Don Bohning, who spent three decades building up the Miami Herald’s Latin American coverage, died early Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 82.
From the mid-1960s to the turn of the century, there was scarcely a war, coup, revolution, massacre, assassination, volcanic eruption, hurricane or other act of political or environmental mayhem that Bohning didn’t cover. And when he couldn’t get there himself, he was editing copy from an all-star cast of reporters he assembled that won two Pulitzer Prizes under his command.
“In the early 1980s, when the country suddenly woke up to the importance of Latin America, the Herald’s Latin Desk was a Murderer’s Row of great correspondents: Guy Gugliotta. William Montalbano. Juan Tamayo. Bill Long. Sam Dillon,” said Tim Golden, a Herald foreign correspondent of that era, ticking off a list of reporters who were the elite of American foreign correspondents.
“And Don was the anchor of that lineup — the player-coach, the mentor, the wise man who knew every layer of the story and every good source. He was also the teacher who made sure that lineup remained strong for years and years, even after so many of those reporters went off to the foreign staffs of other papers.
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“For a while, it seemed like half of the Latin America correspondents of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States were people who Don had trained or mentored.”
Don Bohning, born and raised in South Dakota, joined the Herald in 1959 after graduating from Dakota Wesleyan University. He covered the city of Hollywood until becoming the paper’s roving Latin America correspondent in 1964. He was promoted to Latin America editor in 1967 and stayed in the job until retiring in 2000.
When Bohning started at the Herald, its coverage of Latin America was neither sophisticated nor sweeping, just a haphazard attempt to explain to perplexed local readers why all those Cuban refugees were coming to town. (Bohning liked to flash a clipping of a story that appeared in the Herald on his first day of work, headlined: GUATEMALA HAS OPEN DOOR FOR COMMIES -- JAIL.)
Skipping through Central America and the Caribbean on puddle-jumping local airlines, Bohning expanded the coverage in both breadth and depth, unleashing a torrent of his own stories and constantly pushing the paper to hire more reporters.
He wasn’t one for flashy scoops — though he certainly produced some — or frilly writing. “He worked hard and wrote fast,” observed University of Miami journalism professor Joseph B. Treaster, a former colleague, offering the highest praise known to their generation of reporters.
Bohning concentrated more on stories that explained why things happened and what their impact would be on common people. “He had a little bit of Ernie Pyle about him,” said a friend, longtime Time magazine correspondent Bernard Diederich, citing the World War II combat correspondent famous for preferring to share foxholes with GIs over cocktails with generals. “He never was too busy to talk to a taxi driver or a market lady and get their thoughts.”
That didn’t mean he didn’t know plenty of generals, too. As reporters who traveled with him soon learned, Bohning knew everybody, everywhere.
“Don had equally close relationships with all kinds of unusual people, left wingers, right wingers, whatever,” said Gugliotta. “He was tight with both [socialist] Michael Manley and [conservative] Edward Seaga, his great rival in Jamaica; with Guyana’s Forbes Burnham and the communist Cheddi Jagan, his great rival; with Bob Brown, the whacko publisher and owner of Soldier of Fortune. . . .
“His sources trusted him in ways I found hard to believe at times. There wasn’t a chief of state in the Caribbean or its environs who wouldn’t see him at a moment’s notice or call him up if he — or she — had something to say.”
Gugliotta discovered just how highly esteemed Bohning was in the eyes of Caribbean politicians one morning when George Price, the eccentric but charming prime minister of Belize, popped in without warning at the old Herald building on Biscayne Boulevard, having flown to Miami and then taking a bus to see Bohning for an impromptu chat. Minutes later, two harried Secret Service agents burst into the Herald lobby, frantic that their charge had wandered away.
Bohning was nonplussed neither by the arrival of Price nor that of the distraught agents. His patience and tranquility in the face of maddog dictators and penurious publishers were legendary. He stayed calm even in the face of the serial catastrophes that marked his attempt to cover the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.
The U.S. military was barring reporters from the scene, but Bohning and five other reporters hired a smuggler with a speedboat in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to slip them in. Making its final run to shore through bombing and artillery fire, the boat capsized, destroying all Bohning’s notes and recordings.
Reaching shore, in a surreal landscape of bombed damage strewn with corpses and a chorus of barking madmen who escaped from a nearby asylum when it was mistakenly bombed, Bohning and the rest of the group were arrested first by a left-wing children’s militia and then by the U.S. military, which held them incommunicado on a naval vehicle, unable to file their stories.
“Everybody else was furious and screaming at each other, but Don just stayed calm, figuring it would all get sorted out sooner or later,” recalled Diederich, who was part of the group. “He was always like that. The only time I ever saw him a little flustered, maybe, was in Nicaragua in 1979, when the Somoza government was falling to rebels, and one of Somoza’s mercenaries came to Don’s hotel room and robbed him.”
What left permanent scars on Bohning’s soul, though, was not the robbery in Managua but covering the 1978 mass suicide of the Peoples Temple cult in Guyana. It left him quiet and depressed for months.
“Don was at the airport in Georgetown, the capital, where aircraft after aircraft was landing, bringing back the bodies from the jungle,” remembers former Herald photographer Tim Chapman, who also covered the story. “So he saw every single one of those 912 bodies or exactly however many it was come in. And remember, a third of them were children; the People Temple members weren’t just killing themselves, they were murdering their own children, too.
“We talked about it many times — that’s an exclusive club, those of us who saw it, and it never leaves you, and there’s no way of really describing it to anyone else — and he never really got over it. ‘At least in a revolution, you can figure out why people are killing each other,’ he would say. ‘But this never made any sense.’ Don, when he covered a story, always wanted to know why, and Guyana didn’t have a why.”
Bohning is survived by his son, Lee, of Colorado, and daughter, Lori, of central Florida; and by his wife of 60 years, former Barry University education professor Gerry Bohning. He was holding her hand when he died.
A friendship gathering will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Fred Hunter Funeral Home at 2401 S. University Dr. in Davie. A brief service will be held at 10:30 a.m., followed by a procession to the cemetery.