Last week readers of SI were thoroughly and unsentimentally introduced to the unbeautiful possum, that old southern customer which now threatens to become a slightly mixed blessing in other parts of the country. This brings up John (Tex) O'Reilly, who made the presentation, and in earlier issues has appeared as chronicler of beavers, praying mantises, sequoias and whooping cranes.
The son of the colorful soldier of fortune who was the subject of Lowell Thomas's book, Born to Raise Hell, O'Reilly of West Texas began a career as a newspaperman in 1927 at the age of 21. Before this, he had moved swiftly through a galaxy of professions: cowpuncher, sheepherder, apple picker, apple packer, printer, spray painter, teamster, soda jerk. But once in journalism he stayed, covered every conceivable story, from celebrities docking in New York to GIs landing on Omaha Beach; and as head of the New York Herald Tribune's Paris Bureau for three years, brandished a French which he describes as "poor but powerful."
Seasoned newspapermen are traditionally experts on human nature; O'Reilly is an expert on nature itself as well. He had not been a reporter long when his addiction to flora and fauna led him to haunt zoos, museums and aquariums. Writing on what he found there, he earned quick and lasting regard from the men who ran them. They discovered O'Reilly not only knew his subject but treated it without either the cuteness or the condescension under which they were bitterly accustomed to seeing it buried.
At various stages in his career O'Reilly has been flattened by a kangaroo, chased into a ladies' room by a leopard and forced to cross the sands of Sahara by camel, incidents which only strengthened his talent for not letting the lilies of the valley obscure the poison ivy—a talent which fits in well with our editors' intentions of presenting nature as it is, rather than as it is sometimes too sweetly painted.
October 11, 1954
O'Reilly's country place in Pennsylvania is a source for many of his stories. It has horses and dogs and all the wildlife which lives on and about the pond. It has donkeys, which he is trying to raise for money—unsuccessfully, because the more they increase, the less he can bring himself to part with any. And in a tree there's a raccoon which salutes him brightly from high up in the branches whenever O'Reilly knocks on the trunk below.
Ever the reporter, O'Reilly found himself one night last August in a vacation-bare city room with a story breaking on a jewel robbery. Snorting like an old fire horse, he phoned a precinct station. "How did you get loose on crime, O'Reilly?" said the lieutenant at the other end. "You're supposed to be out with the animals and the woolly bears."
And he usually is.