Arnold Zeitlin –Author of the First Peace Corps Memoir (Ghana)

 

Arnold Zeitlin and his wife Karen at the Sandstone Falls on the NewRiver in West Virginia last fall

Paul Stevens, a retired former bureau chief for the Associated Press, edits a daily listserv item mostly for AP retirees. Several weeks ago, he sent Arnold Zeitlin (Ghana 1961-63) a list of questions for a profile that he wanted to use in his column. he published the profile Monday,  which happened to be on Arnold’s 88th birthday.

What are you doing these days?

At age 88, I get up most mornings thrilled to be alive with a loving wife and children who are good friends. We live in Virginia in the Washington DC suburbs, so I get into DC from time to time to attend sessions at think tanks devoted to subjects of my interest, mostly China and South Asia. These meetings give me a chance to lunch with friends at the National Press Club. I occasionally write email commentaries (often they are more like rants) online for a select list of about 500 people, including family and friends I have known for years. I also occasionally write book reviews for the South Asia Journal, a quarterly I serve as mostly a passive member of its board. I am trying or organize my thoughts for a memoir to be left to my family so my eight grandchildren will know what their grandpa did with his life. This is a family affair: I long ago decided against writing the usual “I-wrote-this, I-met-this” kind of memoir. However, I am following up a suggestion from the woman who hired me in 2002 to teach journalism in China to write a series of memoir-like vignettes that illustrate ethical choices I had to make covering the news. She thought the project would make an interesting read for journalism students.

My wife and I try to travel. For the past decade, I’ve been introducing Karen, my China-born wife, to the United States and vice versa. We’ve traveled coast-to-coast with stops at Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Smoky Mountain and Acadia national parks as well as Shenandoah national park, an hour’s drive from our home, and the redwood forests of California. Karen now is embarking on a 12-month executive master’s degree program in natural resources and environment at Virginia Tech, so we are unsure how much time we will have to travel in 2020.

How did you get your first job with the AP? Who hired you? What were your first days like?

I got out of the Army after two years as a draftee in August 1955, and started a master’s degree program at the Columbia Journalism School in New York in September, tuition and expenses to be paid under the GI Bill. By November, no government money had showed up. I was broke. I called a former classmate of mine at the University of Pennsylvania, Jim Kensil, then working for AP in Columbus, Ohio, and told him I needed a job. He sent me over to Orlo Robertson, AP’s deputy sports editor at 50 Rock. Orlo got me a job as a copy boy for (I think) $45 a week. I ran around cutting copy on all the wires for distribution to the long-timers editing the General Desk, walking to the New York Times office off Times Square to get the first editions in the evenings. I worked the night shift and attended Columbia classes from 9-to-5 before taking the subway down to AP. I was in heaven. The work at AP complemented my studies and vice versa. The government money had kicked in. I was on one long news gorge all day. In March 1956. Paul Mikkelson, the General Desk day supervisor, offered me a job as a summer vacation relief on the general desk. More heaven. I kept the night shift hours and edited the New England and Southern wires, relieving the day editor, Nick Carter. Herb Barker, the night supervisor, was my boss. A terrific guy and to this day, the best and most dedicated newsman I’ve ever known. In the last hours of my shift, I also worked under easy Ed Denehy, the overnight supervisor. Maybe I was making $65 a week. Ordinarily, my job would end with the end of summer. But was asked to stay on the General Desk through the Adlai Stevenson-Dwight Eisenhower presidential election campaign.

What were your different past jobs in the AP, in order? Describe briefly what you did with each?

When the election campaign ended, AP asked me what I wanted to do. I had a choice. i had my master’s degree from Columbia. I turned down a radio job one of my professors had gotten for me. I told the professor that the radio station did news only five minutes each hour, while AP did the news 24 hours a day. So I blew a career in broadcasting. I could have gone to work for Sam Blackman, the New York general editor. Instead, like a dope, I asked for a job on the sports desk. For the next year, I worked the night shift and occasionally the overnight filing the sports wire and writing roundups and features. During the day, I developed a freelance career writing feature stories about Broadway actors for their hometown newspapers. I did articles for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Press, Columbus Dispatch, Denver Post, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Des Moines Register and a lot more. I was making almost as much money from the freelancing as AP was paying me.

Ted Smits, the sports editor, then told me, “I have to fire you.” “Why?”, I asked. He explained that the sports department was so deep in experienced talent (he was right about that), it would be years if ever before I would get off the night side to report a sports beat. Also, he said, AP wanted me to get out and get experience in the field. Again, I could have gone over to Blackman and the New York bureau. But I asked to go to Philadelphia, my hometown. I moved back into my old bedroom at my parents’ house in Philadelphia and joined the AP bureau in the window-less Evening Bulletin building next to the 30th street Pennsylvania Railroad station. Joe Snyder was the bureau chief; Ralph Bernstein was the news editor and sports writer. I did general reporting and managed to develop stories that made the AAA wire. I remember fondly writing a lead on Robin Roberts’ 200th pitching victory that was pure poetry.

I continued my free lancing, which led to my departure from AP. Mort Hochstein, a public relations man for NBC in New York, called to tell me that Hearst’s Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph was looking for a TV columnist. Mort and I had worked together on some of my freelancing projects. I flew to Pittsburgh for an interview, got the job (for $144 a week) and quit AP. I remember walking into the AP office in Philadelphia before my shift started to quit. Before I had a chance to say a word, Bernstein said, “You’re gonna quit. When they come in early, it means they’re gonna quit.”

I’ll try to fast forward here because I want to get to my second career with AP (although working for Hearst was an adventure):

I did a daily TV column for the afternoon Sun-Tele, which Bill Block Sr. bought in 1960, merging it with his Post-Gazette and moving his operation into the incredibly decrepit Sun-Tele building. I remember the Post-Gazette city editor coming into my office, pointing at the furniture and saying, “We’ll keep this.” He then pointed at me and said, “We’ll keep you, too.” I was one of the few Sun-Tele people to keep a job with the new Post-Gazette arrangement. I wrote my column for the Post-Gazette and also became the third-string movie reviewer, getting to review all the bad movies because the other two reviewers got the best ones. When the movie theater owners complained about my reviews, Andy Bernhardt, the Post-Gazette editor, decided not to carry reviews of “obviously bad” pictures (“Don’t you like any movies?”, Andy asked me). My work won the Pittsburgh Press Club award for best entertainment column. I still was getting $144 a week. I asked Bernhardt for a raise. He refused. So I started thinking about getting another job.

I have few heroes but one of them was Ed Murrow. In 1961, he left his six-figure job at CBS to join the Kennedy administration as head of the U.S. Information Service for $25K a year. I thought I would follow a similar path. I applied to the newly announced Peace Corps, for which I thought I would make a splendid PR guy. I took the first national Peace Corps test and received a telegram inviting me to join a group of teachers training at the University of California at Berkeley to go to, so the telegram said, “Chana’. “Chana?” Did the Peace Corps actually mean China? It was a typo. The Peace Crops meant Ghana, a tiny West African state. I was one of two people in Pittsburgh invited to that first Peace Corps group. The other was a young woman, Marian Frank, the red-haired daughter of the head of the chemistry department at the University of Pittsburgh. She was invited to the Post-Gazette offices for an interview (nobody interviewed me!). She was brought to my office to meet me

At Berkeley, she and I became a couple. Our romance was interrupted after the sixth week of the eight-week training program when I was informed that I was being dropped from the group because I had shown a lack of confidence as a teacher. I left, returning to my parents’ home in Philadelphia, ashamed to go back to Pittsburgh and wondering what I would do next. Before I departed Berkeley, I and the others in the group had received invitations to a reception at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington DC the day before the teachers were to fly to Ghana. In Philadelphia, I decided to attend the reception, if only to see Marian again. When I came to the reception, the Ghanaian ambassador, glorious in his kente cloth robe, looked at my name on the invitation card and said, “Ah, you are the journalist.” It was then I realized that I had been dropped, not because of a lack of confidence, but because I was a journalist. After the reception, Marian and I visited a classmate of mine at Columbia, Milton Viorst, then the Washington correspondent for the New York Post. I explained my dismissal to him. Milt’s Post colleague, Bill Haddad, had just become an assistant to Sargent Shriver, the director of the Peace Corps. After Marian flew off to Ghana with the very first group of volunteers to go into action, leaving me behind, Milt told Haddad about my problem. Haddad called me. “This is about some girl, isn’t it?” he said. Yes, I admitted. He told me to wait. Three weeks later, I was on a flight to Ghana, a volunteer party of one to join the other teachers. I was assigned to teach English at a rundown O’Reilly Secondary School in the Jamestown slum area of Accra, the Ghanaian capital. Marian was teaching near Kumasi, an upcountry town. She transferred to join me in Accra. In December 1961, we were married by the town clerk in Accra.

After two years of service in Accra, we returned to New York City in December 1963. Marian was pregnant. I had turned down an offer of a job with the Peace Corps in Washington. Only Jim Kensil, then working in New York Sports, was the only AP person who knew I was in town. I was afraid that AP would offer me a job and that I would take it. But I wanted to write a book about our Ghana experience. We borrowed $350 from Marian’s aunt who was married to the president of Yale Lock & Key and rented an apartment in a six-floor walk-up at 120th St. and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. A family friend knew Ken McCormick, a legendary editor at Doubleday, and referred me to him. He was interested. In that apartment, I wrote four chapters and an outline. McCormick bought it, advancing me $2,000, just about the time our first daughter, Jenny, was born. By November, I had finished the manuscript. Coincidentally, Jim Kensil called, asking if I would be willing to work Tokyo hours. The Olympics were in Tokyo in 1964. AP was looking for editors to work overnight in New York to handle copy from Tokyo, which was 14 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time. I signed on for two weeks. Herb Barker saw me on the fourth floor and offered me a job (for $187 a week) on the General Desk. I accepted, but told Barker that I planned to accept an offer from the Columba Journalism School of an international reporting fellowship to start in the Fall of 1965. He was okay with that, suggesting that I would return to AP after the fellowship. That is what happened. In May of 1966, I returned to the General Desk, asking that I be considered for an overseas job. I knew at the time that the job of West Africa correspondent was open. A month later, Jack Cappon, a master wordsmith and, I think, then AP managing editor, leaned over me as I was editing the AAA wire, and said, “I hear you wanna be a fucking foreign correspondent”. “Yeah,” I said. “Go see Gallagher,” said Jack. I went up to the seventh floor and into The Presence. Wes Gallagher, the AP president, told me I was going to Lagos, Nigeria, as the West Africa correspondent.

Arnold about to take off in a Czech-built Nigerian air force jet after begin invited to take a  ride following his article critical of the air force. “The pilot put me through the loop-de-loops but I survived.”

Within a month, I was in London, wife and baby Jenny in tow, to be briefed by AP news editor, Lynn Heinzerling, on our way to Nigeria. The morning after our arrival in London, I got a call from the AP office: there was a military coup in Nigeria. All the officials whose names I had laboriously memorized (Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, for example) were dead. We arrived in Lagos in the midst of martial law. After the coup came the Biafra civil war. Then I had to cover turmoil in the Congo, where censors insisted all copy had to be in French. I no doubt astonished the AP Brussels bureau which received my telegraphed copy reporting on “le shooting et le looting” in the Congo. After six months, I suggested to Gallagher that maybe I was not cut out for the job. Stick with it, he advised. I am forever grateful that he stood by me. I did overcome.

After three and a half years in West Africa, responsible for covering 17 countries, I was ready for change. My family included a second daughter, Veronica, born in Lagos, and a 5-year-old boy, Olajide Abayomi, who was now our ward and whom we eventually adopted. I told AP I thought I’d like to go east. Gallagher called. “We’re sending you to Pakistan!”, he said. “Do I have a choice?” I asked. “No,” he said. Well, at least Pakistan was east.

About the same time, I received an offer from a prestigious magazine, Africa Today, to succeed its founding editor. The magazine was moving from its Dupont Circle offices in Washington DC to UN Plaza in Manhattan. Had the offices stayed in DC, I might have accepted. I’d always wanted to work in DC. We figured my $15K AP salary in Pakistan would actually go further than the 25K salary the magazine offered in New York.

We opened AP’s first Pakistan bureau, moving to Rawalpindi, despite the fact that AP wanted me to set up in the commercial capital and cable head, Karachi, an awful place to live with children. We stopped in Tokyo on the way to Pakistan and bought two Toyota Corona cars, one for the new bureau and one for our own use, to be shipped to Pakistan. The cost: $1,250 for each car. We also stopped in New Delhi, where India bureau chief Myron Belkind gladly handed me all the files on Pakistan, for which he had been responsible. Rawalpindi was the army headquarters and next to Islamabad, the political capital. We were the first foreign news agency to set up headquarters in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area. By the time we left Pakistan in 1972, all the major foreign news agencies had moved to the area. Pakistan was a dream assignment. With the country’s political problems resulting in the 1971 war that led to the independence of Bangladesh, we were on front pages all over the world for two years.

Arnold with Philippine First Lady Corazon Aquino during the martial law days of her husband’s rule.

The next assignment was the Philippines, where Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law had closed most newspapers. Gallagher, sensing I was not much of a bureau chief-salesman, said I would not have to bother with sales. My reporting on martial law excesses and the simmering civil war with Muslims in Mindanao annoyed the martial law government. The Marcos government wanted us to censor our incoming AP report so that the few newspapers allowed to publish wouldn’t see disturbing news. I refused and said the government should send an officer to our office to censor the report. After that exchange, I never heard another word about censorship. In the spring of 1975, virtually all Southwest Asia’s bureau chiefs were called to Saigon as the Vietnam war was winding down. I was thrilled to be working with Peter Arnett and George Esper, whom I had known since we both worked on the fourth floor in 1957 at 50 Rockefeller Center, as well as Nick Ut, Carl Robinson, Ed White, Neal Ulevich and Horst Faas. I ended up as pool reporter aboard the U.S. Blue Ridge command ship covering the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. During home leave that summer, I warned Keith Fuller, then AP president, that my days in Manila were numbered. At a late-night gala in Manila that fall, Imelda Marcos, the Philippines first lady, invited me to dance with her. We always had had a testy relationship. A few weeks later, the night of the U.S. elections in November, I was ordered out of the country as a “national security risk”.

That ouster essentially ended my 10-year career as an AP foreign correspondent. While in New York, awaiting another assignment, I got a call from Bob Page, then a top executive for UPI. He was familiar with my work in the Philippines. “Stop by my office,” he said. I thought to myself: he’s gonna offer me a job. The idea of working for UPI was too much for me to contemplate. I never went to see him. Instead, AP sent me off to Boston to work as a newsman. As soon as I reached the age of 55 with 20 years of service in 1987, I quietly retired from AP and got a Tiffany bowl from Lou Boccardi.

I learned there was life after AP. I went to work for $15K above my annual AP wage as managing editor of The Worldpaper, a monthly distributed from Boston to client newspapers and magazines all over the world. In 1989, I spent six months in Dhaka helping a wealthy friend produce an English-language news weekly in Bangladesh. I returned briefly to Boston and UPI offered me a chance to base in Hong Kong as vice president and general manager for Asia. Unlike my reaction to the Bob Page call years before, I accepted and spent three years swanning about Asia, leaving in 1993 to settle in Virginia. I returned to Pakistan in 1998 conducting training programs for young journalists as a Knight International Fellow. One of my students, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, since has won two Academy Awards for her documentary films. I went from Pakistan back to Hong Kong as director of the Freedom Forum’s Asia center. When the Freedom Forum dropped its international program and closed the Asia center in 2001, I accepted an offer to teach in an English-language journalism program at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, China. Teaching young Chinese in the heady atmosphere of a rising China is one of the most satisfactory endeavors of my career.

Who played the most significant role in your career and how?

As you may have read from the above, a number of people played significant roles in my career. It is hard to say who was the most significant. The late Jim Kensil twice brought me to AP. Herb Barker set an example for me as a newsman that I’ll never forget. Mort Hochstein, who died last year at 90, was a life changer in opening the way for me to go to Pittsburgh. Wes Gallagher had faith to keep me in West Africa when I faltered.

Would you do it all over again- or what would you change?

Yes, I would do it all over again. I’d like to think I’d be a lot smarter a second time around. I missed some opportunities but took advantage of others. Whoever said opportunity knocks once in a lifetime was wrong. Opportunities in my life knocked time and time again.

What’s your favorite hobby or activity?

I swim. I read, catching up on the reading I was not able to do during a busy career. Our public library in Centrevlle, VA started listing books checked out in June 2018. In the 18 months since then, I’ve checked out and read 120 books. I like crime novels with the body on the first page or first chapter as well as good books on China, South Asia, on why humans seek religion and on evolution and where humanity comes from.

What’s the best vacation trip you’ve ever made?

There have been so many. One of the sweetest was a break in Pakistan where the family, wife and three kids, drove up into the Hindu Kush to a small principality in the mountains where the local maharajah put us up in a cozy guest hut, served us kidneys for breakfast and let us pick off his cherry trees. I’ve mentioned my travels with Karen. All-inspiring to be with someone like her seeing America for the first time. And a bit of the reverse, when she and I traveled in China, she leading me to see China for the first time.

What about your wife? What is she doing?

My Wife Karen, Guangzhou, China-born, author of a memoir, Golden Orchid: The True Story of an Only Child in Contemporary China, with an MFA in non-fiction writing from Chatham University, Pittsburgh and now a student in the executive master’s degree program in natural resources and the environment at Virginia Tech.

Arnold Zeitlin’s email is – azeitlin@hotmail.com

2 Comments

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    • Hello all,

      I am researching the history of West Africa in the 20th century and would like to read Mr Zeitlin’s book for this. Unfortunately, I live nowhere near a well-stocked library and can’t purchase the book. Would anyone be willing to send me a scan of the book? I would be very grateful for this.

      Best wishes,
      Stefan Tetzlaff


      Dr. Stefan Tetzlaff
      Humboldt University Berlin
      stefan.tetzlaff@gmail.com

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