A Journalist Who Made History

It’s been said journalists write the first draft of history, noted one participant in a panel discusssion carried on the CSPAN network Saturday morning.

George Esper would have smiled to hear that, I thought as I watched. Much of what George did during a distinguished career as an Associated Press reporter made it into the final drafts of history books, too.

Dr. George Esper died Thursday, after more than a decade in the Ogden Newspapers Visiting Professor chair at West Virginia University’s Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism. It was in that post, through which he both taught and inspired new generations of journalists, that I met him.

Though I didn’t know him well, I learned one of his secrets to success in a profession that relies on convincing people to talk to you. George could make everyone feel like a friend – and it wasn’t an act. Good journalists learn quickly to spot phonies, and his fellow ink-stained wretches knew George was genuine to the core.

He became famous because of the 10 years he spent covering the Vietnam War. When that conflict ended in 1975 with North Vietnamese troops entering Saigon, most journalists fled the country.

George, the AP’s bureau chief, stayed with two other AP staffers. Back then, it was clear to anyone who’d been paying attention that not joining the exodus required enormous courage.

He certainly had that, as fellow war correspondents knew. But one, whose name also stood for bravery, couldn’t resist telling about George’s first exposure to “combat” in Vietnam.

Joseph Galloway, co-author of the book “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” visited WVU a few years ago to talk about war reporting. George was with him on stage. A sheepish grin crossed his face as Galloway asked if he remembered one of his first forays with U.S. troops.

Both men were with a unit of Americans on patrol one day. George was new in Vietnam, and had wandered away from the soldiers. Just as they and Galloway became alarmed, George emerged from the woods on the other side of a rice paddy, running for his life. In hot pursuit was a hoe-wielding old Vietnamese woman, apparently furious at having been surprised while tending her garden.

But George quickly learned the ropes and became recognized for intelligence, thoughtfulness, compassion, principles, journalistic skill and courage. It’s unusual to see all six qualities in an individual, but they defined George.

Yes, he wrote that first draft of history, so well that he became part of enduring history. Then he moved on to influencing the future by showing young people how to be journalists – and it isn’t easy – and making them understand why doing so well is so important.

Most journalists know what the term “30” means. It originated when the telegraph was used to transmit news stories, and it designates “the end.”

Because of who George Esper was, there will be no “30” to his story.

Myer can be reached at: Myer@news-register.net.