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Wilbur Landrey, renaissance man among foreign correspondents, dies at 93

ST. PETERSBURG — Among the first stories Wilbur Landrey covered as the St. Petersburg Times chief foreign correspondent was the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala that killed 23,000.

He and Times photographer Ric Ferro checked into a hotel that was "kind of tilting," Landrey later recalled. The next day, as he was writing a story, a severe aftershock hit and the table began to skid across the room.

"We were on the first floor — or fourth floor, or sixth floor, it got higher in the telling as time went on — and I looked out the window. There was Ric, who was more scared than I was, yelling, 'Jump! Jump!'"

Landrey did not, and went on to spend another two decades chronicling the biggest international stories of the 20th century including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Landrey, who died Friday at 93 in a Largo nursing home of complications from pneumonia, "was a true renaissance man," recalled longtime friend Pat Tyler, a former New York Times chief foreign correspondent who first met Landrey while both worked for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times)."He was just a captivating personality because of the arc of history he had lived and observed as a journalist. He knew the world and all I knew was the police beat."

Howell Raines, another St. Petersburg Times alum and former executive editor of the New York Times, remembers traveling with Landrey as both covered the 1987 reelection campaign of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"At that time I was London bureau chief and I had a car and driver and we teamed up and had ourselves driven around England going to campaign rallies and doing a bit of pub crawling," Raines said Friday. "He was a wonderful journalist and a very balanced person in terms of his world view and his politics. And he was a lovely writer."

Born in 1923 in Kansas City, Landrey came by his journalism chops naturally — his grandfather was a tramp printer who set up type for weekly newspapers before starting one of his own, and his father, who died when Landrey was 12, was a reporter for the Kansas City Star.

After graduating from Columbia University, Landrey hoped to serve in World War II. But a scar on his lungs from a childhood case of tuberculosis made him ineligible for military duty so he joined the United Press news service.

"I figured the way to get to Europe was as a correspondent," he recalled for a St. Petersburg Times story on his retirement in 1996.

Landrey spent four years in New York, then transferred to the London bureau. There he met Gene Patterson, who ran UP's London operation. When Landrey became bureau chief in Paris (he spoke fluent French with a Midwestern twang), he bought a car and invited Gene and Sue Patterson to vacation with him in the south of France. On the way back to London, Landrey was determined to dine at one of the very few restaurants awarded three stars by the Michelin guidebook.

"He called the restaurant and said, 'We're a couple of wealthy Americans' — we were making about $ 125 a week then — 'and we'd like you to choose the menu and the wines,'" Patterson recalled years later. "The chef himself greeted us and we went into a magnificent dinner" — Foie gras, chicken cooked between rocks and a superb bottle of Nuits-St-Georges.

Together, Landrey and Patterson covered some of the biggest stories of the '50s — the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit, Winston Churchill's retirement, the marriage of actor Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier. (On the latter they wrote under the byline "Elizabeth Toomey" because their bosses thought a wedding should be covered by a woman.)

In 1965, Landrey met Beverly Putnam at a dinner in Paris arranged by one of her friends.

In its own way, Putnam's life was as unusual as that of her future husband. She had been a professional hula dancer and organizer of the "first all-girl African safari." It was such a novel idea — drawing in women ages 27 to 68 — that writer S. J. Perelman chronicled it in The New Yorker magazine.

The Landreys married in 1967. His career took them to Buenos Aires, then to New York where Landrey became foreign editor of United Press International. He was among the first journalists to tour China after Richard Nixon's landmark visit.

By the mid '70s, Patterson had become editor of the St. Petersburg Times and persuaded Landrey to join him in Florida.

St. Petersburg was hardly a world capital, but Landrey drew on his years of experience and enormous network of contacts to keep up with events. He programed a short-wave radio to wake him every morning at 7 with the BBC's international news.

"He just brought a level of worldliness and sophistication to a newsroom that was above average but didn't have a lot of people with international reach, and he did so in a very unintimidating way," Raines recalled.

Landrey frequently wrote columns: His opinions drew flak from some readers who thought he was too critical of Israel and too sympathetic to the Arabs and Palestinians. He also traveled extensively, and in 1989 persuaded Times editors to let him move to Europe and open a bureau.

"His pitch," Patterson later said, "was, why not send him to Paris and save on all this transatlantic air fare? He was a one-person foreign service."

In 1996, the Times closed its Paris bureau as Landrey, the oldest U.S. correspondent actively working in Europe, decided to retire at 73. It had been a remarkable career, spanning a half century in which he first filed his stories by Morse Code and eventually by laptop computer. The Landreys moved back to St. Petersburg and remained close friends with the Pattersons until Sue Patterson's death in 1998 and Gene Patterson's in 2013.

Even toward the end of his life, Landrey remained interested in foreign affairs. And Beverly Landrey, now 95, can still see him in her mind's eye heading off on yet another assignment.

"I remember looking out the window in Paris and seeing him with his typewriter or computer heading down the street to the airport or the train station. I always kept watching him leave and wondering when he'd get back. He had the life he wanted; he loved that life."

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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