David Shears, British journalist, dies at 86

April 17, 2013

David Shears, a correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph whose wry touch graced dispatches about American political campaigning and who once described the United States as “the most fascinating, variegated, vulgar, sophisticated, ugly, beautiful, exciting country in the world,” died March 20 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. He was 86.

He had complications from pneumonia, said his son, Nicholas Shears.

Mr. Shears reported from Washington for the Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1965 and, after a long assignment as Bonn bureau chief in Germany, from 1981 until his retirement in 1986.

He covered the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he periodically freelanced for American publications.

In a 1961 New York Times Magazine story titled “Is Baby Kissing Really Necessary?,” Mr. Shears described the “bizarre affair” that is the American campaign process, complete with its “hand-pumping, blintz-eating, baby-kissing, [and] beauty-contest-judging.”


David Shears, a correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph. (Family Photo)

“Is all this clowning really necessary?” he wrote. “Must he judge hog contests to the point where he probably can hardly distinguish between Beauty and the Beast?”

In another Times story, he offered a riposte to a fellow British correspondent who highlighted shortcomings in America’s cultural and gastronomical offerings, especially blueberry pie that looked and tasted like “purple glue.”

Mr. Shears wrote that if the other reporter “has ever found a steak in Britain to compare with a rare melt-in-the-mouth American T-bone, at anything like the same price, I’ll eat my hat. Or since I haven’t got a hat, I’ll do my penance by eating an English sausage.”

David John Arthur Shears was born May 20, 1926, in London and raised in Cheltenham, England. He served in the British navy during World War II and was a 1949 politics, philosophy and economics graduate of the University of Oxford in England.

He briefly worked as a reporter at the Bristol Evening Post before joining Reuters as a foreign correspondent in 1951. One of his first stories was about the assassination of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951.

Five years later, he was assigned to the news agency’s Washington bureau, where he worked until 1961, when he joined the Daily Telegraph.

After leaving Washington in 1965, Mr. Shears served as the Daily Telegraph’s bureau chief in Bonn. He chronicled many leading events of the Cold War and wrote a book, “The Ugly Frontier” (1970), about life on both sides of the Berlin Wall and the longer military and economic barrier dividing East and West Germany. He also reported on the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at the Munich Olympic Games.

In retirement, he wrote two books, “Ocracoke: Its History and People” (1989), about an island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and “Paddle America: A Guide to Trips and Outfitters in All 50 States” (1996) with his son.

Mr. Shears, a District resident, volunteered with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the international exchange organization Youth for Understanding.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Ursula Hahn Shears of Washington; a son, Nicholas Shears of Arlington; and two grandsons.

In a 1988 letter to the editor published in The Washington Post, Mr. Shears expressed the frustrations of foreign correspondents in Washington who, while covering breaking news stories, were often grinding against early deadlines for overseas publications.

“You see a story in an American paper and start working the phones first thing in the morning, trying to check it out,” he wrote. “But just about everyone is ‘in a meeting,’ so you’re left waiting for call-backs. With the five- or six-hour time difference, you have to get those answers by noon, Washington time, to make deadline. Otherwise, you have three choices, all bad: ignore the story, quote the American media or simply plagiarize.”

“True,” he added, before invoking the Declaration of Independence, “the outside world doesn’t yield many votes in American elections. But whatever happened to ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’?”

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