Former AP reporter Jules Loh, who covered the odd, offbeat and momentous for AP, dies at 79

By Richard Pyle, AP
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Former AP reporter, features writer Jules Loh dies

NEW YORK — Jules Edward Loh, an Associated Press reporter who covered the civil rights movement, the space program and other momentous stories before carving out a second career roaming the United States in search of the offbeat and the extraordinary, has died. He was 79.

Loh died early Sunday at his home in Tappan, N.Y., said his daughter, Eileen Loh. She said her father had suffered from complications after recent abdominal surgery.

A veteran of four decades with the AP, Loh also covered both Kennedy assassinations, a devastating earthquake in Mexico City, political conventions and other major stories during a peripatetic career in which he always delivered his accounts in a readable, folksy style.

After a stint at the Washington Post, Loh joined the AP in 1959 in Louisville, Ky.

Within a year he was reassigned to New York, where he eventually became a member of a small band of feature writers dubbed the “Poets’ Corner.” The team in the AP NewsFeatures department specialized in long, often colorfully written articles. Loh would go on to roam the United States in search of his stories and also wrote columns for AP before his retirement in 1997.

Created in the 1960s by AP general manager Wes Gallagher, the Poets’ Corner group of writers specialized in stories that explored news topics at a length that belied the AP’s image as strictly a hard-news agency. The group included two Pulitzer Prize winners — Hal Boyle for World War II reporting, and Saul Pett for a 1981 story about the federal bureaucracy.

It was successful in part because its members could put egos and rivalries aside and collectively critique each story in progress.

“Time, distance and subject matter were no deterrents to a good idea” for a story that would capture the attention of newspaper editors and their readers, an AP in-house magazine said.

Loh, for example, retraced the journey of Lewis and Clark for a story that ran 6,000 words, and co-wrote a series about four aging World War II veterans that ran to 40,000 words.

In the mid-1960s he returned to his native South to cover the civil rights movement, which became for him a long-running assignment that included most of the major flashpoints of that social upheaval.

Loh was born May 29, 1931, in Macon, Ga. He served in the Air Force during the Korean war and attended Georgetown University before entering journalism.

When a Ku Klux Klan bomb destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Loh covered the story and the funerals of four young girls who died in the blast.

He was in a front row seat when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech that year, walked with King on his 1965 “Freedom March” from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and sat in the Senate gallery with Malcolm X during the debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Malcolm predicted to me privately that his own people would kill him,” recalled Loh, who wrote that story only after the black activist was gunned down in a Harlem auditorium a few weeks later.

Loh also reported on the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy; the shooting of Alabama segregationist Gov. George Wallace; earthquakes in Alaska, Califonia and Mexico City; political campaigns; and space shots.

“He was the best. He could do anything,” said Sid Moody, the last surviving member of the Poets’ Corner group.

Colleagues said Loh’s creative skills extended to expense accounts as well as colorful journalism. When a supervising editor asked how he could justify spending $45 a day on meals, Loh replied, “I never eat breakfast.”

He had more difficulty explaining how he forgot having parked a rented car on the beach at Cape Canaveral, only to have it nearly carried away by the tide.

Loh and his associates also collaborated in the production of AP books on JFK’s assassination, the Kennedy family, the space program and other topics.

Beginning in 1976, Loh devoted himself to roaming the country and writing twice-weekly columns called “Elsewhere in America,” about unusual people and places.

His random subjects ranged from the nation’s “ugliest junkyard” in Virginia to its “worst saloon” in Montana; a resident of a town called Dooms who had survived being hit by lightning seven times; a Connecticut ceremony honoring Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold; and an 88-year-old Ohioan who had invented a better mousetrap and was still waiting for the world to notice.

Writing “Elsewhere in America” convinced Loh that the country was doing all right despite “outward homogenizing of the culture. The Holiday Inns, the McDonald’s, the pervasive TV,” he wrote. “But the people haven’t succumbed, and they probably won’t.”

Loh’s brother, Gen. John Michael Loh, is a retired U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff who is credited with conceiving the original design of the workhorse F-16 fighter jet.

Despite numerous journalism awards in a 39-year career ending with his retirement, Loh said of himself, “I am a reporter, period. They can chisel that on my gravestone.”

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