From the lunar landing to Pinochet to Mariel, he covered it. Newsman Frank Manitzas dies at 85

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Frank Manitzas, a Dupont-Columbia Award-winning journalist who covered the world’s first heart transplant in 1967, Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, the 1969 moon landing, the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-81, Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973 and the Mariel boatlift in 1980, died Sunday.

Manitzas, who coordinated news coverage for ABC, CBS, NBC and the Associated Press for 40 years, was 85.

“He was my bureau chief at the ABC News bureau in Coral Gables — during the most turbulent times in Latin America,” said ABC News correspondent John Quiñones, host of “What Would You Do?” “I arrived there as a rookie correspondent in 1982 and Frank was my guiding light through all kinds of mayhem in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama.

“Frank was a reporter’s reporter,” Quiñones continued. “He was brash and unrelenting in pursuit of the truth — the kind of journalist who never took ‘no’ for an answer. Time and again, ABC beat all the other competing network producers on the story — whatever it was — because Frank would get there first. He seemed to be everywhere, charming everyone from presidents and diplomats to guerrilla leaders, cab drivers and telephone operators — always in his trademark guayabera and with his warm and engaging Texas drawl. If I ever traveled without him he would yell at me on my out the door, ‘Just tell them Frank Manitzas sent you.’ Sure enough, doors would swing open upon my arrival anywhere from Mexico to Cuba, Brazil and points beyond.”

Everyone seemed to know Frank and everyone loved him. At a time when dictators, death squads and the CIA were wreaking havoc in Latin America, he was there, fearlessly sounding the alarm and shining the light of journalism on the darkest corners of the continent. By doing so, he literally made the world a better place.

ABC News correspondent John Quiñones.

To daughter Elena, Manitzas was “just my Daddy” — a kind and good-humored man. “Other than being a great journalist and always on top of the story he was just really a good person and caring about other people. That’s what I learned from him.”

Born to Greek immigrants who settled in San Angelo, Texas, the Texas A&M journalism graduate bore witness to some of the 20th century’s biggest stories during a career that stretched from the AP in 1955 through his retirement from ABC News as its bureau chief for Latin America in Coral Gables in 1994. Post-retirement, he continued as an independent journalist covering Cuba and the Americas for various websites.

His work often put him in danger. Manitzas reported live on the streets of Santiago, Chile, when the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in September 1973. The Manitzas home was raided in an allanamiento (a break in). His wife Nita, an outspoken Latin America expert and supporter of the victims of the new military regime, was held at gunpoint, as were their two children.

“Our house was searched and they were going through these papers from the wire service and all of a sudden all of these Playboy magazines fall to the floor,” Elena recalled. Her mother giggled but was secretly terrified the intruders would search the attic and find her stash of forbidden Allende posters.

Manitzas came home after the raid, Elena said. “Dad says, ‘What’s new?’ Runs upstairs,” then races to his office to file the story. “Later, when he comes back, he says, ‘Are you OK?’”

Manitzas penned unpopular editorials while at Texas A&M to allow women enrollment in the early 1950s — “A&M goes coed or it goes to hell” —more than a decade before it happened.

Said longtime friend Bernard Diederich, a retired Time bureau chief for Miami and the Caribbean: “He was very good and became persona non grata in those areas where the military took over and very much a hands-on reporter.” Diederich remembered the time he saw Manitzas flying down the road on the back of a motorcycle to cover Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Mexico in 1979.

During the bloody 1987 schoolhouse massacre in the wake of Haiti’s first free elections in 30 years, Diederich’s son JB and Manitzas, along with members of his ABC News crew, were shot at. Some were injured. “It was Frank who had us evacuated on a Learjet,” JB Diederich said.

In 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, Manitzas did a week-long series with ABC anchorman Peter Jennings from Cuba on advances in medicine and education on the island. His reports led to death threats.

However, not all of his reporting was fraught with danger. In 1967, he traveled to South Africa to cover the first heart transplant done by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who insisted it was much ado about very little, that he had performed many successful liver transplants. “Have you ever told a woman, ‘I love you with all my liver?’” Manitzas countered.

Frank was an old school journalist. He was like a second father to me. He had an infectious smile and loved his profession, but his biggest love was always reserved for his late wife Nita and his kids Nick and Elena.

Miami photojournalist JB Diederich.

As CBS special effects producer, Manitzas was also in charge of the recreation of the lunar landing in 1969, just in case live video reception fizzled. He designed a big, hollowed-out lunar module and had someone pose as an astronaut inside a space suit. Of course, that poor “astronaut” learned quickly that earth’s gravity made that suit so much heavier here than on the moon, his daughter Elena said.

Manitzas sometimes did his work too well. When conspiracy theorists found out about his footage, it gave them ammunition for years that the lunar landing was a hoax concocted by TV.

Manitzas is survived by his son Nikola and daughter Elena Manitzas, siblings Marie Crumly, George, Mary and Demetrios (Jimmy) Manitzas and his six beloved cats. His wife, Nita, died in 2008. The family will be holding a private gathering at their home.

The family requests donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists or similar organizations like Amnesty International, ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, Center for Cuban Studies or WOLA.

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