National Columnists’ Day

As seen in Fort Worth-Star Telegram – April 18, 1998

Hero teaches lesson, but not about writing

 By Dave Lieber, Columnist, Fort Worth Star-Telegram 

Columnists across America this weekend are writing about National Columnists Day, a fun quasi holiday in which they honor Ernie Pyle, the great columnist who was killed 53 years ago yesterday by a Japanese sniper in the final days of World War II.

I won’t do that in this space today. Instead, I will share what I consider to be the worst of Pyle. A sad lesson about my hero’s life that I never want to forget.

It was a lesson that I didn’t expect to learn on my honeymoon three years ago, when we went on a pilgrimage to Pyle’s former home in Albuquerque, N.M.

The “little white house,” as Pyle affectionately called it, is now a branch of the Albuquerque Public Library. His former living room contains a shrine of Pyle artifacts — his hat, his sun goggles, a replica of his typewriter — that thousands of fans have enjoyed since the house opened to the public in 1948.

When I began flipping through the library’s books about Pyle’s life, I expected to pick up writing tips on how Pyle became the most popular columnist of the 20th century. But the stories that caught my attention were more about Pyle’s wife, Geraldine, and the troubled marriage they endured.

Jerry, as she was called, was somewhat famous, too. She traveled with her husband from town to town in their family car during the 1930s, when Ernie wrote his popular “on the road” column from points across the United States. He often wrote about “that girl who rides with me.”

I was gratified to see that Jerry was Ernie’s most important booster in the early years of his column writing. My bride, Karen, who at that moment napped outside the library in our rental car, is so incredibly helpful to me. Like Jerry, Karen is quick with advice, editing, story ideas and reassurance when my writer’s insecurity sets in.

Looking out the window of Ernie’s old house at my napping wife — that girl who rides with me — I wondered what it was like to be the spouse of a columnist. The columnist writes, but the spouse also deals with constant deadlines, interruptions, pressures and worries. Divorce in the newspaper business is not uncommon (my first marriage ended in 1990).

I was surprised to learn that Jerry, the original Ernie Pyle fan, began to suffer from what one Pyle biographer described as “sinister moods.” Pyle’s constant traveling to war zones in the 1940s did Jerry and Ernie little good. Jerry’s ailments eventually were recognized, biographers wrote, as side effects from her alcoholism and mental illness. Ernie dealt with the breakdown of his marriage, in part, by having at least two adulterous affairs.

Once, Ernie wrote to his best friend that Jerry had gone “completely screwball” and he didn’t know what to do. The Pyles tried doctor after doctor and treatment after treatment but little was known about ways to treat mental illness and alcoholism in the 1940s.

I was taken aback when I read, in The Story of Ernie Pyle by Lee G. Miller, that the Pyles had gotten divorced.

According to Miller, Ernie wrote a friend that the divorce was “an experiment on the gamble that it might shock her into realizing that she had to face life like other people.” He hoped that if Jerry could “cure herself, we could some day be remarried.”

Cure herself? With the benefits of modern science 50 years later, I know this was impossible. But the wisest writer of them all didn’t have a clue.

Ernie was on the other side of the world, making a name for himself as the biggest byline in journalism. Jerry suffered another breakdown and, a friend observed, “aged a decade.”

The Pyles remarried in 1943, but Ernie wasn’t there. At the ceremony, a friend filled in for him. Jerry had begged him to come home, but Ernie was still off at war writing columns about the soldiers in the foxholes that made him America’s favorite.

“We’ll live simply when I get back,” he promised Jerry in a letter. The little white house awaited. But Ernie never returned for that simple life.

He died April 18, 1945. Jerry died seven months later. They were buried 4,500 miles apart.

After closing those books inside my hero’s house, I looked out again through Ernie Pyle’s window at that girl who rides with me. Before rejoining her, I promised myself that there was at least one trait from Pyle’s life that I wouldn’t try to emulate when I left his old living room. I would try not to put work above all else.

I’d be lying if I said I always kept my promise. (As I write this on deadline, I’m missing my son’s Little League game.)

National Columnists Day is a reason to celebrate the wonderful storytelling abilities of Ernie Pyle and his bravery during war. But for me, it’s also a day to remember the one way I don’t want to be like my hero.

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