Jules Loh, former AP features writer who covered the odd, offbeat and momentous, dies at 79

By Richard Pyle, AP
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Former AP reporter, features writer Loh dies at 79

NEW YORK — For most of his four decades as a reporter, Jules Edward Loh traveled the United States, reaching every state and using his honeyed Georgia accent to charm his way into the hearts, minds and lives of Americans, famous and obscure.

To write “Lords of the Earth,” a 1971 book about the Navajo Indians of Arizona, he became so close to tribal elders that they named him Poputiney, meaning “Many Pencils.” Back in New York, his irreverent colleagues at The Associated Press dubbed him “Loh, the poor Indian.”

Despite numerous journalism awards by the time he retired in 1997, Loh said of himself, “I am a reporter, period. They can chisel that on my gravestone.”

Loh, 79, died early Sunday at his home in Tappan, N.Y. He suffered complications after recent abdominal surgery, said Eileen Loh, his daughter.

“He was a remarkable and extraordinarily talented writer who provided a perspective and insight few others could match,” said AP President and CEO Tom Curley.

Born May 29, 1931, in Macon, Ga., Jules Loh served in the U.S. Air Force, attended Georgetown University and joined the AP in Louisville, Ky., in 1959.

During 39 years with the news agency, he covered earthquakes in Alaska, California and Mexico City, space shots, political campaigns and both Kennedy assassinations, delivering the story in fast, facile prose.

“He was the best. He could do anything,” said Sidney Moody, who becomes the last survivor of AP’s “Poets’ Corner,” a tightly knit group of feature writers and editors based in New York from the 1950s to the early 1990s that included Loh.

In the 1960s, Loh returned to his native South where he covered landmark events of the tumultuous civil rights revolution — the funerals of four black girls killed in a 1963 church bombing by the Ku Klux Klan, racial strife in Mississippi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma-to-Montgomery “Freedom March” and the murdered pastor’s own funeral in 1968.

During the 1964 civil rights bill debate, Loh sat in the Senate gallery with Malcolm X, who, he said, “predicted to me privately that his own people would kill him.” Weeks later, after Malcolm was gunned down in a Harlem auditorium, Loh reported what he had said.

In 1976, Loh began a six-year stint of roaming the country for AP, and writing twice-weekly columns called “Elsewhere in America,” about unusual people and places.

Subjects ranged from the nation’s “ugliest junkyard” in Virginia to its “worst saloon” in Montana; a man in a town called Dooms who had been hit by lightning seven times; a Connecticut celebration 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 beat a path to his door.

The peripatetic life prompted Loh and writer-friend Calvin Trillin to form a fictitious “society” called “American Correspondents Covering America,” whose imaginary meetings were held at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The “Poets’ Corner” team specialized in stories that explored news topics at length and in detail that belied the AP’s image as strictly a hard-news agency. It included two Pulitzer prize winners — Hal Boyle for World War II reporting, and Saul Pett for a 1981 story about the federal bureaucracy.

Its success was due partly to the ability of its members to put egos and rivalries aside and collectively critique each others’ stories 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.

Though a self-described “apostle of brevity,” Loh retraced the journey of Lewis and Clark for a story that ran 6,000 words, and co-wrote a series about four aging WWII veterans that ran 40,000 words.

Colleagues said Loh’s creative skills extended to expense accounts as well as colorful journalism.

When AP questioned Loh’s claim for clothing ruined on an assignment, he attached a dirty sock to the expense form. To an editor who 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 see it nearly carried away in the morning tide.

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

Traveling extensively convinced Loh that the country was doing all right despite “outward homogenizing of the culture — the Holiday Inns, the McDonalds, the pervasive TV,” he wrote. “But the people haven’t succumbed, and they probably won’t.”

Loh’s wife, the former Jean Brown, died in 2002. Their eight children survive, along with 17 grandchildren and one great grandchild. Another grandson died in infancy.

Also surviving are a sister, Anne Bosquet, and a brother, Gen. John Michael Loh, a retired U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff, who is credited with conceiving the original design of the F-16 fighter-bomber.

As for Jules Loh’s pocketful of pencils that had so fascinated the Navajo, his daughter, Eileen, recalled that the idiosyncrasy stemmed from his experience in Alaska. While covering the earthquake, his ball point pens froze.

(This version CORRECTS the year of church bombing to 1963, not 1964.)

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