SYRIA, Va. — Ernest Eugene “Gene” Pell, 83, died quietly on April 7, 2020, at his home near Syria, after a valiant 3-year battle with cancer. He is survived by his loving wife, Susan Jane (Roehm) Pell of Syria; two daughters from a previous marriage: Anne Frances Pell of Morsasco, Italy and Jennifer Susan Pell of Makawno, HI; a grandson Sasha Pell of Makawno, Hawaii; a stepson Maj. Philipp Edouard Rigaut who lives in Prince William Co., with his wife Amanda and five children; a sister Carol Goodman Taylor of Lexington, Kentucky; a sister Sandria Lynn Cox of Woodbridge; a brother Clark Edward Pell of West Coxsackie, New York; and several nieces and nephews. Gene was preceded in death by his parents and his stepson, Pierre-Louis Rigaut.
Gene was born March 15, 1937, in Paducah, Kentucky, the oldest of four children of Ernest Joseph and Edna Marie (Stewart) Pell. His father was an early pioneer in radio and television broadcasting who managed technical operations for several stations in Kentucky and later built and ran a television network in Vietnam. His father’s work no doubt contributed to Gene’s interest in broadcasting, but an even greater impetus was the wonderful, commanding baritone voice he developed at age 13. That remarkable voice, coupled with exceptional intelligence and drive, led to a career of more than 50 years in broadcast journalism.
He often joked that he began his broadcasting career covering “rasslin” matches while he was still in high school, then worked at the campus radio station while attending Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard in 1959 with a BA in English, then served as an officer in the Navy for 3 years where, among other assignments, he was the Program Director for the Armed Forces Radio Service in New York City. He returned to college after the Navy and earned a MS in Journalism from Boston University.
Gene began his career in television news in 1963 as an investigative reporter with WBI-TV in Boston, then became an anchor for Boston stations WBZ and WCVB. In 1969 he joined the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company first as the National Political Correspondent in Washington and then as Chief of the Westinghouse Foreign News Service in London. In 1974 he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and in 1977 a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Russian Research Center. He joined NBC News in 1978 and served as the NBC News Correspondent in Moscow from 1978-1980 and as the Pentagon Correspondent from 1980-1982. From 1963 through 1982 Gene covered every major news story and interviewed countless American and international newsmakers. He reported on the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Watergate, five Presidential campaigns, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and countless other events across the U.S. and around the world. Another journalist who worked with him during that period recently said “Gene lived his professional life as a serious and devoted advocate of reporting the truth, using the medium of broadcasting — radio and TV. Like many of us, he was proud and a bit arrogant. But more importantly, he was riveting and honest. I’m not certain where his inspiration came from, but the results were impressive: great curiosity, a commitment to support and nurture quality broadcast journalism, and an abiding dedication to servicing the audiences.”
Gene began his government career in 1982 when he was recruited by the Reagan Administration to help modernize the technology and programming at the Voice of America (VOA). He initially served as the Director of News and Current Affairs, then as the Deputy Director for all VOA Programming, then in June of 1985, he was appointed by President Reagan as the Director of VOA. His contributions to the modernization were so successful that he was recruited by the Board for International Broadcasting to become the President/CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc. in Munich, Germany. He became President/CEO in October, 1985 and led that organization for eight years through one of the most remarkable periods in modern history. He spent much of 1985-1989 transforming the management, technology, and programming at RFE/RL which significantly improved the organization’s capability and credibility when the USSR began to collapse. Under Gene’s leadership, RFE/RL was at the heart of the peaceful revolutions that occurred in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from 1989-1992, broadcasting accurate news and credible information in 21 languages, 7 days a week. He was frequently on the air during that period speaking to audiences in both English and Russian. Many Eastern European and Russian leaders, including Czech President Vaclav Havel and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, later testified to the importance of RFE/RL broadcasts in helping to end the Cold War. Polish leader Lech Walesa told an audience in 1989 that the role played by RFE/RL in Poland’s struggle for freedom “cannot even be described. Would there be an earth without the sun?” In 1991 RFE/RL was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the critical part it played in the peaceful revolutions across the Soviet bloc. Gene won a wide array of journalism awards through the years, but he was most proud of the contributions he made to VOA and RFE/RL that helped to end the Cold War.
Gene retired from RFE/RL in June of 1993 and returned to broadcasting which was his first love. He joined Radio America where he wrote and hosted a weekly radio program and produced and narrated a series of television programs about Congressional Medal of Honor winners. He also acted as master of ceremonies for several years at the annual WWII Veterans Association meeting in Washington.
In 1998, Gene and Susan moved from Washington, D. C. to a wonderful home on a mountain near the town of Syria in Madison Co., Virginia. They immediately fell in love with Madison County and the many good friends they made there. They became active members of the community and worked on a series of projects with the Chamber of Commerce, MESA, Madison Troop Support, and others. Gene was especially proud of the annual oratory competition he endowed and judged for Madison High School students. He hoped that some of those students might follow in his path and build careers in broadcast journalism.
After cremation, Gene’s ashes will be interred in the Criglersville Shiloh Cemetery. A memorial service will be held at a later date.