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Archive: Local Lives

Posted at 1:54 PM ET, 03/28/2009

Tuskegee Airmen

At the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president, a special section was set aside for a distinguished group of veterans called the Tuskegee Airmen. Now aging and disappearing fast, they were members of an elite group of black aviators who were not allowed to serve alongside their white military brethren in the then-segregated armed forces.

Avis Thomas-Lester has often chronicled the lives of Tuskegee Airmen for The Washington Post, including two recent Local Life features of William H. Eaton and Augustus L. Palmer. (She also recently wrote a wonderful story about a black women's Army unit that delivered mail during World War II.)

Today, we've learned of the death of another Tuskegee Airman, George D. Thompson, from Philadelphia. HIs life story is told in a fine obituary by John F. Morrison in the Philadelphia Daily News.

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Posted at 5:12 AM ET, 04/20/2008

The Spy Game

John Guilsher was a quiet, modest man who spent 50 years as an officer and consultant for the CIA. For most obituaries of CIA officers, that's about all the information we get. But the story of John Ivan Guilsher is something special.

For Sunday's Local Life, I was able to recreate an amazingly intricate and riveting espionage case of the late 1970s and 1980s in which Guilsher played an instrumental part. The CIA rarely releases information about specific operations, but the case involving Guilsher and a Soviet engineer named Adolf G. Tolkachev is a remarkable exception.

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Posted at 12:59 PM ET, 12/23/2007

Variety of Life

Anyone who lived in the American West in the spring and summer of 1993 remembers the unexplained string of deaths of (mostly) rural residents. I have a vivid memory of camping in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and thinking about the ways that virus can be transmitted -- while also trying to conserve water. It took awhile, but finally scientists reported that the cause was a hantavirus which came from deer mice, which were all over the place that spring. It turns out that two biologists, Robert Parmenter and Terry Yates, made the connection.

One of the reasons that obits are so fascinating is that adjacent to that kind of news, you'll find stories like these, a woman who started a fabric shop, or a roofing billionaire who fell off a roof. Who needs fiction when fact is so fascinating?

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Posted at 12:34 PM ET, 12/ 1/2007

Obit Sleuthing

I wrote a Local Life feature for last Sunday's paper on Dorothy Bialek, who with her husband, Robert, was the co-owner of the old Discount Records and Books in Washington. Founded in 1952, the store was D.C.'s first record discounter (the books came later). It was also, according to the family, the first local store to introduce autograph sessions with major artists. The store began out of an abiding passion -- Bob Bialek, who died in 2006, loved classical music and was a capable pianist in his own right.

I began working on the piece on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, after another story had fallen through and had only a day and a half to complete it. By Friday afternoon, I had spoken to all three of Dorothy Bialek's chlidren, one of whom sent me several photographs, including a wonderful shot -- which we used in the paper and online -- from a signing session at the Bialek's Dupont Circle shop. The only problem was that no one knew anything about the photo.

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