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Jim Kenyon: Journalist Wren Chronicles Life of Ethan Allen

  • Christopher Wren, of Thetford, a retired New York Times foreign correspondent and visiting professor in the Dartmouth College Masters in Liberal Studies program, responds to a story pitch from student Radhika Moral, front right, during his journalism class at Baker Library in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, May 10, 2018. Students were pitching stories they plan to write for their final papers. "These people, for the most part, are working in the real world, and they can speak back to you about it with some authority," Wren said of the enjoyment he gets from teaching his students in the MALS program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Christopher Wren, of Thetford, a retired New York Times foreign correspondent and visiting professor in the Dartmouth College Masters in Liberal Studies program, talks with his student Addie Micir, of Hanover, about the use of numbers and statistics to hook readers into a story before class at Baker Library in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, May 10, 2018. Wren is the author of a new book about Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Christopher Wren, 82, of Thetford, a visiting professor in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, makes a suggestion to a student in his journalism class at Baker Library in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, May 10, 2018. "I started in journalism with rocks and chisels," he joked with a student who was writing a story about innovation coming out of the MIT Media Lab. "I want you to explain exactly how all this works." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Christopher Wren, of Thetford, a retired New York Times foreign correspondent and visiting professor in the Dartmouth College Masters in Liberal Studies program, responds to a story pitch from student Radhika Moral, front right, during his journalism class at Baker Library in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, May 10, 2018. Students were pitching stories they plan to write for their final papers and Moral planned to write about the debate over a new law in India that would allow capital punishment for those convicted of raping girls under the age of 12. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nearly 20 years ago, I heard Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins tell a story about her dad that has stuck with me. Dan Jenkins, a distinguished journalist in his own right, was showing his young daughter around the Fort Worth, Texas, neighborhood where he grew up.

During the tour, Sally alerted her father that he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

“My dear,” Dan Jenkins replied matter-of-factly, “that’s what journalists do.”

Which brings me to Christopher Wren, the retired New York Times foreign correspondent who makes his home in Thetford. Wren made a career out of getting important stories by zigging when other journalists zagged.

While covering the Vietnam War, Wren was informed by military flacks that he couldn’t report about American Special Forces squirreled away in a Central Highlands outpost and must leave the area immediately — with no story. He ignored the order.

Unbeknownst to the flacks, he had served in the Special Forces himself in the time between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Wren spent a week crawling through rat-infested jungle tunnels and playing poker with Green Berets.

“Journalism is a great way to perpetuate the curiosity you developed as a child,” Wren once wrote. “I talked my way through encounters with guerrillas and their AK-47s in Lebanon and Somalia, met drug-thugs in Colombia and Burma.”

But the scariest moment during his 40 years as a working journalist? In the late 1970s, he traveled to northern Iran to interview a rebel chief, who carried a .45 caliber pistol in his waistband with its hammer cocked.

Just before the meeting, Wren’s interpreter took him aside. She confided that the rebel chief “hates Americans.” Hoping not to sound overly alarmed, Wren asked her, “Why are the rebels allowing me into their camp?”

“I told them that you were Swedish,” she whispered.

Jack Shepherd, a retired Dartmouth professor who lives in Norwich, and Wren have been best friends since their days at Columbia School of Journalism in the early 1960s. Later, they worked at Look magazine together.

In the 1990s, Shepherd and his wife, Kathleen, were living in England. During a respite from covering the conflicts resulting from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, Wren showed up at their home, lugging his helmet and flak jacket.

“He was going into war zones and asking questions of people who were either facing trouble or causing trouble,” Shepherd said. “At some risk to himself, he went into these places to show not only readers, but himself that what he was writing about was real. He wasn’t satisfied to write from the lobby of his hotel.”

In 1980, Wren returned to Iran to cover the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He found himself following a crowd to a mass anti-American rally in downtown Tehran.

“I bought a paper bag of hot popcorn from a street vendor, which I nibbled as the orator denounced my motherland as the Great Satan,” Wren wrote later.

A Revolutionary Guard soldier picked Wren out of the crowd, grabbed him, and was leading him to who-knows-where. But the “ordinary” Iranians whom Wren had been interviewing, stepped in. “Even though I was American, they argued, I had done nothing wrong. The Guardsman returned my popcorn and apologized. My neighbors smiled warmly and resumed chanting, ‘Death to America!’ ”

At 82, Wren hasn’t stopped driving the wrong way down one-way streets, so to speak.

His new book, Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom (302 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26), reveals a side of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys that those of us who grew up in Vermont didn’t learn about in grade school.

“I wrote it as a journalist, not a historian,” Wren told me over a plate of fried eggs and hash at Lou’s Restaurant in Hanover. “I took the approach that if I was covering the Revolutionary War, this is how I would have covered it.”

Wren started out at the British Library in London and worked his way to the basement of Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library. He became well acquainted with the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont State Archives. He pored over original letters written by Justus Sherwood, the Green Mountain Boy turned British spy, and Seth Warner, the militia’s unsung military leader.

“It was like panning gold,” he said. “It was investigative reporting across centuries instead of time zones.”

Wren verified the Green Mountain Boys’ accounts of storming Fort Ticonderoga by checking weather reports from 1775. From old maps, he traced their steps to battlefields.

“I liked to get out and walk the terrain,” he said.

Thinking I was being clever, I remarked that he literally had walked in the Green Mountain Boys’ shoes.

“You could say that, but most of them were barefoot,” Wren quipped.

He visited North Hero Island in the state’s northwest corner, where Sherwood built a log fort that he named Loyal Block House in 1781. Some of the grounds now are private property, marked by “no trespassing” signs, but did that stop Wren?

“When you’re a reporter, that’s an invitation to poke around,” he said.

From the beginning, Wren set out to discover who Ethan Allen really was.

At one point, Vermont’s “favorite patriot,” as Wren called him, actually tried to switch sides to bring Vermont back under British rule. (Now that’s something I didn’t learn in grade school.)

“He was a bully with a soft spot for the downtrodden,” Wren wrote. “He was a clumsy military leader but a masterful propagandist who inspired, or coerced, settlers to throw their lot in with him.” History spawned a “nostalgia for a legendary Ethan Allen that never quite existed in his raucous lifetime.”

Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom, which was released last week, has received favorable reviews. Former Dartmouth President Jim Wright, a historian by trade, wrote that it “shatters legends and long-standing Vermont creation myths. Few iconic heroes remain untouched, surely not Ethan Allen.”

When I mentioned the positive press, Wren just shrugged. “You write something, you send it off (to the publisher),” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to it, or whether anyone is going to want to read it.”

Those Turbulent Sons was 10 years in the making — and there was a point when Wren nearly abandoned the project. His son, Chris, a corporate attorney in New Jersey, died suddenly on Oct. 1, 2014, from a brain aneurysm. He was 44.

While Wren and his wife, Jaqueline, were living in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was the Times’ bureau chief, their son took a year off from college to join them. The younger Wren was an avid photographer who shared his father’s sense of adventure. So when his father was reporting on refugees in neighboring Mozambique’s civil war, he asked to come along.

“I doubt my wife was totally aware where I took him, but Chris was cool under pressure and a good companion in tight spots,” Wren wrote later.

When Wren started working on Those Turbulent Sons, his son was eager to help with the research. He scoured second-hand bookshops and libraries for material.

“When Chris died, I lost all interest in the book,” Wren told me. “I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Jaqueline and the couple’s daughter, Celia, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., helped pull him across the finish line. Celia organized his notes and edited drafts.

“Without her persistent encouragement and tender tough love, I could not have brought this to fruition,” Wren wrote in the book’s acknowledgements.

Wren started his journalism career at Look, which ceased publication in 1971, before moving to Newsweek. In 1973, he joined the Times, where he worked for 28 years, including 17 abroad, before retiring in 2001. Upon retirement, he walked from midtown Manhattan to Thetford, which he chronicled in his 2004 book, Walking to Vermont. He could just as well have titled it, “How to Survive Lyme Disease.”

Wren covered nearly 400 miles on the Appalachian Trail and parts of the Long Trail in five weeks. (He probably could have shaved off a few days, if not for the tick bite that landed him in a North Adams, Mass., hospital emergency room and under a doctor’s order to rest up before heading back to the trail.)

Wren’s interest in hiking and camping goes back to his days as a student at Dartmouth, where he graduated in 1957. He picked Dartmouth over Princeton for the simple — and pragmatic — reason that the latter offered him a half scholarship and the former a full ride.

“My parents were both actors,” Wren said. “Sometimes, we had money. Sometimes, we didn’t.”

For spending money in college, Wren worked as a waiter at what was the Green Lantern Inn on South Main Street. He didn’t join a fraternity because “none of the ones I wanted would have me.”

Instead Wren joined ROTC, which paid $27 a month, and after graduation, served as a platoon leader in post-war Korea. Later, he lobbied for an assignment with Army Special Forces — the same Green Berets he later covered in Vietnam.

Wren made it through paratrooper training with the 7th Special Forces Group in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was summoned one day to the commander’s office.

“How the hell do you spell accommodate?” barked the frustrated colonel as he struggled with writing a memo. Wren obliged. In an elite group of Army killers, Wren joked, he was known as the speller. Special Forces was “doing all this heroic stuff, but they had nobody who could write it up,” Wren said.

Like a lot of Dartmouth grads, Wren eventually found his way back to the Upper Valley. After retiring from the Times, the Wrens moved into the Thetford farmhouse that they’d used as a second home. Wren returned to the Dartmouth campus, as well. He was hired to teach in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, better known as MALS. This spring, he’s teaching the Craft and Culture of Journalism. Last Thursday, Wren and a dozen students sat around a large conference table in an upstairs room with wood-panel walls and tall windows at Baker Library.

The class is a mixture of full-time graduate school students and part-timers, many of whom work at the college. Wren goes around the room, asking each student about their final writing project. It resembles a daily newsroom meeting at the Times, where editors decide which stories to play on the front page.

“Without the bloodshed,” Wren joked.

Eileen O’Toole, a student and mother of three who works at the Tuck School of Business, said Wren “tells great stories about almost being blown up” as a foreign correspondent. “But he’s so down to earth,” she added.

“He speaks from real life experiences about the kind of things we’ve only watched on TV or read about,” said Kristin Anderson, a school teacher in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom who drives two hours to class.

The feedback and critiques of writing assignments that Wren gives are well worth the long drive. “He takes us really seriously,” said Anderson, who has learned the importance of talking through ideas with other students before sitting down to write.

And then there’s the reason that Wren gives them for wanting to write at all.

“You write because you want to make a difference,” he said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.