Phil Jurey and Sam Hilmy
The Deaths of Two Journalistic Giants: Landmark Leaders in the History of America’s Voice
By Alan Heil
In the 20th century, two distinguished leaders at VOA were indispensable in the growth of the nation’s largest U.S.-funded international broadcaster: former Central News editor-in-chief and White House correspondent Philomena (Phil) Jurey, 91, and Near East and South Asia director Salman (Sam) M. Hilmy, 89. Their work significantly amplified America’s public diplomacy during the final years of the Cold War, and beyond.
The two served collectively for six decades, and insisted on the highest standards of accuracy and objectivity in their writing and reporting and in the news they offered to a curious planet — in times of both crisis and tranquility. They passed away within three weeks of each other in late July and mid-August, 2019.
Phil Jurey: Distinguished Editor and Correspondent
When she retired in 1989, a headline in Tokyo’s Mainichi Daily News said: “Famous VOA Unknown Retires.” “The headline made me laugh,” Philomena explained on page one of her book about her White House years, A Basement Seat to History: Tales of Covering Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan for the Voice of America.
In those days, VOA was not permitted, under law, to broadcast to the United States. Not so, to a curious world. Philomena, as the Voice’s White House correspondent, accompanied President Nixon to China in the early 70s. When she emerged from the press plane in Beijing, word spread quickly that she was in the presidential party. Scores of Chinese rushed up to her during that trip, eager to shake hands with “a famous American” during her visit to their country.
In September 1998, the University of Missouri’s Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism was awarded to Ms. Jurey, citing her “unfettered journalism in the public interest, and her careful and thorough coverage of the White House and Presidency for the World.” (Phil had received her B.A. degree in Journalism from that university’s well known School of Journalism in 1949.)
Timely Tributes to Sam Hilmy
Four days after his death August 14, Salman M. Hilmy’s colleagues at VOA’s Arabic Branch paid tribute to their late leader. They were gathered at the 6th reunion of the former service at a community center in Annadale, Virginia. (VOA Arabic was abolished in 2002 by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which created a separate U.S. government-funded Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic.) The gathering of 21 retired colleagues of the former VOA Arabic Branch and their families had high praise for their late director.
Mr. Hilmy’s successor, Dr. Ismail Dahiyat, lauded Sam as “a very wise leader whom we remember fondly” and praised especially not only his Middle East expertise, but his knowledge and scholarly command of American literature.
Born in Iraq, American citizen Sam Hilmy joined the Voice in 1960 and played a leading role as director of the Arabic service beginning in 1972, and later, the head of the Near East and South Asia Division. That division encompassed Arabic, Turkish, Hindi to India, Urdu to Pakistan, Dari, and Pashto to Afghanistan.
Among major events in the tumultuous Middle East and South Asia during Mr. Hilmy’s VOA career were the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, turmoil in Afghanistan, the more than decade-long Lebanese civil war, the ongoing but failing Arab-Israeli peace initiatives, and expansion of the Palestinian refugee camps.
When VOA moved its Arabic Branch program service from Washington to the Greek island of Rhodes in 1963, Mr. Hilmy and his wife Kate were among pioneers who established that unit, initially a group of trailers in a pasture on Rhodes. Soon, a headquarters and VOA Arabic studios were established on the island during a time when famed U.S. commercial broadcasters John Chancellor and his successor John Charles Daly directed the Voice.
In 1971, VOA Arabic moved back to Washington, and Mr. Hilmy was appointed chief of the service. As his supervisor on Rhodes Dick Curtiss recalled: “Just how well the 53-member Arabic Branch performed under Sam’s leadership was made clear in 1986 when he was named VOA’s Outstanding Employee of the Year.”
The organizer of the VOA Arabic reunions, which continue nearly two decades after the service was abolished is Mohamed al-Shinnawi. He launched the tribute to Salman Hilmy with these words:
“A wise man once said:
Those we love do not go away
They walk beside us every day
Unseen, unheard, but always near
Still loved, still missed, and very dear.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media.