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Wife of imprisoned AP reporter dies at age 88

PORT JEFFERSON STATION, N.Y. (AP) – Laurabelle Zack Oatis, whose pleading letter to the former Czechoslovakian government helped free her imprisoned husband, Associated Press correspondent William N. Oatis, during the early days of the cold war, has died. She was 88.

Oatis died Tuesday at a nursing home from complications of a stroke, according to her son, former AP editor Jonathan Oatis. A graveside service is scheduled for Monday at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, N.Y.

William Oatis, the AP’s Prague bureau chief, was freed in 1953 after spending two years in prison. He had been sentenced by a communist court to 10 years in prison after being forced to confess to espionage. The case made international headlines and led to U.S. trade and travel embargoes against Czechoslovakia. The Czech government said it had been moved to pardon Oatis because of his wife’s poignant letter pleading for his release.

Laurabelle Zack was born in Duluth, Minn., in 1924, the daughter of Ethel and Maurice Zack. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree, she started work in 1945 as a librarian in the AP’s news library at Rockefeller Center. She became enamored with William Oatis, then an AP foreign desk editor, the first time she saw him, her son, Jonathan said.

When William Oatis was assigned to London, Laurabelle Zack followed him across the Atlantic. They lived a few blocks from each other in London, where they were married in 1950. Three months later, William Oatis was assigned to Czechoslovakia. The couple had planned for Mrs. Oatis to join her husband in Prague before his arrest.

After his release, the couple returned to New York City, where Laurabelle Oatis raised a family in Manhattan and was briefly co-owner of a needlepoint shop on the East Side of Manhattan. Her husband covered the United Nations for 30 years until his retirement from AP in 1984. William Oatis died in 1997.

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