Many remember Maria Antonia’s distinct voice, one you know is hers as soon as you hear it. If you listen carefully, that voice hints to a place beyond our borders. She’s got a great story, and she tells it well.
At just four years old, Antonia boarded a Freedom Flight from Cuba to the U.S. Los Vuelos de la Libertad (as the flights were known in Spanish) transported Cubans fleeing to Miami to escape Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Between 1965 and 1973, Freedom Flights soared twice a day, five times a week and aided an estimated 300,000 refugees. With a budget of $12 million, it was the largest airborne refugee operation in American history.
Prior to Castro’s rise to power, Antonia’s family enjoyed prosperity. “My father was a doctor; my mother, a nurse,” she said. “Everything was fine until Castro and communism took over. My family lost everything.” Then hunger set in. “My father traded whatever procedure he had performed that night for food. He came home, woke us up, sat us down in the dining room and gave us some food and watched us eat so he knew we were going back to bed with a full stomach. That’s another moment I’m never going to forget: what a parent will do to take care of his children.”
Her father remained in Cuba to care for aging parents. However, Antonia’s mother was determined to raise their three children in a place where they could thrive. “With her persistence, we got on the Freedom Flights. Her goal was that her children would be able to grow up in a place where they could choose their path, their career, and voice their opinions without fear of being picked up by soldiers and thrown in a jail cell. God bless her; she was a strong and determined woman and her kids were her priority.”
Assimilating into American culture was relatively easy. Antonia and her two siblings were young enough to quickly adapt. Plus, they had already started learning English and French in the private school they attended in Cuba.
America’s free press was not lost on Antonia. As a high school student, an anchor from Miami’s WPLG-Channel 10 caught her attention. “Her name was Ann Bishop,” Antonia said. “When Ann Bishop spoke, you listened. She did it with authority.... Ann was the reason I said, ‘I’m going to try that.’” Antonia already knew that, unlike her brother and sister, she wasn’t going to pursue medicine. But she still wanted to provide some type of public service.
Antonia studied broadcasting at the University of Miami, and her first job was in radio. Recommended by her professor, she worked as an anchor and producer. One of her assignments was to write a story about a TV broadcaster—none other than Ann Bishop. “Sure enough, she made herself available and I took that opportunity to ask questions that I can’t ask when I’m just watching her on the news. I used that info to become a good journalist, not just a face on TV.”
Antonia’s aspirations shifted away from radio, and she began to interview for TV broadcast jobs. She eventually landed a position as a part-time reporter in Little Rock, Ark., where she was assigned to interview the governor at that time, who happened to be Bill Clinton. “You never know where the pieces are going to fall,” she said. “And that was, of course, before he was president.” Next, she worked for another ABC affiliate in Connecticut before landing a promising anchor job in Kansas City with KMBC Channel 9.
Antonia recalls being on-air in the morning and later reporting whatever news was assigned for that day. One story has always stayed with her. It was an overnight fire in a small community outside of Kansas City. One of the burn victims was a little boy named David DaBell. He was so badly burned, he was sent to Texas to receive care. At that time, satellite technology was still a novelty, but Antonia was assigned to travel south to cover the story. It would be the first time she broadcasted via satellite.
“This young man was horribly burned, but he fought on. He had great family support, but they didn’t baby him. His mom, while caring for him every step of the way, still had to make sure this young man was not only going to survive, but thrive.”
And he did. Back at home, Antonia continued to follow David’s story as he returned to school and took piano lessons though he was still wearing protective bandages on his hands. “I watched this family’s strength through this horrible ordeal, and how they didn’t fall apart. They came together. They fought. They moved forward. By golly, this wasn’t going to define them. David went on to get good grades at school and learned how to play the piano. He even played soccer.”
Many years later, still vested in this story, Antonia set out to locate DaBell. She discovered the grown David now counsels others. “He’s doing fine. This horrible thing did not define this family. They were strong and they battled through it, and probably became even stronger because of it. I have interviewed all sorts of famous people in politics and entertainment. But no story has had an impact on me like that little boy and that family.”
Another story Antonia recalls featured a local spin on the Iraq war. Several Kansas City-area men and women were deployed to the Middle East to serve. Antonia wanted to chronicle their efforts and perhaps give the families some comfort in knowing about the duties their soldiers would perform.
One person who jumpstarted this effort was Keith Hoskins, from Parkville, Mo.
The Navy had a surprise for Hoskins: He had been accepted into the Navy’s aviation program. They decided to break the news to Hoskins while taking him on a flight where he would be upside down in an old plane that departed from Kansas City’s downtown airport.
“They sent me to cover it. That was his dream, to become a navy pilot,” she said. This feature story led to several more as KMBC followed Hoskins’ career, including Antonia making a trip to California to report on his first show as a Blue Angel.
At the start of the Iraq War, Hoskins was sent to the Middle East. Soon, Antonia also found herself close to Persian Gulf battlefields–along with her husband, photo journalist Tim Tywman.
In Bahrain, she covered riots at the British embassy. “That was a little scary, because it was just me and a photographer. There were a couple of times we had to run because there were people running after us.... There was turmoil and situations that easily got out of control. Gosh, you never forget an experience like that and stories like the ones we covered over there.”
With help from late Congressman Ike Skelton, Antonia was granted permission to board Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, where Hoskins was serving. “Skelton got me on that carrier before some of the network morning shows got on there and, sure enough, we covered Commander Hoskins’ bombing missions into Bagdad.”
Once aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and out of imminent danger, Antonia had yet another obstacle to contend with: not getting blown off deck by strong ocean winds. “Whenever we were on deck to cover the pilots leaving on their bombing missions, someone would get a hold of me so I wouldn’t blow away.”
From veteran broadcaster Ann Bishop, to burn survivor David DaBell, to soldiers’ heroic tours in Iraq, and so many other stories like them, there is a constant theme throughout Antonia’s work: She uses her platform as a public service.
That remains her number one goal even after her lengthy career at KMBC Channel 9.
Memories of her own childhood fuel Antonia’s ability to translate and speak for migrant children and their families, providing comfort, breaking barriers, and opening access to clear communication with the clinic staff at the Live Well Community Health Centers. “Her presence impacts the migrant patients we serve,” said Toniann Richard, CEO of the Health Care Collaborative of Rural Missouri, the rural health nonprofit that owns and operates the Live Well Centers. “I truly believe that her work with us is improving the health and the lives of these individuals.”
At Kansas City’s Bishop Sullivan Center, Antonia uses a camera to capture tales of those who find themselves in need. These stories provide yet another public service by helping the Center garner essential donations to help as many people as possible. But this time, she’s [behind] the camera.
“There is no one like her,” Richard said. “She is directly impacting lives. She is the consummate public servant and so much more.”
Tyman and Antonia’s son, Turner Twyman, happens to be an award-winning photo journalist.