William N. Oatis · 1992
This speech was read at his induction into the Hall of Fame.
Sometimes people can get into a heap of trouble for just doing their job. That’s what happened to Bill Oatis, who had a reputation for being a thorough and accurate reporter.
A native of Marion, Indiana, Bill and his wife, Laurabelle, are unable to be with us tonight because of failing health. They live in New York City. He is a retired Associated Press editor.
It wasn’t any one question he asked or a story he wrote that got him into trouble. It was because he was an American-style reporter. The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia arrested him on a charge of espionage and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
That was in 1951 when Bill was chief of bureau for the AP in Prague. “On April 23, 1951, I was arrested in my office and taken to the downtown headquarters of the Czechoslovakian State Security, the secret police,” Bill recently wrote in an AP publication.
“There a cold-eyed plainclothesman began my interrogation by shouting, ‘We could hang you!’ The Czechoslovakian legal system being what it was then, I could well believe that, though I had done nothing to warrant such punishment.
“I had done nothing I considered espionage – nothing more than gather news from Czechoslovak media and exchange information with acquaintances of mine. But in prison I was given to believe the country’s legal definition of espionage was rather broad.”
After a much publicized trial, Bill was sentenced to 10 years in the Ruzyn prison outside Prague. He was freed after serving two years. Like Terry Anderson, an AP staffer recently freed by fundamentalist Moslems in Lebanon, Bill kept his mind active, reading books borrowed from the prison library or sent him by the U.S. embassy, the AP and his wife.
“We played chess on squares drawn on toilet paper, maneuvering pieces kneaded out of rye bread that had dried to become hard as rock,” Bill also recalled.
A pianist, he also wrote musical compositions and kept track of time which led him to determine the 1952 U.S. presidential election had taken place. He asked prison guards who had won. They told him Douglas MacArthur.
During the 1968 “Prague Spring” of Alexander Dubcek, the Czech government cleared Bill of the bogus spy charge. The conviction was reinstated following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
On his release from prison, the AP appointed Bill to its foreign desk in New York. In 1967, he was named the AP’s senior correspondent at the United Nations in New York, where he remained until retirement in 1984.
He was regarded as a walking encyclopedia of the UN. he also was famous for the pile of UN documents on his desk. He was always able to somehow reach into the pile, pulling out the document others requested.
In 1970, Bill was elected president of the United Nations Correspondents Association. While at the U.N., he saw and interviewed many of the world’s leaders.
His long, productive journalism career began while in high school where he worked on the student newspaper.
After a year at DePauw University, Bill returned home to Marion to work on the Leader-Tribune. In 1937 he joined the AP at its Indianapolis bureau. Always known as a stickler for accuracy and detail, Indianapolis staffers recall the time they learned that Bill had phoned the Indiana governor at 1 a.m. to check some minor detail in a story he was writing.
Bill also is known for his modesty. It is reflected in the brief summary of his career he wrote for an AP publication on his retirement. He stated:
“I like working for the AP because I like turning out news stories, and on an AP writing job you get to turn out a lot of them. I especially like working in the U.N. bureau because there you not only do a lot of writing but also a lot of interviewing.”
His AP career was interrupted by service in the Army during World War II. During the war he studied Japanese at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. His wife recalls that she lived across the street from Bill while she also was a student there. They did not meet there. their romance began after the war when she was an employee of the AP library in New York.
Bill Oatis, another excellent choice to join fellow Hoosiers in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.