volunteers embodied the idealism and vigor of America’s young, energetic President, John F. Kennedy, who had announced his vision for the Peace Corps in an October 14, 1960 campaign speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the nation’s youth to aid the developing world. Once elected, Kennedy reiterated the plan for an international volunteer corps during his January 20, 1961 inaugural address, asking a new generation of Americans to join “a grand and global alliance” to aid the dispossessed and pledging “our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

Kennedy’s clarion call was answered by thousands, including several Nebraskans. By September ‘61 Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps and by the end of that year the first contingent of volunteers left for their host countries. Within five years, more than 15,000 volunteers from around the U.S. were implementing Peace Corps projects in the field. As of 2001, 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries.

Among those heeding the call during that heady first decade were Tom and Marylu Gouttiere, Peter Tomsen, Beth Furlong and Ron Psota, five transplanted Omahans who were then fresh-from-college graduates looking for a way to make a difference and to find an adventure. Peace Corps duty proved a defining experience for each, indelibly changing the pattern, direction and focus of their lives. For each, it was a time of personal growth and broadened perspectives. They would never look at the world or its diverse people the same way again. For proof, each returned Peace Corps volunteer has given his or her life over to working with people and each has become a world citizen with deep, personal ties to the international arena.

Tom Gouttierre was either headed for a career as a master baker just like his father or as a manager with General Motors just like his friends when Kennedy’s call to service got him thinking beyond the parochial borders of his Maumee, Ohio hometown. “He was an inspiring guy. When he spoke I was just kind of taken by his message of going outside what we normally do,” said Gouttierre, who today directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies and heads the International Studies and Programs Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

 

Tom Gouttierre

 

 

From the time he was a child Gouttierre had been curious about the wider world and longed for journeys that would open up its vast horizons to him, only he lacked a way to make it happen. By his early 20s he was studying liberal arts at Bowling Green State University, but remained frustrated in his efforts to break from the mold. That’s when he and his wife, Marylu, decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the Peace Corps. After training in Vermont, the couple was assigned to Afghanistan, a remote, forbidding country that would figure prominently in the rest of their lives. During their 1965-1967 tour, the couple was based in the capital city of Kabul. He worked as an English-as-a-foreign language instructor and basketball coach at Lycee Habibia high school and she as a physical education instructor at Kabul University and a business instructor at all-girls schools.

“We were one of the few married couples,” said Marylu, an Oriental rug retailer. “It was an unknown experience. We had no idea what to expect, whether our language skills would help us or where we would live. There was no telephone. No television. No communication. It was a really exciting experience, a really scary experience, but also a very rewarding experience, and after awhile we just both fell in love with the culture and the people. It’s good to give some of your own services to others, but when you do that you gain so much also.”

Especially in the early 1960s, countries viewed Peace Corps volunteers “as a kind of feather in their cap,” Tom Gouttierre said, and much of that enthusiasm had to do with foreign peoples’ admiration of Americans. “The students I worked with tried to take everything out of me that they could. They were curious as hell. They were always wanting me to do something with them or for them. It was flattering that your skills were that attractive to this group of people. Before Vietnam really got kind of overbearing, Americans, largely because of the impact of Kennedy, had a real appeal for the younger generation. I can’t tell you how many times some Afghan came up to me to express their sorrow at the death of Kennedy. ‘He was a great man,’ they would say. That was a great asset for any Peace Corps volunteer. You had this icon who helped elevate your own position in their eyes. Today, America is viewed a little differently and for that reason it’s probably more difficult to be a Peace Corps volunteer now, even though living conditions are better.”

Tom Gouttierre’s Peace Corps service set the stage for a distinguished professional life with deep ties to Afghanistan. He and Marylu returned there in 1969 when he studied abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and they remained there the next six years as he headed the Fulbright Foundation and coached the national basketball team. The Gouttierre’s oldest child, Adam, was born in Afghanistan. During his UNO tenure he’s built a massive archive on Afghanistan, supervised education programs there, participated in United Nations fact-finding junkets there and appeared before Congress addressing issues relating to Afghanistan.

Since leaving, he’s watched with a heavy heart as the nation crumbled under the strain of successive crises — from a war with the former Soviet Union to civil strife to the oppressive Taliban regime to the current specter of American-Allied retaliation for harboring terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Many of his former students have been lost. “I’ve seen what one my call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said. “To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates is very, very sad.”

His thoughts of Afghanistan are bittersweet.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person. I was a flower waiting for the sun to rise and it just unfolded parts of me that never would have been unfolded if I had not done that. I learned how to live in very challenging circumstances. It opened everything else up for me. I was naive, but the Peace Corps showed me the world. It gave me the opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people. I love Afghanistan. Its people are very hospitable. They have great self-assurance and pride. Today, however, they have such despair about the future of the country. They are fed up with war. They want things to return to the way they were. And I guess what keeps me at this work is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way, those admirable qualities of Afghan culture I came to love so much will to some degree be restored. So, I keep pursuing that.”

Peter Tomsen was a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio when Kennedy’s appeal to America’s youth hooked him. “I can remember, even today, him asking us, ‘How many of you would be willing to study Urdu and go to Pakistan and serve?’ There was an explosion of enthusiasm built around the novelty of the idea — of going off to help others — but also the charism of President Kennedy. He moved us. He moved a whole generation,” said Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence in the UNO International Studies and Programs department. “There was a rush to join up. There were many more volunteers then there were slots. We were extremely idealistic. Many of us, including me, had never even left our country much less our state. And that element — of an unseen adventure — was there, too.”

In a case of it truly being a small world, Tomsen and Gouttierre, both the same year, grew up within 35 miles of each other in northwest Ohio, came to a similar epiphany regarding the Peace Corps at nearly the same time and embarked on international careers that eventually led them to being UNO colleagues. Assigned to Nepal, Tomsen first underwent extensive language and culture training in Washington, D.C. and hard physical training in Hawaii (to steel him for the rigors of trekking through the Himalayas). Upon his arrival in Nepal, he taught social sciences at a college constructed of stone, bamboo and thatch, but before his two years were up he was charged with the new mission of opening a vocational school for Tibetan refugee children.

Peter Tomsen

 

 

Being transported from the plenty of America’s Breadbasket to the subsistence-level conditions in Nepal exposed Tomsen to a side of the world he could not have imagined. “Outside of the capital, there was no electricity in Nepal,” he said. “There was only one road. It was a very poor area with very little to eat. We ended up just having rice twice a day with vegetables and sometimes with meat. Often, we slept on mats on the ground. We didn’t have newspapers or television. We could only get the BBC on transistor radio. We were really isolated. There was a high illiteracy rate. Peoples’ interests didn’t go much beyond survival. But, faced with a situation like that, you soon realize how little you need, especially when you have friends. We had extremely close friendships with the people and they had it with each other too. The people were proud and led a fulfilling life.”

After his 1963-1965 Peace Corps tour, Tomsen returned to the U.S. to teach at St. Cloud State University before landing a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department, where he enjoyed a 33-year career that culminated with him serving as ambassador to Armenia. Wherever he’s worked, he’s carried with him core values from the Peace Corps, including “interpersonal and intercultural abilities” and greater “tolerance, patience and sensitivity.” He said. “After living in a village environment in Nepal for two years I was at home and comfortable the rest of my life every time I met a foreigner.”

Beth Furlong had rarely traveled outside the confines of Davenport, Iowa, where she was a hospital nurse, when she opted to stop playing it safe and to push herself beyond her comfort zone by entering the Peace Corps. Following training in New England, her assignment was teaching public health education to adult men and women, including students at an all-women’s teacher training institute in East Mysore, India. It was about as far afield from her rural Midwestern upbringing as she could get and the dichotomy led her to change her outlook on things.

“I led a restricted life before I entered,” said Furlong, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and a faculty associate in the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University. “It made me a mobile-international citizen. It helped me look beyond my ethnocentrism. It gave me a new concern about poverty and justice. And, also, it gave me an appreciation for the fact there’s no one right way to do anything. The area I lived in was predominantly Hindu and Muslim and so I learned there are many ways to worship. I learned that washing myself didn’t have to mean bathing, but could mean pouring water over myself. It was a wonderful lived experience of getting outside America and seeing how other people live.”

Back in the U.S., Furlong switched her career track from hospital nursing to community health nursing as a direct result of her Peace Corps service, which opened her eyes to the need for more and better preventive — rather than reactive — public health policy in addressing such things as nutrition, safe drinking water, immunizations, family planning and maternal-child care. At home, she has involved herself in scores of organizations dedicated to the justice, anti-poverty and peace movement, including Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and Nebraskans for Peace. She has taught ethics at international conferences in Eastern Europe, most recently under the auspices of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the American International Health Alliance.

Today, she is planning her first trip back to India since she left 33 years ago and is eager to return to the villages she volunteered in to see what progress time has wrought. All these years later, Furlong fondly looks back at her India tour of duty and appreciates how it helped her move beyond the “constricted view” of things she arrived with to develop a greater, more encompassing understanding of other cultures. As Furlong discovered, Peace Corps volunteers do not merely observe the cultures they serve from some ivory tower distance, but rather wade right in to live and work among the people.

 

 

Beth Furlong

 

 

In her case, that meant eating spare meals, doing without electricity, using an outhouse, bicycling from town to town and being the object of curiosity wherever she traveled. It meant being treated to a level of hospitality that humbled her, as peasants shared meager food supplies with her, a perfect stranger, when such provisions should really have gone to their malnourished children. It also meant finding out, first hand, what peoples’ needs were and devising responses to meet those needs.

When she and her Peace Corps partner, Alice, identified a need for sanitary food preparation and bathroom facilities, they took the initiative and worked with CARE volunteers to build kitchen sheds and latrines in dozens of villages. She’s hoping that when she visits these villages, the sheds and latrines still stand. She said she could not have gotten as intimate with Indian culture as she did without the Peace Corps placing her smack dab in the middle of things. That sentiment is shared by fellow Peace Corps veterans.

“Peace Corps volunteers get closer to the quick of society than do anybody else, whether its foreign service officers or scholars or anyone else,” Gouttierre said. “The Peace Corps is probably the best people-to-people experience ever devised. In that regard, it’s as important as it ever was and I think it’s still the best kind of foreign assistance and foreign exchange of any kind.”

Ron Psota had long ago decided not to be a dairy farmer like his parents, who owned and operated a spread near Ord, Nebraska. No, he wanted to see the world and to explore other possibilities. So, he became a liberal arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned an architecture degree he hoped one day to use in the Peace Corps, whose foreign service appealed to his sense of curiosity. Ironically, once in the Peace Corps he did not end up designing low cost housing as imagined but instead found himself on familiar ground by assisting farmers in India with their agricultural needs. Still, the Peace Corps offered him the chance to live out a dream and to carve out a new life.

“I’d always been interested in other cultures. That was a strong pull. That and the fact maybe you could do some good and maybe have a helluva good adventure too,” said Psota, International Students Coordinator at Bellevue University. “I think if I had not done that my life would be quite a bit different. It was sort of a defining moment. It changed my world view. It changed the way I work and what I do and everything else.”

 

 

Ron Psota, left, with foreign exchange students

 

 

Perhaps the biggest change it made in the lives of Psota and his wife, Eileen Wirth, has been in their serving as hosts for hundreds of foreign students over the years. First, at UNO, and more recently at Bellevue University, Psota has been a liaison for international students, many of whom have lived with the couple at their Bemis Park area home, which is filled with artifacts and photographs from their many travels and exchanges. Psota has maintained contact all these years with the village he served and has returned to India four times.

The couple are adoptive parents to two children, now grown, who are foreign-born nationals. Their son, Raj, came from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in New Delhi and their daughter, Shanti, came from an orphan agency in Thailand. He said his reaching out to international youths is his way of repaying a debt he feels he owes those villagers who welcomed him 30-odd years ago. “A lot of this is sort of pay back. The world needs to be more welcoming to each other.” Psota’s wife, Eileen, said she knew as soon as Ron came back from his Peace Corps stint that “I was going to share him with India for the rest of our lives. And, of course, India then became Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand…”

Psota was part of a Peace Corps team working to increase village level food production.

“We were sort of county agents charged with introducing new hybrids, fertilization, land leveling and crop protection measures. We were half that  and half snake oil salesmen in a lot of ways,” he said. “We were supposed to get farmers to change. At times it was sort of, ‘God, are they ever going to change?’ We were probably bringing on the future and one of the things we were concerned about was ensuring the future had a human face.”

Despite some resistance and skepticism, Psota said farmers soon saw the benefits of improved methods. “The Indians were like farmers anyplace in the world. They may not have been able to read and write, but they all could count. When they counted the number of bags of rice that came off some of our hybrid areas versus what they got off their own plots, they were going to plant them. The yield was that much greater.” Psota and his team also modernized farming practices by starting a tractor cooperative that brought mechanized plowing and harvesting to the area.

A lasting impression for Psota is how much a spectacle he and his Peace Corps mates were. “We were the best show in town in a lot of ways. We were curiosities. I always felt I was on display. The first month or so after my arrival I lived in a school house with windows on all sides, usually complete with little kids looking in at all hours of the day and night. The villagers were just always there. You’d open your door at 6:30 in the morning to go do your duty in the mulu bushes and four people would fall in on you. You soon learned to play to the crowd.” In his travels back to India he’s found the people “much more in tune with what’s going on and a little more in control over their own lives.”

Peace Corps veterans comprise a special fraternity or, as Peter Tomsen, put it, “a family,” built on shared service abroad. Ron Psota often organizes reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers. To a man and woman, they describe their volunteering as the most seminal experience in their lives.

Gouttierre said, “My whole life is the product of the Peace Corps. I’m more proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer than of anything else I’ve done. When I find out somebody is a returned Peace Corps volunteer it automatically raises their estimation in my eyes. It still is a very profound experience in terms of what it does to crystallize one’s inner dimensions.”

Tomsen, whose daughter followed him into the Peace Corps, said, “It was the most formative experience I ever had. Do I think I made a difference? Yes, but I think I got more back than the villagers.” Furlong, who was planning to attend the Peace Corp’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. until it was postponed in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, simply said, “It changed me.” Finally, Psota said, the Peace Corps opened up “the wonder of the world for me. Now, I’ve got friends all over the world to see. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.”

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

June 2, 2010 3 comments

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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