Obituary: A Reporter Born in the Ottoman Empire, Forged in Little Rock


By David W. Dunlap

WILDER, Vt. (New York Times) — In a career that spanned four tumultuous decades, Farnsworth Fowle witnessed World War II at battlefronts from North Africa to the Balkans, the creation of the state of Israel and the death of King George VI of Britain.

His most affecting account, however, was a moment-by-moment chronicle of the effort to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957. The prospect that nine black children were to enter the school drew a mob of white supremacists whose fury forced the children to leave after a few hours.

“Two Negro boys came walking up 16th Street with books under their arms. The crowd tensed until it saw that they were headed for an all-Negro school several blocks away.

“‘Look at him smiling! Thinks he’s smart!’ came a shout from the crowd. …

“The school gong sounded at 8:45. The Star-Spangled Banner and the school flag were hoisted on the flagpoles on the school lawn. …

“A man on the 16th Street curb, looking up the street away from the school, clapped his hands twice and cried, ‘Here they come!’

“There was a surge and a scuffle. Earl Davy, a local Negro photographer who might have been taken for a high school student, was tripped and kicked down on one knee. …

“Alex Wilson, editor of the Memphis Tri-State Defender, a Negro newspaper, a tall man wearing a light hat, was questioned briefly by a policeman who evidently told him to leave. The crowd followed, and he was kicked and beaten.

“But a new bitter cry went up from one of the early morning sentinels of segregation:

“‘They’ve gone in!’

“While the crowd’s attention had been diverted, two private cars approached the 16th Street entrance from the other direction and dropped off the nine Negro children as naturally as if they had been doing it for years. …

“The crowd at 16th Street, now about 200, focused its attention on the school.

“‘They got in,’ they said, as though it were a death blow to their way of life.”

The death blow — such as it was — actually came two days later with the arrival of federal troops to clear the streets around Central High School, permitting the children to return.

“It brought a sense of authority, determination and reserve power previously lacking,” Fowle wrote. “The force of law shows nakedly on the point of a bayonet.”

In another fine bit of street reporting, Fowle captured the shock and sorrow engulfing London on Feb. 6, 1952, when King George VI died.

“The news reached most office workers at noon when they went out for lunch and found vendors of early editions of afternoon papers shouting, ‘The king is dead!’

“‘What king?’ was a typical first reaction. It was hard to believe that it was indeed their own monarch, even though it had been generally realized since the king’s operation last September that he might not have many years to live.”

Fowle, by contrast, was given many years. He was five days shy of his 101st birthday when he died December 3 at the Valley Terrace assisted-living home in Wilder, Vt., near White River Junction.

It was from the town of Thetford, just a few miles north, that one of Mr. Fowle’s great-grandfathers, the Rev. Wilson Farnsworth, set out in 1852 to work as a missionary in the Ottoman Empire. That was where he was born, in Istanbul, to Helen Curtis Fowle and Luther R. Fowle, who were also missionaries.

Young Wilson Farnsworth Fowle — “Farny” — first appeared in the Times in 1936, when he was tapped for the Gargoyle Society at Williams College. A few months later, he appeared again when he was named a Rhodes Scholar and set off for Exeter College at Oxford. He was visiting his parents in Turkey in September 1939 when World War II began. Within a year, he was reporting for Time magazine and for the CBS radio network from Ankara.

As battlefronts shifted, so did Mr. Fowle. He was in Bulgaria in 1941; in Egypt in 1942, working temporarily for the International News Service, forerunner of United Press International; then back with CBS in Cairo, Jerusalem and Algiers in 1943. He followed the pursuit of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel by British forces into Libya; the invasion of Italy, from the Salerno beachheads to Rome; and the liberation of Yugoslavia and Greece. Then it was off to Moscow.

“He had a rich wad of war stories, so rich that we couldn’t help wonder whether he worked only for news operations,” said Max Frankel, a former executive editor of The Times. “Of course, he came out of that amazing World War II collaboration between correspondents, generals and ambassadors, O.S.S. spies, et cetera — the raincoat tribe.”

Another collaboration yielded a most unusual Times byline in 1944, five years before Fowle joined the staff. On Christmas Eve, he filed a story from Athens. It was credited: “By Farnsworth Fowle of Columbia Broadcasting System / By Cable to The New York Times.” The byline was almost as long as the piece that followed, concerning Gen. Napoleon Zervas, a resistance leader.

(You might think that Farnsworth Fowle is itself an unusual byline, but this was — after all — the era of Sylvan FoxLindesay Parrott and Tillman Durdin.)

Mr. Fowle joined The Times in Turkey in 1949. He was transferred in 1950 to Germany, where he met and married Lt. Col. Phyllis Propp, the first woman to serve as an officer of the Army judge advocate general’s corps. She died in 2000. He is survived by a brother, Richardson, and a sister, Helen Joy Smith.

Transferred to London in 1951, Fowle wrote about King George’s death and the somber return of the young Queen Elizabeth II, who had been in Kenya when her father died. He chronicled the rescue of a grounded freighter by a lifeboat coxswain dressed as Santa Claus and the threatened destruction of a miniature outdoor village called Bekonscot because its houses, “none of them more than a few feet high,” were built without permits. (The village survived.)

In 1952, Mr. Fowle was assigned to the city desk in New York. He covered the health care industry and transportation, and staples like “City Finds Much to Do on Holiday,” “Educator Urges Smaller Classes,” “School Dispute Has Long History,” “Main Break Shuts a Midtown Block,” “Campaign on Rats Starts in Harlem” and “PATH Riders Coping With Slowdown.” He also recorded the creation of New York’s first official historical landmarks in 1965.

At the close of his career, he wrote obituaries. The last to appear, in 1978, was that of the comedian Frank Fontaine, whom Fowle described as a “journeyman.”

The same might have been said of Fowle, most of whose articles were, at best, workmanlike. Few appeared on Page 1. Yet Frankel remembered him fondly as one of the first “gentlemen of The Times” whom he met.

“Farny in the newsroom comes to mind as a scamperer, relatively short legs propelling him at twice normal speed from his desk to the front, and even to the youngest reporter on staff to share a researched fact, or to answer a nearby phone,” Mr. Frankel wrote in an email. “His collegiality was born of a generosity that was most uncommon. No one then asked for credit or overt recognition; the collective effort infused our pride.”

That courtliness endured until the end.

“At 100 years old, the retired foreign correspondent was from another era: still dapper in his navy blazer atop a collared shirt, and charming in his formalities,” Dawn Anahid MacKeen wrote on Literary Hub in October. “His diction sounded as if it were lifted from the pages of the early 1900s consular documents, newspapers and memoirs about the region that I pored over for my research.”

MacKeen met Fowle on a video conference call. He was in Vermont. She was in California. They were introduced by one of his doctors, John M. Saroyan, who had been impressed by Fowle’s response to MacKeen’s book, The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey. In it, she retraces the steps taken by her grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, to escape the Armenian Genocide.

Saroyan had no luck reading Fowle’s Times articles back to him. “Farny didn’t remember anything,” MacKeen said. “Then the physician read to him about my grandfather, since he had just finished the book himself. ‘It was like Fantasia,’ Saroyan had told me. ‘It was like Mickey with the baton, the images were just coming. I think if I had asked him if he could have tasted and smelled the Euphrates, he would have said yes.’”

MacKeen had the same experience, especially when Fowle interrupted the reading with a skeptical question.

“I was caught off-guard,” she said. “Only a few moments earlier when we’d begun our conversation, he had trouble remembering basic names and dates, but now the longtime reporter had emerged, methodically assessing the context, syntax and veracity. It was just what his doctor had told me about his memory. He knew the streets, train stations, leaders scattered throughout the chapters. To him, they weren’t arcane historical figures or foreign places, they were associates of his father, or places he’d visited.”

That wasn’t all he remembered. Joshua P. Cohen of Tufts University enjoyed conversations with Fowle while visiting his mother, who lives at Valley Terrace. And he really enjoyed it when Fowle would recite the refrain of “Long Boy,” a song from World War I:

Good-by, Ma! Good-by, Pa!

Good-by, Mule, with yer old hee-haw!

I may not know what th’ war’s about,

But you bet, by gosh, I’ll soon find out.

An’, O my sweetheart, don’t you fear,

I’ll bring you a King fer a souvenir;

I’ll git you a Turk an’ a Kaiser, too,

An’ that’s about all one feller could do!