MINNEAPOLIS — Susan Linnee, who rose from a radio stringer in Latin America to become a groundbreaking Associated Press bureau chief in Spain and Kenya, has died at age 75.
Linnee, who had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer, died Monday at Walker Methodist Care Suites in Edina, Minnesota, after spending about a month in hospice care, her brother, Paul Linnee, told the AP.
Linnee became one of the news organization’s first female American bureau chiefs overseas when she was named AP’s Madrid bureau chief in 1982. In 1996, she became Nairobi bureau chief, where she shepherded the AP’s coverage of major news in Africa, including the spread of terrorists into Somalia, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Former colleagues remember Linnee for her hardworking ethic, dedication to her staff and empathy for ordinary people caught up in world events.
“She was a proper, old-school foreign correspondent who loved what she did,” said Andrew England, Middle East and Africa news editor for the Financial Times of London, who worked with Linnee at Nairobi AP. He recalled Linnee as a “larger-than-life figure” and a “mothering presence,” especially for young African journalists.
During her eight years as the news service’s Nairobi bureau chief, Linnee oversaw a vast territory and managed a freelancer network stretching from Ethiopia and Somalia to Tanzania and Congo. Linnee was on her way to New York on holiday when she got a call from the AP about the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya just after her plane landed.
She was told she had to go back, so she boarded a return flight without ever leaving the airport, recalled AP journalist Hrvoje Hranjski, who worked with Linnee in the Nairobi bureau.
“She always focused on how a story impacted ordinary lives,” said Hranjski, who now works on the AP’s Asia Desk in Bangkok. “That was her. She really didn’t care about officialdom and government. She was really more about ordinary folks.”
Times were tumultuous in Africa, for both the people and journalists. AP Television News producer Myles Tierney was killed and AP correspondent Ian Stewart was shot in the head but survived in an attack by teenage rebels while covering civil war in Sierra Leone in January 1999.
Hranjski was shot in the shoulder while with the Rwandan army warring with a Ugandan force in Congo that same year. Linnee worked two days to get Hranjski out of the jungle, he said.
“She was right on the tarmac waiting for me” when Hranjski landed in Nairobi, he said.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Linnee grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, where she worked on the school newspaper. She graduated in 1962 from the University of Minnesota, where she majored in political science.
A lover of languages — she spoke French, Spanish and German, among others — she married a man who became a diplomat. The couple lived in Geneva, Berlin, New York City, Rwanda and Buenos Aires before divorcing.
In 1973, Linnee saw an ad in a local English newspaper in Argentina looking for a “girl Friday” for NBC News Correspondent Tom Streithorst. Streithorst was in failing health, and Linnee filled in with live radio reports on NBC when he was being treated in the United States. In 1976, she joined the AP in Jackson, Mississippi, followed by stints in New Orleans and Houston.
After a stint with the International Herald Tribune in Paris, Linnee became a one-person correspondent for the AP in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 1980. The territory included about 22 countries, from Mauritania to Zaire, which Linnee said in an AP World article she covered by “plane, but also by car, bush taxi and dugout canoe.”
Linnee spent 14 years as AP’s bureau chief in Madrid, where she covered the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and served as a correspondent in Sarajevo during the Balkans War. She was named Nairobi bureau chief in 1996, and retired in 2004.
After leaving the AP she stayed in Nairobi, working with the International Crisis Group and then as a mentor for journalists at Kenya’s national newspaper, Daily Nation.
In 2015, Linnee moved back to the Minneapolis area, where her brother lives. In July 2017, she noticed symptoms of disorientation, and in August was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, according to her CaringBridge website.
Survivors include her brother, his wife and two nieces. A memorial service will be planned.