Badge of honor


In this space a mere four weeks ago, I celebrated the honor bestowed on our Washington bureau chief as the winner of ASTA's Melva C. Pederson Award for travel journalism.

I return to this space today with a heavy heart. Fran Durbin died eight days ago after a long illness, and at this writing, her family, friends, Travel Weekly staff and many industry figures are preparing to celebrate her life at a memorial service in the town where she lived, Fairfax, Va.

This will be an occasion for reminding ourselves of the things we liked so much about Fran, of our best moments as colleagues and of the relationship that we cherish.

But I want to remember here a particular "honor" that Fran collected in her professional life, one that does not appear in the official biographies.

You see, she earned that special badge of the journalist: She was detained by the police while on duty.

She was doing what some journalists do a lot of -- taking photographs.

The year was 1984, and the place was communist Poland. More precisely, the place was a tiny town called Grodzisk Mazowiecki, the birthplace of Fran's father.

Although Fran wrote about the trip for this paper, she also was taking photos to show to family back home.

She and another journalist were virtually kidnapped from the street by men in leather jackets who grabbed them and hustled them into a car marked "milicia."

Next thing they knew, they were in a police station, their passports and cameras lifted, and facing a grilling about their intentions, all without being allowed to make a phone call.

Through an interpreter, Fran explained that she and her companion were part of a press trip, that the car and driver had been provided by LOT and that their itinerary was known to LOT.

When the commandant asked her accusingly if she didn't know it was forbidden to photograph the shops, Fran would have none of that, pointing out she had been photographing shops all over Poland on this and previous trips, all without problems.

Her hosts later speculated that the two journalists were challenged in this small town because the plainclothesmen were unaccustomed to foreigners and wanted to throw their weight around.

In any case, Fran and her companion were released the same afternoon, with passports and cameras. And their interrogator kissed their hands as they left.

So, that was the story of the day three plainclothesmen and one commandant in communist Poland encountered the intrepid Fran Durbin.

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