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Kenneth Young Tomlinson, who rose from a childhood in Galax to become editor of Reader’s Digest and director of the Voice of America, died May 1 in Winchester. He was 69.
His career at Reader’s Digest spanned 28 years and he became its editor in 1989.
Tomlinson’s journalism career began as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1965. He joined the Washington bureau of Reader’s Digest in 1968, then served as a correspondent in Vietnam and Paris. From Paris, he covered events in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, according to his obituary published by The Washington Post.
Tomlinson was chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (2002-2007), which oversees non-military U.S. international broadcasting, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He was chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2003-2005.
In 1995, he was named the Virginia Press Association’s Virginian of the Year. He was also named to the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.
In November 1991, Tomlinson visited Galax to serve as keynote speaker for the annual banquet meeting of the Galax-Carroll-Grayson Chamber of Commerce.
He was a 1966 graduate of Randolph-Macon College, from which he received an honorary doctorate in 1995.
According to his obituary: “Outside his love of country and family was his passion for thoroughbred racing. Tomlinson owned Sandy Bayou Stables and produced two stakes winners. Tomlinson also enjoyed bluegrass, ACC basketball and the Washington Nationals and Redskins.”
Former Reader’s Digest executive editor William Schulz wrote in a May 8 tribute in The Washington Times, “In 1960, 16-year old Kenneth Tomlinson boarded a Trailways bus in the southwestern Virginia mountain town of Galax. The following morning, he got off the bus in Washington, D.C., and began a journey that would take him from a summer internship to journalistic and governmental heights that he could not have imagined…”
“As he had in Richmond, Ken showed himself to be a tenacious reporter and gifted wordsmith. He authored one expose after another, covered wars in Vietnam and in Africa and co-authored the definitive book on America’s POWs.
“The Tomlinsons’ idyllic life in Westchester County (N.Y.) ended, at least temporarily, in 1982, when President Reagan asked Ken to return to Washington and head the Voice of America. He was the agency’s third director in a year and sweeping reforms were necessary for an agency that Reagan wanted to play a key role in the Cold War.”
He retired to Middleburg in 1991. In retirement, he ran a small-scale racing stable and wrote for The Weekly Standard.
Schulz wrote: “The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would change Ken’s life once more. Aware of Ken’s success at VOA, President George W. Bush asked him to chair not one but two presidential boards — the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls both the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.”
Acquaintances from Tomlinson’s youth posted comments this month in a guestbook at Legacy.com that will appear online until June 3:
Dr. John Byrd, Primghar, Iowa: “Remembering Ken with fondness from those good days at Galax High School and debate (it truly was Knowledge Knoll). Your ambition and achievements were worthy of the notable Class of ‘62.”
Jerry and Nancy Wiseman, Ocala, Fla.: “So proud that Kenneth was from our hometown. What an inspiration he was to all of us.”
Glenn Diamond, Galax: “Ken and I were the best of friends at ole Galax High. In his 1955 Buick he would drop me off after school at the radio and TV shop where I worked. He was a good friend and a great guy. Ken was always fun to be around. He will be missed by many. “
Claude Brewer, Taylorsville, N.C.: “Very proud to have to have grown up with Kenneth, elementary, high, and first year of college. As a high school teacher I would often tell students about Kenneth’s successes and how I had helped him through algebra, emphasizing how important it [is] to help others.”
Tomlinson is survived by his wife and two sons. He was the son of the late Young Tomlinson and Mattie Wingate Tomlinson of Galax. A funeral was held May 9 in Upperville.