Local Obituaries

Award-winning journalist and WLRN filmmaker Alan Tomlinson dies at 69

Alan Tomlinson
Alan Tomlinson

Alan Tomlinson, working-class son of a British coal town, told the stories of the world as an award-winning foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker.

He covered civil wars and crooked elections, atrocity and corruption, mostly in Central America and the Caribbean, but also in Africa, the Middle East and beyond. He celebrated underdogs and unexpected champions — a death camp survivor, a blind baseball commentator. He dodged death twice in Haiti, once when he was hauled from a car by an angry mob, again when he was kidnapped by rural police.

On Nov. 26, Tomlinson, 69, who headed television production at WLRN, died after complications from surgery for cancer at South Miami Hospital. His unexpected death stunned his family and an extended tribe of friends and colleagues, who mourned a man with a deep sense of justice, zest for life, and powerful gift for storytelling.

Those qualities illuminated his work for the BBC and NPR in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1980s and early ‘90s, when the region was wracked by political war and violence. Even in the most fraught situations, Tomlinson combined insightful, impeccably crafted reporting with a rich narrative prose rare in journalism.

When a cameraman friend was shot and killed by government forces in El Salvador in 1989, Tomlinson took audio from the man's camera and another reporter to do a piece for NPR. In 1992, rural sheriffs in Haiti, angry that Tomlinson was reporting on atrocities they had committed against supporters of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took Tomlinson and a fellow journalist prisoner and threatened to kill them both. Tomlinson talked their way out, then promptly filed a story to NPR — adding a segment where listeners could hear bullets flying as he holed up in a church with a local priest.

"Alan never went to pieces even when the worst things happened," said journalist David Adams, a longtime friend who worked alongside Tomlinson in Central America. "He never lost sight of the importance of reporting the story. In stressful situations he was very very calm and cool and professional, He was also incredibly compassionate. He could get the job done better than anyone else, write it better than anyone else, and do it in a humane fashion."

Tomlinson's work in Haiti for NPR was honored twice by the Overseas Press Club of America.

Bill Gentile, a former Newsweek photographer close to Tomlinson in the1980s, said he was driven by a deep sense of empathy.

"Alan's strongest points as a journalist were an open heart and an open mind," Gentile said. "He listened to people, he wanted to understand them. He made people feel comfortable whether they were high government officials or peasants. That's a real gift."

The son of a mail clerk and a nurse in Newcastle in Northeast England, Tomlinson began working at his local newspaper at 16, and never went to college. But he became a renaissance man. He spoke fluent French and Spanish (he worked in Spain, Paris and London before going to Central America in 1983), was an avid opera fan and lover of literature, as well as an accomplished horseman, sailor, tennis player and golfer.

He loved to drink, party, dance and tell stories. (Among his favorites was one about arguing with a lofty BBC editor who disapproved of the word "mob" to describe Haitian government thugs using machetes and burning tires on people in the street.) He was equally at home in an upper-class cocktail reception or a Nicaraguan dive.

"Alan danced salsa better than any Brit I've ever known," said John Lantigua, another longtime friend from the Central America days. "He was one of the best read people I knew. The guy was curious about everything. Which is what made him such a great journalist."

In the late ‘80s Tomlinson moved to Miami, where he met his wife, Francesca de Onis, with whom he had three children. In 1995 he shifted from radio to video, winning an Emmy Award for a documentary on the Ebola outbreak in Zaire for a company that became New York Times Television, where he worked for six years. In 2002 he and his wife returned to Miami and started Tomlinson-De Onis Productions, making documentaries for the National Geographic Channel, including "The Accordion Kings," a passionate celebration of Colombian vallenato music, and other channels.

In 2006 they produced the first of several powerful documentaries for WLRN, "Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami," about the legendary boxer's formative years in the city, followed by "Nixon's The One: The 68 Election," in 2008. In 2013, WLRN hired Tomlinson as director of television programming and production, and he and de Onis produced "Treblinka's Last Witness," the tale of Samuel Willenberg, the last living survivor of the Treblinka concentration camp, in 2014. The pair's final film for WLRN, "Streets of Wynwood," about international street artists, premiered on Nov. 17.

"Alan Tomlinson was one of the most talented filmmakers I have ever known," said WLRN general manager John Labonia in a tribute to Tomlinson on the station's website. "The combination of his wit, friendliness, and perfectionism is what created the fuel that ignited Alan's storytelling genius."

His many journalist friends mourn a man whose life was as rich as the stories he told.

"The world seems less without him," writes Anne Marie O'Connor. "I once saw him run fill tilt at a tall fence and sail over it on a horse that I had never even seen jump a small log," writes Charles Castaldi on a Facebook page for former Central American journalists. "Full tilt, Alan, that's how I'll always remember you."

Tomlinson is survived by his wife, Francesca de Onis; his children Nicholas, Emilio, Matthew, Catherina, Ana and Sam; his brother Michael, and his sister Sheilagh Hume. Funeral arrangements are pending.