Sunday, March 23, 2014

Remembering Joel Brinkley

This is a column I wrote for the Nugget, my local weekly newspaper in Sisters, Oregon that published Joel's syndicated commentaries:

Nugget readers will recognize Joel Brinkley’s name as a syndicated columnist on world political affairs whose insightful articles invariably went beyond predictable mainstream thinking. His column ceased when he recently began a new job in Washington, D.C. but there is another reason that is hard to comprehend.

My friend and fellow journalist over 35 years died March 11th of an undiagnosed acute form of leukemia that raged through his body like a wildfire in five days.

He was 61.

My relationship with Joel began in 1979 when we worked at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY. I was a photojournalist and he was a reporter. We were offered the assignment of a lifetime to go to the border region between Thailand and Cambodia to document Cambodian refugees fleeing the wrath of the Khmer Rouge regime. Caring for some of the refugees was a Louisville physician, Dr. Kenneth Rasmussen, who agreed to be a part of our coverage.

We needed to leave within a week and without passports, visas or inoculations there was a lot to do. We went to a health clinic for the shots and were told that there wasn’t enough time to get all the necessary injections. From a list of potential diseases we were asked to choose three that we were most likely to encounter.

The passport office in Los Angeles provided a two-day turnaround for our passports and visas. Our departure to Bangkok from San Francisco was November 4th, the day the American Embassy in Tehran was overtaken.

We drove from Bangkok to the town of Aranyaprathet, Thailand and connected with Dr. Rasmussen. He directed us to several camps where we heard the accounts of the “killing fields” from survivors of the genocide of 1.8 million Cambodians by the Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge.

One indelible memory is Joel and I sitting inside our car with the air conditioner on as we tried to cool off from the sweltering heat and humidity. Children pressed their curious faces against every window. We exited the car and went back to work.

During the 19-hour flight home after three weeks of reporting Joel became ill and upon arrival in Louisville was diagnosed with typhoid. He was very ill for nearly two weeks but still managed to begin writing for the five-day series of stories with my photographs that won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

Joel began his 23-year career at the New York Times in 1983 and I relocated to Sacramento, CA in 1986 and Sisters in 2007. Joel left the Times and joined the faculty at Stanford in 2006 and also started researching material for his book, “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land.” He asked me to accompany him on a three-week tour of the country in 2009, thirty years after our first trip.
A poignant memory occurred when our driver/interpreter helped us locate, Soloth Nhep, Pol Pot’s brother. During Joel’s interview with the old man I saw a side of Joel that was counter to his take-no-prisoners persona he used with other people who were less than forthcoming. For two hours Joel gently probed for answers about the brothers’ relationship. Nhep answered with a serene demeanor saying he was initially shocked about his brother’s role with the Khmer Rouge but more simply bewildered and sad about Pol Pot abandoning his family.

Joel’s career as a foreign correspondent, editor, author, columnist, and professor was his public life.

I’ll also remember Joel as a gentle Renaissance man who enjoyed gourmet cooking and fine woodworking, and his beloved North Carolina Tarheels.

His wife, two daughters, siblings and friends throughout the world know his true north was his unwavering love and respect for all of us.