John F. Barton's Take on Earnest Hoberecht

Here's former UPI manager John F. Barton's take on "Asia Earnie" (Barton was UPI manager for Pakistan from 1961-1964, and UPI manager for South Asia from 1964-1966 -- based in New Delhi but also covered Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sikkim, Afghanistan and Bhutan):


Anyone who worked for Ernie Hoberecht -- be they friend or foe, and he had a lot of both, all of them richly deserved -- may be forgiven if they have trouble believing he really is dead. Such was the man's energy and drive. I would have liked Asia Earnie a hell of a lot better if I had never worked for him. But the only way I knew him was as my boss, and he never let me forget it.

But while he regarded the Asia Division as his empire, and ran it as such, he also turned it into a cash cow that was a major reason UPI survived as long as it did. If the Scripps heirs who demanded that UPI be sold, and the "wizards" who bought it -- from Evanston, to Mexico, to the Middle East and wherever else I may have omitted -- had an iota of Hoberecht's street smarts, guts, gumption and dedication, UPI might still be around today. He was totally dedicated to himself and to UPI, in that order, but in equal measure.

This is how Ernie was ousted. He once told me that Roy Howard was his only friend on the board and that once Howard died, he would be thrown out because he had made so many enemies. Howard did die, and Ernie knew his days were numbered. What triggered it was his reaction when the chairman of the Mainichi Shimbun, whose contract was so lucrative that it nearly paid for the entire Asia divison budget, wrote a letter (in 1966?) raising UPI's rent in the Mainichi building by 400 percent. This, mind you, was the first time the rent had been raised since the UPI-Mainichi relationship began in 1945-46, meaning the rent paid for 20 years was extremely low and had been set during occupation times. So all Mainichi was doing was bring the rent up to current value.

Hoberecht promptly sent an intemperate letter, raising Mainichi's rates for the UPI service by 400 percent and that if he had any questions about this, contact Ron Wills, the UPI Asia Division Business Manager. Hoberecht promptly left Tokyo on a tour of Asian bureaus, leaving only a vague itinerary. Ron Wills first learned of all this only when he came to work the next day and got his carbon copy (remember them?) of the letter.

The Mainichi Chairman didn't call Wills. He called UPI's President (was it Mims Thomason then?), and said -- I am told by one who was privy to the conversation -- "Has Mister Ho-blite gone clazy?" Upon hearing the details, Mims told Mainichi to disregard the Hoberecht letter. He then called Wills, filled him in and ordered him to seal and air freight all of Hoberecht's files to New York immediately.

New York and Hoberecht then played telephone tag through a number of Asian countries for nearly a week. They caught up with him in New Delhi where the UPI president told the UPI manager for South Asia -- I believe it was Dale Morsch then -- that he knew Hoberecht probably told him to say he was not there, but he damn well better get him on the phone. Hoberecht finally took the call and, even though it already was Friday afternoon, was ordered to report to UPI headquarters by 9 a.m. Monday morning, a near impossibility in those days.

Hoberecht made it and after everything was said and done, he told them he knew where all the bodies were buried for the past 26 years and if they didn't do right by him severance-wise he would go straight to the AP and tell them everything he knew.

The other board members realized they were setting a precedent, and if this could happen to Hoberecht, much as most disliked him, it could happen to them. So Ernie got $250,000 -- but payable over 10 years.

The company announced Hoberecht had resigned to become head of his own export-import company whose address was a P.O. box in Erie, Pa. --not the biggest port in the U.S., but a port. He settled back in his hometown in Oklahoma and merged some weekly papers into what he called The Great American Newspaper Company. He also ran his father's old land title company and an Oklahoma Land Trust he cobbled together from farmland he bought, along with their gas, oil and mineral rights.

He had a grandiose view of himself and the world, in that order. People like him were the reason the phrase "trust, but verify" was created.

On one of his trips to Pakistan when I was manager there (it meant I was the only American in the operation and had to sell the service, collect the money, AND oh yes, report the news, all at less than half the Guild minimum) one Karachi editor took such offense at something Asia Ernie did that he published a red ink banner headline, "Yip-Yapping Yankee, Go Home" and ran a photo of Ernie above the fold. Hoberecht loved it so much he bought a hundred copies from the editor.

Once when he visited India while I was manager there, the staff lined up in a row when Earnie entered the bureau and Hoberecht inspected them like he was the British Raj. He granted everything every staffer requested, then wrote me from Tokyo not to implement their requests because UPI couldn't afford them. He said Asians were used to poverty and could cope with it. He had me right where he wanted me. He knew I would implement them (and he would get the credit) because the staff would never believe me that he went back on his word, and if New York objected to the increased expense, he had it in writing that he had told me not to do it.

That was the Earnie Hoberecht I knew. He did outrageous things, but with such bravado you couldn't entirely dislike him. Outrageous, and unforgettable. That was Asia Earnie.