09/29/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
Washington correspondent Maria Wilhelm loves to travel, and we do our best to oblige her. In February she flew to Haiti to record the dying days of the Duvalier regime and to interview associates of ousted First Lady Michéle Duvalier for a cover story. Three days after her return, Maria was airborne again, this time heading for the Philippines to cover the rise to power of Corazon Aquino and to interview the new president. "I know it sounds hackneyed," says Wilhelm, 30, "but I always grow from these experiences. When Filipinos told me how they stood in front of tanks and prepared to lose their lives for the love of their country, it gave me a deeper understanding of what patriotism really means."
For this week's story on the tragedy that has befallen the Zumwalt family (page 77), Maria didn't travel nearly as far, but the impact was just as great. "Life is full of cruel and chilling ironies," she says of the story. "Bad things happen to the best of people, and the Zumwalts are the best—people of great courage, love and empathy."
Maria was born in San Francisco; her father is a restaurateur, and her mother a former art history professor. Her uncle is Joseph L. Alioto, who was a two-term mayor of the city, and as a result, she says, "politics was always important to our family." She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy from Berkeley and is currently a master's candidate at Georgetown.
A former Vista volunteer and radio producer, Wilhelm joined TIME'S San Francisco bureau in 1980 as an intern and stringer, but was quickly recruited by PEOPLE to cover such stories as the so-called wonder drug DMSO and Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner. "I learned to report on the job," says Maria, who once covered former Interior Secretary James Watt at the annual one-shot antelope hunt in his native Wyoming. "Competitors were allowed a few warm-up shots at a metal antelope," says Wilhelm. "Watt missed his shot, then turned to the crowd of reporters and singled out the only woman—me." Wilhelm, who credits "mostly luck," hit the target three times in a row. Though always a conscientious reporter, on this occasion Wilhelm modestly left Watt's reaction unrecorded.