The Associated Press
During his 46 years as a reporter for The Associated Press, Harry Rosenthal covered seven presidents in the White House, 40 manned space flights, high-profile trials of the 20th Century and wrote a column for 17 years that continued into his retirement. But those facts don't begin to tell the whole story.
The people who know Rosenthal in the various areas he covered think of him as an expert on their particular field but they don't know there are so many fields. At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, for instance, he was greatly respected for his insight and accuracy. He began covering space stories at the time of the Gemini 6 and 7 rendezvous missions and continued to travel to Florida for Apollo and early space shuttle launches. In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, he wrote extensively about the investigation and recovery. His byline on those events appeared in newspapers around the world.
However, Rosenthal is quick to point out that he did not write the lead stories. He backed up people like Howard Benedict who wrote the nuts and bolts type stories. Rosenthal wrote the sidebars and features, the stories that explain what the lead stories are all about and fill in the details. His stories brought human interest to an event, explained how things work and added color to what sometimes seems technical and dull.
It was that ability to capture a moment in words that caught the eye of Walter Cronkite after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Cronkite used the words and credited Rosenthal with saying, "They kept the whole world waiting while they dressed to go out."
He was able to use his talent for illuminating a subject to wherever he was assigned, providing the same service to readers when writing about presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton and wrong doers alike. He covered the trials of John Hinkley, Sirhan Sirhan, the Watergate defendants and My Lai Lt. William Calley.
He also taught a writing course at American University and spent six months in 2000 in Shanghai as an editor on the startup English language newspaper, the Shanghai Daily.
AP brought Rosenthal out of retirement to cover the launch of John Glenn on the space shuttle and to do a retrospective piece after the loss of Columbia.
Rosenthal was born in Germany and was fortunate to be one of the 1,100 Jewish children who were spirited out of the country to America. He arrived in New York in 1938. Only 11 years old, he was assigned to an orphanage in San Francisco. Shortly after he sailed for America, his father was sent to a concentration camp. Providence intervened in the Rosenthal family when his father and mother were able to rejoin their son in San Francisco in 1941.
Rosenthal was so appreciative of his new country that he volunteered for the U.S. Army near the end of World War II when he turned 17. Sent to Japan, Rosenthal's unit was met with peace rather than bullets when they stormed ashore near Nagoya. Once in Japan, he studied Japanese and became an interpreter for the Army. He also found time to write for the Stars and Stripes.
Photography was Rosenthal's first love and when his tour of duty was over, he studied the subject at the University of Southern California. Upon graduation he was hired as a photographer/writer by the Hollister Evening Free Lance and a year later by Associated Press in San Francisco. He was actually working at the Kansas City bureau when he was assigned to his first launch and traveled to Kennedy Space Center for the Gemini 6 and 7 missions. By the time Apollo was underway, he was working in the Washington bureau and became a regular visitor at Kennedy and Houston.
One president he doesn't mention covering often is Harry Truman because Truman had left the White House by the time he met him and returned to Independence. He met Truman while assigned to the AP Bureau in Kansas City and they became friends. The friendship added greatly to Rosenthal’s insight into politics and world affairs.
In 1986, he began writing a column for AP for people over 50. As a matter of fact, his first column was written just before the Challenger accident and slated to run immediately afterwards. When the accident occurred, the AP editor called Rosenthal and asked him if he'd like to pull that column and start with number two. Rosenthal told him, "No. I still feel the same." The column explained why Rosenthal would love to fly in space despite the dangers that are always present.