A Lifetime of Accomplishment
Philip Caputo, 71, said he knew he belonged in the newspaper business the second he walked into the Chicago Tribune’s city room, where the newsroom’s theatrics “sent a jolt” through him.
“You could hear the typewriters, phones jangling, editors yelling to the copy boys to shoot it down to the printing room,” Caputo said. “I’ll never forget the first time I was in the Tribune Tower. First editions started to roll off the presses down in the basement and the whole building trembled from the power of those presses cranking up. It felt exactly the way the deck of a big ship feels under your feet when it’s getting under way.”
Caputo graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in English and has since published dozens of major magazine articles, reviews and op-ed pieces in publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Geographic. Caputo also played a role on an investigative journalism team that received a Pulitzer Prize and has published 15 books.
In one of Caputo’s books, “A Rumor of War”, he describes his childhood in Westchester, Ill. as a safe, suburban existence.
Westchester “had everything a suburb is supposed to have: sleek, new schools smelling of fresh plaster and floor wax; supermarkets full of Wonder Bread and Bird’s Eye frozen peas; rows of centrally heated split-levels that lined dirtless streets on which nothing ever happened,” the books reads.
After gaining preliminary journalistic experience at Loyola News and a small suburban paper in Hinsdale, Ill., Caputo worked as a general assignment and team investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune from 1968 to 1972, where he was part of a Pulitzer prize-winning team that reported on election fraud in Chicago.
Caputo attributes his accomplishment as an investigative reporter to his experience, love for the journalism industry and hopefulness to unveil the truth.
“I had gotten some experience on the suburban paper doing investigative-type reporting on organized crime influences in the western suburbs of Chicago,” Caputo said. “I found that I had an ability for that, a talent for that and a love of it. It was like being the detective. I also loved the crusading aspect of it. I thought that perhaps by doing this, I was making society a little better.”
For the next five years, Caputo reported as a Tribune foreign correspondent in Rome, Beirut, Saigon and Moscow, where he covered events from the civil war in Eritrea to the fall of Saigon.
“One of the most memorable experiences I had was in Ethiopia while covering the civil war in Eritrea,” Caputo said. “What was really weird about that experience is we had to cross the border from Sudan to Ethiopia on camelback in the middle of the night, and we disappeared for weeks because there was absolutely no way to communicate back to the states. We just dropped off the face of the earth until we got back.”
The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 also remains with Caputo. Reporting on the event informed Americans, but Caputo said the tragedy also changed something in him.
“I remember when we flew over the coast of Vietnam out to the seventh fleet that was taking in all the people being evacuated from Vietnam,” Caputo said. “It was like I just watched an entire country disappear off the face of the map in a matter of hours. It gives you a very different outlook on life when you’ve seen something like that.”
While Caputo has produced a host of journalistic pieces on both foreign and domestic issues, he has also written 15 books, including “A Rumor of War”, a memoir of his experiences in the Republic of Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps from 1965-1966.
The memoir describes the realities of battle and has been published in 15 languages, sold 2 million copies since its publication in 1977 and was made into a movie in 1980.
“Despite all that had been said, written and shown about the Vietnam war, no one knew the reality of it—the emotional and psychological reality of it,” Caputo said. “I almost felt like I was the voice for the men who had fought there to express what they had been through. That’s what drove me on with it.”
Caputo’s journalistic experience in covering the fall of Saigon also aided him in completing the memoir.
“I think I would have had a hard time finishing “A Rumor of War” had I not gotten that assignment,” Caputo said. “That assignment closed this kind of open emotional circuit for me. Once it was truly over, I just felt like there were these two wires that had been separated and then joined, and I was able to write the book.”
Along with publishing war literature after his service in Vietnam, Caputo published war poems while serving in the United States Marine Corps as a form of expression.
“There were certain emotions and feelings and atmosphere that I wanted to express, and I was compelled to put them down on paper,” Caputo said. “If I had been wired differently, I might have wanted to paint them or sing or compose a song.”
Caputo has written novels on a variety of topics ranging from life on the U.S.-Mexican border in “Crossers” to the Sudanese civil war in “Acts of Faith”.
In his newest novel, “The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean”, set to launch in July 2013, Caputo asks Americans what unites and divides a country “as endlessly diverse as it is large.”
Whether it is journalism or novel writing, Caputo said he never sought out to be a writer. The words come and he writes them down, he said.
“The thing about being a writer is it’s not like you choose to become one,” Caputo said. “You are. That’s what you are. It’s a vocation, like being called to religious life. If you have to be, you will be.”