ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On Thursday, it will be 74 years since Ernie Pyle, famed and hugely popular newspaper columnist and war correspondent, was killed by Japanese gunfire on the Pacific Ocean island of Ie Shima during World War II.
Pyle was an Indiana native, but his home at the time of his death was a modest frame house with a picket fence at 900 Girard SE right here in Albuquerque. The house is still there. Acquired by the city, it became the Albuquerque Public Library’s first branch location in 1948.
Today, among the shelves of books you’d expect to find in any branch library, there are displays of Pyle memorabilia, including pictures of Pyle and his wife, Geraldine, referred to by Pyle in his columns as Jerry or “that girl,” inside the house or with friends in the yard. It’s easy to get caught up in those pictures, trying to figure out in which room they were taken.
“I really don’t think of it as a library,” said Baldwin G. Burr, who researches and writes about New Mexico history. “To me, it’s just Ernie’s house. It is impossible not to get a sense of Ernie’s presence when you are in the house. The memorabilia helps, of course, but there is also an inexplicable feeling you get that Ernie and Jerry are still there. Same for their dog, Cheetah, who is really there, buried in the yard.”
Burr will do a presentation titled “Ernie Pyle: Bringing the World to America’s Doorstep” at 10:15 a.m. Saturday, April 27, in the auditorium in the lower level of the Main Library, 501 Copper NW.
It’s part of Friends of the Public Library Day, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the nonprofit organization that raises money, mostly through the sale of used books, DVDs and CDs, to support Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Public Library programs.
The celebration includes a wide array of events (see full schedule at friendsofthepubliclibrary.org) at the Main Library and the Special Collections Library, 423 Central NE. Admission is free.
Burr said his presentation will touch on columns Pyle wrote for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate while traveling across the United States from 1935 through 1941, the columns he wrote in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II and also on Pyle’s Albuquerque home.
“I will talk quite a bit about the house, why they built it, why they built it in Albuquerque and some stories about the house after Ernie and Jerry died,” he said.
Pyle was 44 when he was killed on April 18, 1945. Jerry was 45 when she died seven months later, Nov. 23, 1945, at St. Joseph Hospital in Albuquerque. She had come down with the flu, suffered kidney failure and died of uremic poisoning.
Their Albuquerque house, built in 1940, was their home for only a few years. And it was not always a happy home.
Both Ernie and Jerry drank heavily and Jerry suffered from depression and drug dependency.
“(Ernie) wanted the house to be a project for Jerry to get involved with to help her with her drinking, drug problems and depression,” Burr said. “That didn’t work out as he had hoped. He made the mistake of identifying in a column where the house was located in Albuquerque and that resulted in a steady stream of visits from complete strangers. He finally had to rent a room in the Alvarado Hotel to have a place where he could write his columns undisturbed. He did enjoy puttering around the house, and he is the one who put up the white picket fence in front.”
Burr, 73, a resident of Tome in Valencia County, is the consulting historian at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, secretary of the Historical Society of New Mexico and a member of the Valencia County Historical Society, the Los Alamos Historical Society, the Madison County (Ohio) Historical Society and the New Mexico Westerners’ Association.
He has a bachelor’s degree in art history and a master’s in education, both from the University of New Mexico, and he has taught over the years at UNM’s Valencia County campus, Central New Mexico Community College and the College of Santa Fe. He and history professor Richard Melzer are co-editors of the book “Ernie Pyle: Tributes to America’s Best Loved Newspaper Columnist.”
Between February 2015 and October 2017, Burr portrayed Pyle in more than 20 performances for the New Mexico Humanities Council’s Chautauqua Series.
“I was researching photographs for Dr. Richard Melzer at UNM Valencia County and one of the photos was of Ernie Pyle,” Burr said. “Richard commented that there was a physical resemblance between Ernie and me. The more I learned about Ernie, the more similarities I discovered. We both grew up around farming but did not want to farm for a living. We grew up a dozen counties apart in the Midwest, Ernie in Indiana and me in Ohio.”
Burr did not find it all that difficult to become Ernie.
“I didn’t have to work on the Midwest accent since I grew up in the Midwest,” he said. “And I had researched his life so thoroughly that it seemed in many ways like it was my own story. I was always conscious of paying respect to Ernie’s legacy.”
That legacy, what endeared Pyle to readers more than 70 years ago, was his ability to write warm, down-to-earth portraits of people of all kinds in his pre-war columns and service men and women during the war.
“The qualities in Ernie that impressed me were his sense of humor, his way of saying things directly without a lot of hyperbole, the fact that he never wrote about his subjects at their own expense,” Burr said. “He always seemed to have good things to say about people.”
Another thing Burr and Pyle share in common is a love for the Southwest, something Pyle once called in an article “a deep, unreasoning affection.”
Burr, who grew up in the small farming town of London, Ohio, first saw New Mexico when he went to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron as a teenager in the 1960s.
“I stepped off that bus and looked at those mountains and knew as well as I knew my own name that I was going to live in New Mexico for the rest of my life,” Burr said. “I had to go back and finish high school, but as soon as I graduated in 1964 I got in my car and drove to Albuquerque and enrolled as a freshman at UNM. Been here ever since.”
Pyle wrote, “I guess it’s like being in love with a woman. You don’t love a woman because she wears No. 3 shoes or eats left-handed or has a diamond set in her front tooth. You just love her because you love her and you can’t help yourself. That’s the way we are about the Southwest.”
In his war columns, Pyle always expressed delight in meeting military folks from his adopted home state, especially those from Albuquerque “who lived within sight of my own picket fence.”
On Ie Shima, on April 17, 1945, the day before he was killed, Pyle saw a soldier step on a land mind and explode into pieces right in front of him.
Shaken, Pyle reportedly turned to a fellow correspondent and said, “I wish I were in Albuquerque.”