One of America’s great journalists died last week. George Esper was 79.
Esper was a West Virginia University graduate and a frustrated sports announcer when he joined the Associated Press in 1958. He spent 42 years with the AP, including ten years in the Saigon bureau.
It was in Vietnam, during the height of the war, that Esper earned his reputation as a tenacious reporter, working the often undependable phone system to gather information and break stories.
Esper scooped the rest of the press about Lyndon Johnson’s secret trip to Vietnam by tracking down an air traffic controller at Cam Ranh Bay where Johnson’s plane landed.
He managed to find a B-52 pilot facing court-martial for refusing to fly bombing missions over North Vietnam, interviewed him and wrote an exclusive story.
U.S. military officials were notoriously tight-lipped, which made it extremely difficult for reporters to track down stories. One of Esper’s favorite techniques was, when he got wind of a battle, to call the closest military base and bark into the phone: “This is Esper, what the hell is going on up there?”
The solider on the other end, thinking he was talking with a ranking officer, would often provide details.
During his ten years in Vietnam, he wrote more copy than any other single reporter about the war. His daily wrap-up for the AP was a staple in newspapers across the country and around the world.
Esper was among a handful reporters who stayed during the fall of Saigon in April 1975. According to the book “Breaking News” by the Associated Press, Esper passed on one final opportunity to evacuate.
“Thanks for your offer,” Esper said in a message back to AP General Manager Wes Gallagher in New York. “We want to stay.”
Subsequently, it was Esper who wrote the bulletin: “SAIGON (AP)—President Duong Van ‘Big’ Minh of South Vietnam announced Wednesday an unconditional surrender to the forces of North Vietnam.”
He beat UPI by five minutes.
He often told the story about two North Vietnamese soldiers coming to the AP bureau. They shared Cokes and stale cake. Esper once told me about his meeting with the enemy soldiers, saying, “They had pictures of their families too.”
Perhaps that, more than anything, illustrated the personal side of Esper. He was a gentle soul, gracious and warm. He made those around him feel at ease. To meet George Esper was to be instantly befriended by him.
In 2000, Esper retired from the AP, moved back to Morgantown, and taught journalism at WVU. His professional accomplishments and infectious personality inspired students, who returned the affection. Friday, as news of his death spread, the social media buzzed with tributes from former students.
Remarkably, after years of reporting on everything from Vietnam to the Jonestown massacre and a thousand stories in between, Esper was largely without cynicism or sarcasm.
Maybe because his nature brought out the best in people, Esper was a witness to far more good than evil. Considering his profession, that’s a remarkable achievement.