William N. Oatis, longtime Associated Press correspondent and Cold War cause
celebre, died Tuesday morning, September 16, from complications arising from a
protracted struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.

I think there is no greater compliment for a newsman than to be eulogized in an
effective lead. Knowing my father, he probably would have edited this one.

I think he knew I was never destined to be a correspondent. The beauty I find in
words is their ability to evoke emotion.  The beauty of language is the power to emote
with words as perhaps a musician does with his music. And as we all bring a different
interpretation to our reading and writing, my father had a different meaning for his
words. His were not so much to provoke a thought, or to evoke an emotion as much as to
inform; but not to simply inform but to do so in the purest of fashions: objective, factual,
and accurate. I’m sure this would have been my father’s mission statement. And I don’t
think anyone outside of the family of journalism can understand how difficult it is to
satisfy these criteria. One need only be a Democrat and think of the Republican agenda,
or vice versa, to understand that it is virtually impossible to keep your opinions out of
what you write. My father had this ability—the strict professional ethic of a
dyed-in-the-wool journalist.

I have perhaps less to say about my father than does my brother. There are six
years that separate us; six years more that he spent with my father, six years of the
commonality of adulthood that they shared. They traveled together, they went to
museums, and both possessed a highly developed sense of curiosity; but above all, they
shared the common ground of reporting, and of journalism. All this while I was still in
my youth.

I do, however, have a few stories about my father, and a few remembrances.
Mostly, the ones I recall, I do so because they were minor epiphanies, small leaps of
cognizance in my understanding that my father was not exactly, or not even nearly, like
those of the friends with whom I grew up. While other fathers, slovenly dressed in cut-off
jeans and T-shirts, and baseball caps crammed on their heads, took their kids out on
Sundays to play catch, my father shaved and threw on a charcoal pinstripe suit, a hat and
his signature bow tie. Standing around with the other kids and their fathers, this subtle
incongruity was not lost on me, even if I was very young at the time.

One particular instance that stands out in my memory was of the time he took me
deep sea fishing. There I was, standing at the rail, rod in hand, elbow to elbow with
rough-looking fishing types. All of us were covered from fingernails to biceps in fish
scales and bait. All except my father, who stood somewhere behind me, dressed in his
suit and bow tie. He might have removed his jacket at one point, I’m not quite sure, but I
know that he was wearing his loafers that day, because they looked so clean and black
against the boat’s gritty deck.

Another recollection I have is of us walking in the swamps in New Jersey; the
temperature must have been in the nineties, and again, there was my inveterate father
dressed in his suit, hiking along in his loafers. Even back then, I know he was considered
a little old-fashioned, a little out of the times. But I was proud of his individuality and
these differences because they extended beyond his suit and bow tie, to his sense of self,
his incorruptible character, this very low moral center of gravity. As a youth, the one
thing I knew about my father was that he had character, he had sand.
After he retired it seems that he lost his sense of purpose, he became Samson
without his hair.

For as near as anyone can figure, he began his struggle against Alzheimer’s about
10 or so years ago, shortly after this retirement. Anyone who is not directly familiar with
this disease doesn’t suffer from the lack of an association; this ignorance is bliss. During
this period the disease slowly and methodically planed away thin shavings of his
personality; daily, it worked away at his intellect, his curiosity and his wry humor.
Toward the end, if you didn’t know him you might think there was nothing particularly
wrong. He might say things like “OK,” and “How about you,” or “Very good.” But things
weren’t good at all; these few phrases, along with my mother’s name, were the only
words he still owned and, sadly, they are not the ones I would choose for him. I suggest
these instead because they were important to him and because they, in essence, define the
man I knew, when there was someone there to know: objective, accurate, principled,
intelligent, gentle, persevering, humble, and kind. These eight words sum up the man I
knew when I was young and growing up. And in these words I choose to remember him.
My grief is not for the loss of my father, rather for my father’s loss of identity. We
all share a commonality of purpose: to find meaning within each of our lives; my father
was lucky enough to find his purpose, but the anger I feel I liken to a punchline of a cruel
joke; in the end he forgot his purpose. He was a man left to search for shadows in a
darkened room.

There is one thing, however, that remained until the very end, and surprisingly,
this was not anything to do with his profession. It was the only other constant in his life
besides his work. It was his music.

My father loved jazz, and he played the piano; could play right up until his death.
This he never lost.

As a boy, he played in Bob Butler’s Arab Serenaders, a local band in his home
state of Indiana. As he grew older, he developed a love of jazz and its practitioners; the
blues of Billie Holiday, the complex virtuosity of Art Tatum’s piano work, the sonorous
tones of Ella Fitzgerald. If he wasn’t at his desk at the United Nations, chances are he
was either sitting at the piano or listening to jazz records.

And both these qualities, his work and his music, are joined together in my mind
when I remember his hands. Each of us has some defining physical characteristic; when I
think of my father, I think of his hands; for these were his means of articulation; with
them he played the music he loved; with them he created the music of his words and
craft. They were the hands I remember that would pat my back when I was 6 years old
and afraid of the dark, the hands that would pull down the kite, put the string back on the
reel turn by turn; these all-purpose hands that he used to win an Indiana typing contest,
that later he would use to knock out stories; the same hands to play his jazz. They were
lily white, the fingers long and slender, and the skin smooth and soft, like velvet, or a
newborn’s skin. And they remained this way till the very last day of his life.

And this is the way I would like to remember my father: an exacting professional,
a lover of music, a ceaseless and inexorable pursuer of truth, a kind and gentle father. To
those who knew him, he was a quiet man. I understood this, yet I never mistook it for a
lack of passion. For he was passionate in his work, his music, and as a doting father never
quite comfortable with the role.

Woody Allen once said,  “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I
want to achieve immortality through not dying.” The latter is obviously not possible, but I
think that my father would have been satisfied with the former; with his small part in
20th century history, his work as a journalist, and as a patient father and faithful husband.
In these he is immortalized; in history and our hearts and memories.

William N. Oatis is survived by his wife of 37 years, Laurabelle Z. Oatis, his sons
Jonathan and Jeremy, and three grandchildren: Jay William, Sara Aislinn, and Evan
William Oatis. He will be missed but certainly not forgotten.

Thank you very much.