Free at last: Thurow (upper right corner) follows Nelson Mandela, shortly after Mandela’s 1990 release from prison.
From covering the Hawkeyes to covering the world – so blossomed the career of Roger Thurow (B.A. 1979), this year’s inductee into the Journalism and Mass Communication School’s Hall of Fame.
Thurow, originally from Crystal Lake, Ill., came to The University of Iowa focused on sports.
“My goal was to be a sports writer in a big city like Chicago,” he said.
Working toward that goal, Thurow reported on sports for The Daily Iowan, winning the William R. Reed Big Ten Sportswriter of the Year award in 1978. He also served as the DI’s sports editor.
“He was a legend,” said Scott Kilman (B.A.1982), who later partnered with Thurow for an award-winning series of articles. “He was probably one of the best known sports editors The Daily Iowan ever had.”
But Thurow’s academic career was not totally focused on sports. In addition to his journalism major, he majored in political science and served as the DI’s city editor. A summer internship with The Wall Street Journal in 1979, shifted his interest away from sports, and, after graduation, he joined the Journal’s Dallas bureau.
From there, Thurow’s career progressed quickly. In 1982, he became a foreign correspondent in Bonn, West Germany. Because of his family’s German background and the four years of German he took in high school, he picked up the language quickly during a one-month immersion class and now speaks it fluently.
“Had I known in college what I know now, I would have taken more language classes,” Thurow said.
His time in Europe was personally as well as professionally rewarding. During a trip to Brussels, Belgium, he met his wife Anne. They married in 1986 and now have two children, Brian and Aishling.
After four years in Bonn as the Journal’s principal east-west reporter, Thurow became the paper’s sole reporter in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he covered the final years of apartheid.
“We flew into the country the day after the South African government declared a state of emergency,” Thurow remembered.
He returned to Germany for a month in 1989 just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, then returned to Johannesburg to cover Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison and South Africa’s transition to democracy.
Future author: Thurow interviews a farmer in Kenya for book about the overseas effects of U.S. policies.
“In that three-year period, the world stood on its head,” Thurow said. “Communism was gone, at least in Europe, and apartheid was gone.”
His next challenge was to re-open the Journal’s bureau in Vienna. From there he covered the rise of democracy and capitalism in Eastern Europe and the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Thurow found being a war correspondent important but difficult.
“Wearing a flak jacket is not an enjoyable experience,” he said. “Being at a checkpoint with guns poking into the car is not an enjoyable experience. And the people you think are the good guys have a lot of problems too and can actually be kind of unsavory.”
In 1995, Thurow moved back to the U.S. then transferred to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1999 to write a series about the 10th anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
In 2001, he returned to Africa and began the most acclaimed period of his career. After 9/11, he and Kilman both became interested in why people overseas hated the U.S., so they teamed to write a series about famine and the effect of western farm subsidies on the agriculture of emerging countries. For these efforts, he and Kilman were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting in 2004 and, in 2005, won the A.H. Boerma Award from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
“I understand agriculture, how food is produced and the politics of it,” Kilman said. “He could find the farmer in Ethiopia who was affected by our policies. He could humanize the story.”
Thurow rates these articles as his most rewarding.
“They had an impact on how people thought about famine and food aid issues,” he said. “Scott and I have kind of become a dynamic duo, covering agriculture and the effect of farm subsidies.”
Last year, Thurow continued his string of awards by winning a National Association of Black Journalist’s award for an article about a Nigerian girl who was married at age 11 and pregnant in her early teens. The story called attention to the growing problem of what Thurow dubbed the “fistula belt” of Africa.
Despite his experience with such heady subjects, Thurow never abandoned his love of sports. As sports became big business, the Journal took notice and sent him to cover the Olympics. He has now reported on the last nine Games.
“We covered the Olympics from the quirky side and the business side,” he said.
His sports writing efforts have also gained Thurow critical acclaim. In 1997, he won an Olympic Media Awards bronze medal for reporting on the 1996 Atlanta Games. He also won a Deadline Club of New York award for a series of articles on modern sports.
And his induction into the UI J-MC School Hall of Fame is not his first award as an alumnus. In 1999, he was honored as a member of the College of Liberal Arts’ inaugural class of Alumni Fellows.
Although Thurow has few regrets about his career and time at UI, he does wish he had taken advantage of the university’s diversity.
“I wish that, when I was at The University of Iowa, I had sought out the African and European students,” he said.
Although most journalists would be satisfied with Thurow’s career, the 40th Hall of Fame inductee continues to seek new challenges. He and Kilman are currently on book leave from work, researching how U.S. farming affects the world. Kilman is delighted to have such an accomplished writing partner.
“He’s a very sweet writer – he’s so lyrical,” Kilman said. “It’s not too often that you get, in one person, both a great writer and a great reporter.”
DI publisher Bill Casey considered Thurow’s induction into the Hall of Fame well-deserved and marveled at his professional success.
“He’s an extremely sophisticated guy now, but when he appeared on campus he was just a kid from Illinois,” Casey remembered. “But he was really smart and a down-to-earth guy. Roger is the cream of the crop.”