What you need to know:
- After living in Africa, it is impossible for most people to ever fully let go of the continent.
- Gerry invested in Africa’s future by helping finance the education of bright but poor kids.
I met Gerry a half century ago amid the mayhem that was the Middle East, then and even today.
As the manager of the Beirut Bureau of United Press International (UPI), a mammoth news agency serving clients across the world, he became my boss, journalistic mentor, spiritual guide and lifelong friend.
UPI reporters were schooled to write stories in short, clear, definitive sentences. A few could move to a higher plane making their words sound like a beautiful rippling stream over rock. Gerry was one of the few.
Reporting on a natural catastrophe in Iran he wrote: “An earthquake sounds like a freight train and feels like the Hand of God.”
Reshape East African journalism
A touch of levity or a sly dig could make any story more humane. Gerry wrote for Nairobi’s Nation newspaper:
“Famous war correspondent Ray Wilkinson revisited Nairobi. A US Marine-turned reporter in Vietnam, Ray covered about all Africa’s modern conflicts plus the Yom Kippur war and Desert Storm, all without a scratch. Walking home from dinner in Westlands, the great writer disappeared into a hole in the pavement. Result: one broken rib. He would laugh but it hurts.”
After debuting as a trainee in northern England, he spread his career between globe-trotting with UPI in bureaus like London, Moscow, Paris , New York and Beirut and literally helping to reshape East African journalism.
He was instrumental in launching the area’s The EastAfrican regional newspaper, wrote a book on the history of Kenya and the Nation Media Group, and worked in a series of positions with the Nation after his retirement until his recent death.
Education of bright but poor kids
After living in Africa, it is impossible for most people to ever fully let go of the continent. Because of his staunch Catholic upbringing, Gerry invested in Africa’s future by helping finance the education of bright but poor kids, the first with the apt name of Elvis. He inspired me to follow suit at a later time.
Journalism carried its own risks and rewards. Gerry was taken hostage by Palestinian guerrillas fighting the Jordanian army for the control of the capital, Amman. It was touch and go whether artillery duals would demolish the hotel where he was being held or whether the guerrillas would make “an example” of him. He was finally released when the lifelong Catholic quipped, “Chalk one up for Allah.”
After interviewing the prickly Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, he was presented with a rare case of best white wine. Reluctantly, he surrendered it to local staff because of company rules forbidding gifts.
Not bad for a northern English grammar school laddie who had such a profound effect on African journalism and who became the first non-American foreign editor of a news agency operating in nearly a hundred countries and serving 6,000 newspaper, radio and television clients.
An inspiration. Kwaheri.
Mr Wilkinson is a former UPI correspondent