Harold “Hal” Hendrix may have owed part of the success he had in his career as a Latin American correspondent to the swallowing of an open safety pin as an infant.
Doctors were not geared to do tracheotomies on infants in 1923 Richmond, Missouri, when Hendrix was 1. But his family found a trailblazing doctor who performed the operation to remove the pin. The procedure, however, damaged his vocal box, leaving Hendrix with a distinct rasp, not unlike laryngitis.
“In the long run that voice was an advantage for him. People in Latin America remembered him. People knew immediately who he was,” said his daughter Kathy Hendrix.
Though fluent in Spanish, Hendrix, who died Feb. 12 at 92 in Vero Beach, understood the language better than he spoke it and that, too, worked to his advantage.
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“He didn’t speak it well so they didn’t figure he could quite understand the language,” she said.
People will say a lot around you when they think you’re oblivious.
And the American-born, Rockhurst University-educated Hendrix understood plenty — especially about his beloved Latin and Central America. He covered these regions in the 1940s, a part of the world the American media paid scant attention to back then.
Hendrix first covered Central and South America at his first journalism job in 1944 at The Kansas City Star. Initially a local news reporter, he convinced his editors to let him take on Latin America because he felt it would become an important trade center.
Where did that insight come from?
“Curiosity,” his daughter believes. “I have to think curiosity. Even as a little boy he was fascinated by Latin America. He could name all the capitals and rivers and mountains and this is before he got out of school. He was always fascinated by … the politics of it and the cultures of it and the people in the different countries.”
Hendrix soon realized Miami was where he needed to be and he found a position with The Miami News as its Latin America correspondent in 1957.
While at the Miami News, he covered Cuba extensively and was the first American journalist to report that there were Soviet missiles on the island. He reported this two weeks before the Kennedy administration made its radio and television announcement about the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
Hendrix earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for International Reporting for his series of articles on Cuba. According to editor David Dent’s U.S.-Latin American Policymaking: A Reference Handbook (Greenwood; $126) in 1995, a CIA official told The New York Times in 1977 that Hendrix was an agency “asset.” Hendrix responded that he simply had a “normal journalistic relationship” with the CIA.
The Pulitzer news took awhile to reach Hendrix, who also covered Haiti, Panama, Guatemala and Venezuela during this era.
“When he won the Pulitzer he was one of the last people to find out because he was in the Dominican Republic covering a coup and there was a curfew for reporters at the hotel. By 7, it was impossible to get a call through so he didn’t know about it for three days. My mother told him,” Kathy Hendrix said.
Hendrix left the Miami News for Scripps Howard News Service to become its Latin American correspondent but he balked at working out of Scripps’ Washington offices.
“He was the only correspondent not based in Washington and that was almost a deal-killer,” his daughter said. “Dad made a point that the Cuban community in Miami made it worthwhile for him to stay in Miami and it was easier to get to Latin America from Miami. The Miami Herald gave him office space for the use of his column.”
By the late ’60s, the constant travel to chase stories — and a journalist’s pay — pushed Hendrix to accept a position as director of public relations for Latin America with International Telephone and Telegraph Company. He lived with his late wife, Pat, and daughter, who survives him, in Buenos Aires for a few years before a transfer to New York.
Still, Miami felt like home so Hendrix moved back and became vice president for marketing for the Wackenhut Corporation in the late 1970s. “He won an award for best annual report one year,” his daughter said.
He retired to Vero Beach in 1985.
A memorial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. March 19 in Vero Beach at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 500 Iris Ln., with a reception at Quail Valley Country Club.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.