Harry J. "Jack" Bryan Jr., former Hawaii island correspondent and night news editor for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, died Saturday in Thailand, where he was under the care of his son. He was 91.
On the Big Island, Bryan was known for his tightly elegant writing, knowledge of the island’s erupting volcanoes and pointed view of county politics.
He had the versatility to go from a feature on losing his coconut hat to a lava flow to a haunting account of a triple murder with a lead that said, "There is something sick in a society — a system — which allows the lives of people like Tom and Wendy Day and Richard Kokubun to end in violence."
Hugh Clark, The Honolulu Advertiser’s longtime Hilo reporter, was among up-and-coming journalists (this writer included) who considered Bryan a mentor.
"Jack was a fine teacher who shared a lot of knowledge with me while kicking my butt competitively when I first landed in Hilo," Clark said. "I recall him telling me the best way to get even with recalcitrant politicians was to quote them correctly and often and I would always win. He was right."
As tough as his reporting could be, public officials respected his fairness.
Former Big Island Mayor Shunichi Kimura once said, "He had a kind of presence about him in that lean, easygoing way. The only way to deal with Jack was to be candid because he demanded that."
When told of the compliment, Bryan said, "Maybe I was too soft on Shun."
He was born in Jane Lew, W.Va., where he was raised by his grandmother. He covered sports for county newspapers while in high school and saved enough to become the first of his family to attend college.
After serving in Army counterintelligence in Italy at the end of World War II, Bryan co-owned a small newspaper in Tennessee until he ran afoul of the local political machine for exposing ballot fraud.
He hoped to become an "intrepid reporter, a contender for the Pulitzer Prize!" But copy editors were in greater demand, and he worked on copy desks at the Charleston Gazette, Houston Post, Adelaide (Australia) Advertiser, San Diego Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
Bryan intended to work his way around the world with his wife and three kids, but settled in Hawaii when the Star-Bulletin offered the reporting job he’d always dreamed of in Hilo.
"The prospect of covering volcano eruptions, tidal waves and everything that happens on the biggest island of the chain was almost as intriguing as my youthful ambition to be a foreign correspondent," he once wrote.
After his family left the nest, he returned to Honolulu to become the Star-Bulletin’s night news editor, a job he held for two decades.
"Jack proved as reliable in editing and organizing copy as he was in pursuing news on the Big Island," said former Star-Bulletin Executive Editor John Simonds. "He was a man of few words with a whispery voice who seemed to think through his responses before delivering answers."
Retired reporter Helen Altonn recalled, "He was the kind of journalist a reporter wants at his/her back. I can picture him calling me over to point out something awry in one of my stories, his eyes twinkling to ease the sting."
Bryan spent many of the Honolulu years caring for his late wife, Sara, in her battle with multiple sclerosis. Former Star-Bulletin Editor A.A. Smyser once called him "a true hero," saying, "He was always at her side, never complained."
At 85 he moved to Thailand to live with his son. An e-mail to family and friends when he turned 90 in April 2009 showed he’d lost none of his writing touch or bite:
"I’ve lived through six wars without hearing a shot fired in anger; two depressions without missing a meal; held interesting jobs on four continents and two islands, dragging my family along; and, lately, unbelievable greed, stupidity and corruption on the part of our alleged leaders."
His daughter, Leanne Bryan of Sonora, Calif., said, "He was a person of integrity, with a gruff exterior and a warm heart underneath. He taught us to be kind, compassionate people."
Other survivors are sons Harry J. "Jack" III of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Timothy of Hilo.
Memorial observances will be held in the Thai community where he lived his final years.