By RICHARD PYLE, Associated Press
George Esper, the tenacious Associated Press correspondent who refused to leave his post in the last days of the Vietnam War, remaining behind to cover the fall of Saigon, has died. He was 79.
Esper died in his sleep on Thursday night, his son, Thomas, told the AP on Friday. Esper suffered from a number of ailments, especially serious heart issues, and less than two weeks ago was released from a rehab center in Braintree, where he had been sent after his latest treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"George was most famous for his journalistic chops, his courage and tenacity, particularly in Vietnam. But those lucky enough to know him will celebrate his enormous generosity and boundless good cheer," said Kathleen Carroll, AP's executive editor and senior vice president.
Besides covering stories, Esper mentored young reporters in the AP and aspiring journalists he taught as a college professor.
"Hundreds of journalists learned from him in the field or in the classroom at West Virginia University and his words and his spirit inspire them every day," Carroll said. "He was a gentleman journalist and we will miss him sorely."
Esper earned accolades for breaking important stories and logged 10 years in Vietnam, the last two as AP's bureau chief. He regularly wrote AP's daily war roundup, a comprehensive story that was a fixture in many American and foreign newspapers.
"He loved traveling the world and getting the story for The Associated Press," Thomas Esper said. "He was a selfless person who made friends wherever he went."
While he considered his coverage of the dramatic end of the 15-year Indochina conflict the high point in a 42-year career of deadline reporting, it was far from the only one. Esper was legendary for his dogged persistence in covering news in war and in peace.
"You don't want to be obnoxious and you don't want to stalk people, but I think persistence pays off," Esper said in an interview in 2000.
So when he was assigned to write a story for the 20th anniversary of the 1970 shootings of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University and could find no phone number for the mother of one of the victims, Esper drove an hour through a snowstorm to knock on her door.
"She just kind of waved me off, and she said, 'We're not giving any interviews.' Just like that," Esper recalled. "I didn't really push her. On the other hand, I didn't turn around and leave. I just kind of stood there, wet with snow, dripping wet and cold, and I think she kind of took pity on me."
Like so many others over the years, she opened up to Esper.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1932, the second youngest of eight children, Esper came from a family of Christian immigrants from Lebanon. The family operated a tavern by railroad tracks and, as a boy, George helped out by tending bar.
He was the first in his family to go to college — West Virginia University in Morgantown.
He tried to become a sports announcer but was fired after two weeks for what his boss called "butchering the English language." After writing sports for the Uniontown Morning Herald and the Pittsburgh Press, AP hired him in 1958, first in Philadelphia and then in New York.
In 1965, as the U.S. military in Vietnam shifted from an advisory role to deploying full combat divisions, Esper joined AP's growing Saigon staff. Other than a return to New York for several months in 1966, he stayed to the end.
During that interlude, he covered a long-running public dispute between Jacqueline Kennedy and author William Manchester, whom she had hired to write "The Death of a President," an authorized account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Manchester tried hard to avoid the press but complained about "that AP reporter" who seemed able to track him down no matter where he was. It was a foreshadowing of the relentless style that, along with his mastery of Vietnam's capricious phone systems, would make Esper a press corps legend in Saigon.
Once, hearing that a U.S. jungle firebase was under attack, he managed to punch through by military phone to an officer in the middle of combat. "I can't talk now. We're under attack," the officer yelled into the phone.