Holyoke family, friends remember Neil Sheehan

  • Reporter Neil Sheehan is shown in an office of The New York Times in New York, May 1, 1972. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Journalist Neil Sheehan is shown in New York, Nov. 29, 1988. Sheehan, a reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times and who chronicled the deception at the heart of the Vietnam War in his epic book about the war, has died. He was 84. AP PHOTO/ED BAILEY

Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2021 7:25:18 PM

HOLYOKE — A short time after writer Neil Sheehan earned the Pulitzer Prize for his in-depth account of the Vietnam War, his deep family roots in Holyoke brought him back to the city for recognition at the St. Patrick’s Parade.

Sheehan, who received the John F. Kennedy Award in 1989, proceeded to walk the parade route and then greet the community at the Yankee Pedlar Inn.

“A lot of Holyokers knew him and his family, and it was a great time for all, as it always is,” said Ray Feyre, president of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Committee that year. “He graciously met with a lot of people in the lobby, autographing copies of his book.”

That book, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” chronicled the Vietnam War. It was written following Sheehan’s time as a reporter for The New York Times, when, in 1971, he broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, the confidential and detailed history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam.

Sheehan, who died Thursday at the age of 84, didn’t often return to his home city, making his home in Washington, D.C.

“Relatives on both sides of the family stressed the importance of education,” said Eugene Sheehan of Hatfield, Neil Sheehan’s younger brother. “Neil was extremely bright and had the drive to get ahead.”

He observed that Neil Sheehan was the valedictorian at Mount Hermon School in Northfield and was accepted at Harvard University, where he worked for its newspaper and then entered the Army. Working for the Stars and Stripes newspaper and part time for United Press International in the early 1960s, it was his French language skills that got him sent to Vietnam, where he became friends with David Halberstam and then accepted a job with The New York Times.

Eugene Sheehan said his brother was initially supportive of the American effort but became disillusioned over time, perhaps in part because of the experience of his own family’s emigration from Ireland, where nationalism had led to independence.

Vietnam was where Sheehan first met Daniel Ellsberg, a former consultant to the Department of Defense. Ellsberg later leaked Vietnam-related documents to Sheehan, and allowed the reporter to see the Pentagon Papers. In 2019, around 500 boxes of Ellsberg’s personal papers were acquired by the University of Massachusetts and are now held in special collections at the Amherst campus.

Before Sheehan’s foray into national and international affairs, he grew up on a large dairy farm, consisting of more than 100 acres, on the site of what is now Holyoke Community College. His parents, Mary and Cornelius, owned Sheehan’s Dairy Farm until the late 1950s.

Eugene Sheehan said the end came when a fire killed all the cows that were used to produce the bottled milk, though his father made more money from owning a school bus leased to the city.

Jim Sheehan, a cousin who still lives in the city, said Neil Sheehan was several years older. Still, he remembers him coming to a family get-together in the early 1960s, having returned from Southeast Asia.

“He was telling my parents that he was coming from this place called Vietnam,” Sheehan said. “None of us had ever heard of Vietnam before.”

That visit was before the first American troops went to Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

One of the stories Neil Sheehan told at the time that has stuck with Jim Sheehan nearly 60 years later was about the accommodations made in Vietnam for the military advisers there, with these men, in their mud-covered uniforms and boots, being greeted by French-speaking women.

As president of the parade committee in 1989, Feyre remembers that Mary Sheehan was a patient at the Holyoke Hospital during the parade. Understanding the importance of being able to see her son in the parade, staff moved her to a room with a view of the route.

Before the parade, Feyre and his wife, Susan, joined by Holyoke attorney Peter Brady and his wife, Mary, headed to Bradley International Airport to pick up Neil and Susan Sheehan, an acclaimed author in her own right, winning a Pulitzer Prize for “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?”

When they got to Holyoke, the Sheehans were provided a limousine so they could tour historic sites and visit the former farm.

“They were such gracious individuals,” Feyre said of the couple. “Neil had a good homecoming weekend.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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