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Looking back on the career of Hal Drake

It still seems surreal, that we at Stars and Stripes Pacific must adjust to a world without longtime newsroom character and icon, Harold A. Drake, who died Sunday in Australia after a lengthy battle with stomach cancer.

Hal, as his peers called him, was “one of a kind,” said Stripes’ former sports editor Harry Thompson, who like me worked alongside him; Harry for for eight years and me for 14.

Drake was far more than a seasoned veteran journalist who greeted at least five presidents on tarmacs in Japan, though he interviewed British royalty, rubbed elbows with the likes of Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali, and entertainers such as Moe Howard, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor, and was on hand for boxing’s biggest upset, James “Buster” Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in Tokyo in February 1990.

Drake was also a kind-hearted soul as well as a high-spirited jokester, as quick to give a tip to a budding military reporter as he was to suddenly bursting into song with an old, bawdy Oscar Brand tune or reciting old off-color limericks. He hung nicknames on people as quickly as he would refer to somebody as “Dad” or “Pops” if – on that rare occasion – their names escaped him. There was also his trademark whirligig, which he’d twirl in his hand as he’d wander the newsroom, undoubtedly piecing together his next works.

Be they his early days as a cub reporter hired in July 1956 or the days leading up to his retirement on Dec. 31, 1995, Drake was always the sharpest mind in the newsroom, who could recall -- to almost the exact date -- when a story was written about a particular subject. Colleagues would venture into the newspaper morgue just to read clips authored by the Santa Monica, Calif., native.

He leaves behind a devoted wife of 38 years, Kazuko, two sons and two grandchildren, along with a treasure trove of memories, which we delve into here along with several former colleagues:

Thompson on covering the Douglas-Tyson fight, for which he was assigned to do a sidebar to Drake’s main story:

“What a good-hearted soul in addition to being a great writer,” said Thompson, who now edits USA Hockey’s monthly magazine in Colorado.

“I can’t remember how I drew such a plum assignment” such as Douglas-Tyson, he said, adding that he also picked up a freelance gig with United Press International as a result.

“I interviewed Don King and Donald Trump as part of my story of why anyone would spend the time and the money for a fight that would last as long as a Tokyo subway stop. My other job was to cover the loser’s [aka Douglas’] dressing room after the fight.

“As I sat writing the story, the rounds added up and it soon became apparent that this was not another Tony Tubbs fight,” Thompson said of the bout in Tokyo nearly two years earlier, in which a much more grounded Tyson dispatched Tubbs in two rounds.

After the eighth round, in which Douglas was knocked down but beat a slow 10 count, “I deleted my original story and began work on a new angle,” Thompson said.

“All the while, Hal sat ringside, shoulder-to-shoulder with the boxing elite. The fight ends, I race down to the press conference, which was held in the Yomiuri Giants bullpen, and there’s Hal sitting in the front row. Fortunately, he saved me a seat.”

As the Douglas camp entered the room triumphantly, he stopped on the steps leading to the dais and pointed to Drake, Thompson recalled. “You was the only one here who believed in me,” Douglas said. “Other than me and my team, YOU knew. YOU knew.”

Thompson went on: “Of course, I put my arm around Drake to somehow bask in his greatness. Fortunately, for so many of us who worked at Pacific Stars and Stripes, we had the good fortune to bask in his greatness for many years.”

One of many such memories graced my Facebook and e-mail inboxes over the past few days.

“He was amazing,” said Steve Stibbens, then a Marine gunnery sergeant assigned to Stars and Stripes from 1962-64. “A gifted writer who always took the time to help others, especially the young, mostly inexperienced GIs who came to work at Stripes.”

“He truly loved his work, and it was appreciated by his readers and his peers,” another former Stars and Stripes GI, Jim Shaw (1959-66), said of Drake.

Adam Johnston, former Stars and Stripes electronic media editor, on having the daunting task of editing one of Drake’s columns:

“It was one of the toughest things to do, because it was like suggesting changes to the Bible,” said Johnston, now a DODDS Pacific educator.  “But I got through it and Hal didn’t say a word. He not only was an excellent writer, he was also decent to junior staffers the way so many senior writers aren’t. Hal’s desk – a pile of papers nearly three feet tall – was the stuff of newspaper legend.”

So much so, that some when passing by his desk did it softly, with deference and reverence. Like Rome, Drake’s desk was not built in a day, the caption on his 25th anniversary commemorative  page read in 1981.

“We have lost a real legend,” said Tom Pedersen, for four years Stars and Stripes’ first sergeant, now living and working in Singapore. “I do hope that someone at Stripes was able to capture a shot of his desk. I always walked carefully by so as not to disturb the genius at work and the obvious gems that were part of the pile.”

And the stories. Oh, the stories! Drake was known to many times hold court at the piano bar at the old Sanno Hotel in Tokyo’s swank Akasaka district, and later when the New Sanno opened in 1983. Seated between Drake on the right and my old sports editor mentor Lee Kavetski on the left, was like taking a trip back in time, so vivid in description you’d think you were standing in Yokohama Chinatown or Heartbreak Ridge.

“When I arrived in Tokyo in January 1991, I bunked at the Sanno,” said former Pacific editor Mike Durant (1991-98). “On the first night, I visited the bar where I first met Hal Drake. After several beers, hours and several Hal stories, I went to bed wondering what in the Hell did I get myself into. Over the next seven years, Hal always made me smile.”

People such as Drake and the late, great former Stripes City Editor Jim Lea “made Stripes special,” Durant said. “You kinda had to be there.”

Back in the days when the military made the calls on what stories published (and did not) in Stars and Stripes and when it was subjected to heavy pressure from public affairs offices, former staff writer Paul Harrington recalled when Drake broke the POW torture story that went viral – and invited the vitriol of the military establishment.

“Did get us kicked out of the PI (Philippines) and made national and world wires,” said Harrington, who was assigned to Stars and Stripes from 1970-74. “He was one helluva guy.”

Drake was assigned to Vietnam four times during the lengthy conflict, then returned in 1985 with free-lance photographer Jim Bryant, who contributed to Stars and Stripes out of Misawa Air Base, Japan, for the 10th anniversary of war’s end.

“He kept me entertained coming and going,” said Bryant, who now photographs in Seattle. “What a walking, talking library of knowledge. I remember when he pulled out that [whirligig] and started to spin it around his thumb and finger and started humming. I thought to myself, ‘WTF is this all about?’ Good man, a real gentleman.”

Former newswriter in Hawaii turned DODDS teacher, Gil Mueller, a regular at DODDS Far East journalism conferences in the 1990s and 2000s, recalls meeting Drake at Stars and Stripes’ Hardy Barracks compound in Tokyo. “He was sort of like the Mr. Chips of the newsroom,” Mueller said.

More than that, though, “My students knew him very well as I used his columns for years to teach journalistic excellence. Hal’s word became their stepping stones from lead to 30 and the pebbles in the shoes that the young generation of these writers used to make the bad guys stumble. Thanks, Hal. You made my teaching a lot easier and the world a bit better.”

“I always remember he was fond of calling those he knew, ‘Dad,’ like, ‘You know what I mean, right, Dad?’ usually followed by his mischievous chuckle,” said Wayne Specht, retired Air Force who served Stars and Stripes in a handful of capacities, mainly as Misawa bureau chief, over three tours. “I’ll miss him.”

“I hear St. Peter now has a whirligig on his desk by the Pearly Gates,” said Tom Skeen, who served as assistant Pacific Editor and later Pacific Editor in two tours with Stars and Stripes from 1990-2009.

Rick Rogers, a Japan correspondent in the early 1990s, recalls discussing a story he was trying to write with an editor, when Drake, seemingly transfixed on his whirligig, walked by. “Dad, I did something on that. Must have been about the second week of August, 1978,” said Rogers, now with the San Diego Tribune.

“I kid you not. The story was right where he said it would be. The man really had just an incredible memory when he chose to flash it.

“In my mind’s ear, I can still hear his bawdy shanties and corrupting limericks that he would break into with no warning. He was an original and I wish now that I had enjoyed his singularity more.

“Maybe more than anything, I’ll remember what he didn’t say. I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone, ever. Not the military, not management, not co-workers. He was a gentleman of the first rank.”

“Hal always referred to me from my first days at Stripes as the ‘Osmond-faced enemy of the people,’” recalled Brad Lendon, a news editor at Stars and Stripes in the 1980s now with CNN. “I’m sure that will stick with me always.”

“I loved him, too,” said Susan Kreifels, who joined Stars and Stripes in 1986 and covered the Mount Pinatubo disaster in 1991 before joining the East West Center in Hawaii.

“Even when he dribbled mustard from his hot dog on my chair, of course the day I was wearing a white skirt. But how could you ever be mad at a guy like him? We lost a legendary colleague who truly cared about [Stripes] and the people he covered.”

 

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