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Harry Rosenthal, AP reporter, dies at 86

Friday - 12/13/2013, 3:30pm  ET

CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Harry F. Rosenthal, an Associated Press writer who covered America's golden age of space exploration, presidents back to Harry Truman and whatever caught his impish eye in the stuffy halls of power, has died. He was 86.

He died Thursday at home in Kansas City, Mo., his daughter, Lesli Mulligan, said.

From the start, Rosenthal was more than a top-tier wire service newsman, fast and accurate. He was a wordsmith. He sweated the details, then turned those details into irresistible prose. In the old days when newsrooms still reeked of cigarettes, he would smoke and pace and fret while pondering just how he wanted to tell a story.

"Writing bugs me," he said, "but it's the only way I like to make a living."

Curiosity, Rosenthal believed, was the essence of good reporting.

"My own approach to an interview is the same one I had at 16 when I went to my first burlesque show," he said. "I had an idea of what to expect but I wanted to see for myself."

Rosenthal strolled with Truman in Independence, Mo., as the retired president reflected on his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of World War II. He covered Dwight Eisenhower back home in Kansas, Richard Nixon in his downfall and death, and presidents through to Bill Clinton before he retired from the AP in 1997.

He said then he wished he could write the human story of five more decades. He had a nose for the kind of story people wanted to read.

"We call them 'Hey, Martha' stories," Rosenthal said. "Which is, the guy sitting at the breakfast table and saying, 'Hey, Martha, did you see this?' You want a story with impact."

There were plenty of those in a career spanning a half-century associated with the AP, first as a stringer, then for more than 40 years a staff member, then a columnist in his retirement.

He wrote about the My Lai massacre prosecution of Lt. William Calley, the trials of assassin Sirhan Sirhan and would-be assassin John Hinckley. He covered civil rights marches, political campaigns and conventions, and the Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon's presidency.

Rosenthal's coverage of Elvis Presley's 1977 funeral was full of the small human moments that added up to a tale fit for Martha.

He wrote about the throngs filing through the cemetery, many collecting flowers scattered by mourners:

"Among the thousands taking a flower were Paul MacLeod of Holly Springs, Miss., and his 4-year-old son, Elvis Aron MacLeod.

"The father had grease-slicked hair, silver sunglasses, a white jacket, a black shirt and pointy-toed boots.

"Little Elvis, wearing a grin, clutched a carnation.

"'Why, I even named my son after Elvis instead of naming him for myself,' said MacLeod. "I'd like to be like Elvis in every way myself."

"When he shouted to his son -- 'Hey, Elvis' -- it startled other pilgrims."

Space travel was Rosenthal's passion, and he was witness to more than 30 manned NASA flights, including the first moon walk and most of the Apollo missions. He also covered the Challenger shuttle tragedy, writing in the aftermath of the explosion: "Everybody said it had to happen sometime, but when it did, it was too terrible to believe."

Covering a 1981 space shuttle landing, Rosenthal looked to the heavens to see Columbia "bursting like a silver wraith through mottled California skies."

One of his greatest ambitions, never realized, was to be the first journalist to go into space.

"During the long, grinding days of manned space flight, Harry was like a campfire burning brightly -- people gathered around him for warmth and light," recalled Paul Recer, a retired AP science writer who covered space with Rosenthal. "He was generous with suggestions and wise counsel. We were all better journalists because Harry Rosenthal was there."

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, who worked with Rosenthal in the 1990s, recalled being introduced to him when she joined the AP's Washington bureau as a news editor. He remarked: "Don't expect me to remember your name. My brain is already full up with names and I don't have room for any more."

He said the same about friends, she recalled, but that was "vintage Harry" and he didn't mean it.

"I loved his stories, the ones he told and the ones he wrote," she said.

Former AP Radio reporter Mark Knoller, now CBS News White House correspondent, witnessed Rosenthal's ability to think on his feet when they were assigned to cover the public viewing of Presley's body at Graceland. The Graceland staff placed the AP men at the head of the line, Knoller said, but "warned us, no photos and no lingering -- that they would keep us moving quickly.

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