SAMUEL ASKEW SUMMERLIN ’ 48 1928–2017
Papa, Ché and Fidel: Correspondent Knew Historic Figures by Their First Names
Sam Summerlin ’ 48 got to live a dream of every American literature
professor and grad student — sitting
down to dinner with Ernest Hemingway.
“We used to sit and talk about who
should have won the Nobel Prize and all
this kind of stuff,” Summerlin once told
a reporter. “And it would be 20 million
cats at the table when we had lunch —
you know he loved cats.”
After Hemingway won the Nobel
Prize for literature in 1954, he gave Sum-
merlin, assigned by The Associated Press
to cover Cuba, the first interview and
agreed not to speak with anyone else un-
til the correspondent had filed his story.
Afterward, Hemingway asked Summer-
lin to organize his first post-Nobel news
Summerlin, who died Feb. 27 at age
89, made his mark as a foreign correspondent and had a window onto some of
mid-20th century’s most historic events
and people. Along with befriending
Hemingway, he traded jokes with Latin
American revolutionary Ché Guevara and
introduced Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to
TV star interviewer Barbara Walters.
In addition to reporting for AP,
Summerlin was an executive with The
New York Times and a producer of doc-umentaries about historical figures and
entertainers. But Summerlin once said it
was his time as a reporter that meant the
most to him.
Fresh out of UNC — where he was a
member of Phi Gamma Delta and graduated Phi Beta Kappa — Summerlin covered state politics in Raleigh for two years
before embarking for Tokyo and Korea.
As one of the youngest war corre-
spondents in Asia, at 25 he had the dis-
tinction of being the first journalist to
report the end of the Korean War. That
was in large part, he said, because he
weighed only 125 pounds and could out-
run the other 200 or so reporters to the
one telephone at the signing ceremony
in Pyongyang on July 27, 1953. He was
given 15 seconds to dictate his report, so
he recalled simply saying, “Flash: The
Korean War is over,” before handing the
old-fashioned crank phone to a
After the war, AP sent Summerlin to Cuba. It was several years
before the communist revolution
that would bring Castro to power,
and Hemingway was living and
writing in a converted lighthouse
outside Havana. When Summerlin went to drop in on the author
one day, he saw an ominous sign
directing people without appointments to stay away, so he decided
to call first. Hemingway so appreciated the courtesy that he invited
him over. More visits followed.
Summerlin reported from
Cuba, Argentina and the Philippines. He spent the first anniversary of his marriage in Manila,
the second in Havana, with a side
trip to the jungles of Guatemala to
report on an indigenous rebellion,
and the third in Buenos Aires. He
pioneered the expansion of AP’s
news and radiophoto operations in southern
South America, including the establishment
of a national news and picture service in
As chief of AP’s New Orleans bureau
in 1963, he found himself immersed in the
civil rights movement and encounters between police — and white supporters of the
status quo — and those seeking change.
In 1975, he joined the Times, where he
was president and chairman of the newspa-
per’s news service and syndicate.
After retiring from the Times in 1987,
he founded the Hollywood Stars Inc. video
interview service, which produced more
than 800 shows including the Biography
series on the A&E Network (he produced
biographies of Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Jamie Lee Curtis), and the Saga
Agency that provided celebrity still photos
He wrote or co-wrote several books on
foreign affairs, including The China Cloud
and The Super Sleuths.
Summerlin — who was inducted into
the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame in 1987
— liked to revisit his encounters with the
people behind the history he covered.
He recalled a meeting at an Alliance for
Progress conference in Uruguay, when a
photographer who had accompanied him
approached Guevara. The photographer
proudly showed the revolutionary prints
of 20 photos he’d taken of him over the
years, pointing out there was no error in
any caption. “Ché Guevara laughed and
said the AP couldn’t be correct 20 times
in a row if they tried,” Summerlin said.
Years after Castro had taken power,
Summerlin returned to Cuba with a
small group of reporters, a visit he jokingly would say resulted in the biggest
mistake of his career.
Walters was in the group, and when
Castro asked for an introduction, Summerlin, who spoke fluent Spanish, provided one. Castro immediately left the
other reporters behind to take Walters on
a personal tour.
“Don’t introduce a celebrity to the
person you’re trying to interview,” Sum-
merlin would advise afterward.
— Don Evans ’ 80