Click here to see a video of Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar’s visit to the United States in July 1961.
In 1961, I was working as night editor in the Associated Press office in Knoxville, Tennessee, but I was pushing hard for an overseas assignment. I had been told that to get noticed by the AP bosses on the international side in New York I should be on the lookout for stories of interest AP’s thousands of clients outside the United States.
As headquarters for the Tennessee Valley Authority and a close neighbor of Oak Ridge, home of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Knoxville got a significant number of important foreign visitors every year, and I made sure to get as many as possible off to the World Services.
But one story in July of that year gave me the unexpected boost that finally got me a transfer from Knoxville to New York and subsequently to Rio de Janeiro. It was a story I had been told not to cover.
Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of independent Nigeria, was coming to East Tennessee as a part of his state visit to the United States in July 1961. Balewa had made headlines in Washington with his meeting with President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other high government officials as well as with his speech before a joint session of Congress. After a state dinner at the White House, Balewa visited Chicago and then came to Knoxville to visit the Tennessee Valley Authority. A dairy farmer himself, he had also had asked to visit a modern U.S. dairy farm.
Escar Thompson, the AP correspondent in Knoxville, messaged the General Desk in New York and was told there was no interest in a story on the prime minister’s activities in East Tennessee so he nixed my request to cover the visit, fearing, I suppose, I would put in for overtime.
I covered it anyway, on my own time, following the visitor and his party, all dressed in the colorful flowing robes of their native country, across the muddy fields of Bonnie Vista dairy farm in Loudon County Tennessee. It was a Saturday and I was working the night shift, so I had to hurry back to Knoxville to get to work on time. I wrote my story and filed it to the New York World Services desk, not the General Desk.
I didn’t know what to expect from Escar, but I don’t recall that he even mentioned it. I did not ask for overtime, of course.
A few days later Stan Swinton, the director of AP World Services, wrote me with a copy to Escar that the AP’s Lagos bureau chief had written that my story was the best thing he had seen in the coverage of Balewa’s U.S. visit.
I still remember, more or less, my lead. “Politics and affairs of state were pushed into the background today as two farmers walked across a muddy dairy farm field in East Tennessee.”
I think that story, more than anything else, led to my assignment a few weeks later on the World Services desk in New York. And, I left for Rio before the end of the year.
(Footnote: the link above is to a video of Balewa’s visit on the website of the Kennedy Library. The visit to TVA is about 18 minutes into the film and the dairy farm visit is 18:40 minutes. Yours truly appears in several frames of the farm visit, including smoking a cigarette in one frame (19:03). I quit two years later.
(Sadly, Balewa was assassinated during a military coup d’etat in 1966.)