One of NPR’s most celebrated and admired foreign correspondents, Alan Tomlinson, died in Miami on Nov. 26 from complications related to surgery for cancer.
Tomlinson covered Central America and the Caribbean for the BBC and later NPR during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the region was wracked by civil wars and corrupt dictatorships. He was a daring but not rash reporter, whose remarkable prose placed the listener right next to him as he would describe a riot in Haiti or a bone-jarring bus ride through the highlands of Nicaragua.
“Alan was a terrific reporter, a fearless journalist and a brilliant storyteller,” said former NPR foreign editor Pat Flynn.
“I remember many times he was out reporting in incredibly dangerous situations in the morning, like a firefight between the army and guerrillas in El Salvador, or street violence in Haiti under Duvalier, and Alan could put together a feature story for All Things Considered that afternoon that was full of sound and voices and raw emotion so vivid that he just brought you there. He never lost his cool and he always delivered,” said Flynn.
Tomlinson’s death stunned many of his colleagues, past and present, who appreciated the many close calls he had in reporting, like when he was kidnapped twice in Haiti. The first time was by a mob and the second by rural police who were unhappy with his reporting on their atrocities.
“Alan came to NPR straight out of central casting. British, dashing, multilingual, with the ability to write shorthand, he had a wealth of war-zone reporting,” said NPR producer Peter Breslow. “We were in Somalia together, my first real shooting war, and his advice helped keep me safe.”
Tomlinson’s coverage of Haiti earned him two separate awards by the Overseas Press Club of America, and he shared a DuPont Award for NPR’s coverage of the first Gulf War.
“Alan was one of the finest journalists I’ve ever known. He understood that radio is a narrative art,” said former foreign desk chief John McChesney. His favorite memory of Tomlinson on NPR was at the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti in 1986.
“Alan was on the phone live from his hotel in Haiti when an old friend burst into the room. He had just been released from prison and the entire reunion was broadcast. It was an unforgettable radio moment.”
Tomlinson was born into a working-class family in Newcastle in northeast England in 1947. The journalism bug bit him as a teenager and took him to London, Paris and Spain before he went to Central America for the BBC. He never attended college, yet he was fluent in French and Spanish and is remembered fondly by friends as a lover of books and the opera.
And he always knew how to have a good time. The Miami Herald quotes a longtime friend as saying, “Alan danced salsa better than any Brit I’ve ever known.”
In the mid-1990s Tomlinson turned his talents to television, working for New York Times Television, the Discovery Network’s TLC Channel and the National Geographic Channel. Along the way, he won an Emmy for a documentary on the Ebola outbreak in Zaire. In 2006, he signed on with the South Florida public radio and television station WLRN, where he and his wife, Francesca De Onis, produced documentaries on Muhammad Ali, Richard Nixon and the Holocaust.
Tomlinson is survived by his wife, Francesca; his six children, Nicholas, Emilio, Matthew, Catherina, Ana and Sam; his brother, Michael, and his sister, Sheilagh Hume.