The Journey of a Journalist (Part 3A) -THE YEAR THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: THE BEGINNING
Posted on September 14th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

These two lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” written by my favorite English novelist Charles Dickens aptly describe the contrasting conditions in Ceylon, which I left in August 1966, and the United States where I landed as a World Press Institute fellow to engage in journalistic indulgence for the next 11 months.

Severe foreign exchange restrictions limited the Sri Lankans’ freedom to travel overseas. Metaphorically speaking, they were experiencing “the worst of times” and had “nothing before [them].” They had turned into a nation of “beggars” dependent on foreign largesse like my fellowship. I was permitted to take a mere $100 in foreign exchange to spend on the trip.

However, with careful planning in coordination with my contacts in the diplomatic beat, I was able to make the most of my airline ticket with stopovers in Bombay, Beirut, Rome, Frankfurt, Berlin (where I met with fellow Lake House reporter Neville de Silva), Paris and London (where I was thrilled to visit Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop)””‚on a 10-day express excursion””‚before I landed in New York.

This was the first time that I, “Weligama Podda,” had traveled on a commercial airline, and the first time ever I had stepped outside the land of my birth. This was the year that changed my life.

In New York, I joined the other 14 foreign journalists with whom I would spend the next 11 months traveling, interviewing, reporting, and socializing. The WPI headquarters was at Macalester College, an elite school in Saint Paul, Minn. So we left on a long bus trip from New York to Saint Paul via Cleveland and Chicago.

Touring New York

But we had ample time to explore New York, our introduction to the United States. The “Weligama Podda” in me was thoroughly enthralled by all the skyscrapers, the glitter and the racial hybridity of this incredible city that I had only read about in the Time Magazine. My first impressions appeared in the Daily News (Sept. 20, 1966), which from then onwards published my copy under my own byline. Extracts:

The first warning I got the day after my arrival in New York city on Aug. 19 was to avoid visiting Harlem alone in the night … [Thus] we turned our heads the other way and visited the famous Greenwich Village … The next day we did a four-hour sightseeing tour [during which] we visited a so-called Buddhist temple in Chinatown … I was surprised to find that one could walk into the temple with shoes on. There was no religious atmosphere within … Among the notable landmarks [we saw were] the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, the Empire State Building [long before 9/11] and the United Nations Headquarters [long before my fellow reporter Thalif Deen became IPS bureau chief there] … An unforgettable experience was a visit to the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery where the world-famous Dr. John Marquis Converse gave us a demonstration … We spent one enjoyable evening at the Radio City Music Hall … [We also] visited the Reader’s Digest building in Pleasantville.

The WPI was heavily funded by the Reader’s Digest Foundation. It was Harry W. Morgan, executive director of WPI and roving editor of the Reader’s Digest, who interviewed me in Colombo on April 19 for the fellowship.

We revisited New York the next year from Jan. 22-29 for a more in-depth look””‚visiting the United Nations and interviewing Undersecretary Ralph Bunche; visiting The New York Times and interviewing its managing editor Clifton Daniel; interviewing Time-Life editors; visiting St. Patrick’s Church for a meeting with Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman. We made a third visit to New York at the conclusion of our WPI Fellowship (July 3-11) during which we also crossed the border to Canada to see Expo ’67 in Montreal.  At the conclusion of the WPI program, we went on a two-week tour of Mexico (from July 12 “”…” July 23) as guests of the Mexican government.

Settling in Saint Paul

We arrived at our base in Saint Paul on Aug. 31. The International House on Summit Avenue became the hub for our group to gather for the fall semester lectures and discussions. Early September, we spent a couple of days canoeing and camping around lakes Duncan and Rose in the remote wilderness of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Hardly a week later on King Turkey Day, we took off to Worthington, Minn., for an on-the-plane interview with U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., who was on his way to Milwaukee, Wis. Kennedy was campaigning to become the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate (prior to his assassination in Los Angeles). This was quite heady stuff for a reporter whose only experience was non-interviewing (not having a ghost of a chance to interview) and chasing prime ministerial candidate Sirimavo Bandaranaike in a rickety old Lake House Volkswagen.

[Note: I heard of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in the wee hours of June 4, 1968, when my landlady in Eugene, Ore., called me to pass on the shattering news.]

It was in Worthington that U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn. (who later became Jimmy Carter’s vice president from 1977-1981) revealed to me that his birth place was Ceylon. That was the reason I headed for Martin County on Oct. 29 to “discover” the mayor and the people of Ceylon, Minn. The story and the photos I mailed to Lake House took up a full page of the Daily News Magazine (Nov. 18)  Later, as the Daily News revealed on June 9, I “discovered” another place called Ceylon Junction in Ohio

On Nov. 1, we had a chance to meet with Richard M. Nixon, who succeeded Lyndon Johnson as U.S. president in 1968, at a press conference in Thunderbird Motel, Bloomington. Nixon, who was campaigning to secure the Republican nomination for president, told me that he visited   Ceylon in 1953 although he couldn’t recall the name of the then prime minster [Sir John Kotelawala].

Touring Washington, D.C.

We started a week-long visit to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 6.  We visited the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the National Museum of Art. We conducted interviews with top officials like Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance and Supreme Court Justice Byron White. I had the privilege of dining with Cecil B. Lyon, U.S. ambassador to Ceylon, and with Oliver Weerasinghe, Ceylon’s ambassador to U.S. We re-visited Washington, D.C., toward the end of our fellowship (June 27 “”…” July 2, 1967). The highlight of this visit was a 15-minute audience with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Fish Room of the White House on June 28 evening. Johnson told us that Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin was “a good American businessman””‚tenacious, fair, hard-bargaining””‚who knows what he wants.”Johnson who experienced severe dukkha on account of the Vietnam War did not stand for a second term.

Touring the West Coast

We toured the West Coast from Dec.19 to Jan. 5. We interviewed Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, at his home in Phoenix (Daily News, Dec. 31). Although he lost the presidential election to Johnson, Goldwater regained his U.S. Senate seat in 1969 and

remained a senator until 1987.  In Los Angeles, we participated in the weekly press conference of Democratic Mayor Sam Yorty in the course of exploring Hollywood and Disneyland. We also went to Watts to interview Bud Schulberg, the author of “What Makes Sammy Run” (Daily News, Jan. 13, `1967).

From Christmas to Jan. 2, we explored the attractions in San Francisco. I created a little stir in Ceylon when the Daily News published a photo I took of the Buddha Bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown. On the last day, I went to Pacifica to see a visiting Ceylon politician””‚A. C. S. Hameed, who was staying at the home of one P. G. Piyadasa. My diary says: “We had a wonderful time at Piya’s place. Hameed did the cooking. He gave me a resume of the political situation in Ceylon.” (The late Mr. Hameed subsequently became foreign minister.)

The WPI journalists terminated the West Coast tour with two days in Las Vegas (“On the “ƒ”¹…”strip’ in TBCOTA,” Daily News, Jan. 21, 1967) and a visit to the Grand Canyon.

Touring the Deep South

From September 1966 to June 1967, I wrote a series of 25 regular features titled “Glimpses of the U. S.” reporting and commenting on American public figures, issues and situations. But I am not sure whether the Daily News published my reports on the Southern tour (of Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas) from June 2 through June 26.

The Southern tour provided the proof that discrimination based on skin color was still very much alive in America. It happened on June 11 in Houston where three of us entered a small, shabby bar for a drink. The woman at the counter told my colleagues, “We don’t serve coloreds.” We complained to the FBI.  In general, the Southerners seemed to restrain themselves from such outbursts of racism when they knew someone was a foreigner. But the atta (ego/self) of this particular woman was full of avijjƒÆ’-¾ (ignorance).

[Note: Exactly six years later, in the summer of 1973, my younger sister Kanthi and I drove from Missouri to Alabama via Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. This tour gave us a better opportunity to mingle with ordinary Southerners and to conclude that “skin color is no bar to Southern hospitality if you happen to be a foreign tourist” (USEF Newsletter, September 1974).  Of this tour of the Deep South, Kanthi wrote:

People looked at us with curiosity (and this happened everywhere) because we were foreigners. Some of them said “hello.” Some smiled. Women looked at my saree in some admiration, and some discussed it … Wherever we went, the “colored” people were happy to see us. They smiled, waved, and showed their welcome. Some women had the courage to come and admire my saree, hair, etc. … I came to the conclusion that in the Deep South there is no color bar in practice most of the time.]

Other engagements during the 1967 WPI tour included interviews with Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox. Wallace and Maddox were notable opponents of racial integration. We also visited the editorial offices of The Atlanta Constitution for a conversation with its highly regarded editor Eugene Patterson.

Next: Part 3B””‚The year that changed my life: The resignation

[The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.]

 

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