George Esper died last night. He was 79 years old. He, along with Peter Arnett, was the last western reporter to leave VietNam after the fall of Saigon. And it seemed like he covered every shooting war the US was involved in from Vietnam up through the first Gulf War.
The old war correspondent has to be the best reporter I ever knew. I got to know George during my years working for the P.I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University, where he was the Ogden Newspapers Visiting Professor in Journalism.
On a Friday afternoon like this, you could go to his office and get him to tell stories. There would usually be a student in there talking with him. And you would never be able to believe that this pleasant older gentleman had really been there for so much history. There was never any bragging to his stories, but it seemed like there wasn’t anyone he didn’t know from world of news. Eddie Adams, Peter Arnett, Dan Rather, Richard Pyle. Whenever the School of Journalism wanted a prominent speaker to come to campus, all folks there needed to do was ask George. And these “Friends of George” would all come.
If you search on Twitter today you will see an enormous outpouring of affection for George, but that only tells you half the story. George was kind and giving, and he was a great teacher.
But he also was the most amazing interviewer I’ve ever seen.
Iraq war veteran and West Virginia native Jessica Lynch came to campus to speak as part of a lecture series, and George interviewed her up on the stage. Jessica, as you may recall, was captured by the Iraqis and suffered terribly as a result, with multiple injuries and crippling breaks to her legs. Jessica is a small woman, but as a result of her captivity and injuries lost even more weight. George, talking with her on the stage, got her to say her weights before and after captivity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another reporter who could get such a candid discussion out of anyone. And make them glad to do so.
In his obit in the Washington Post, George is quoted about driving through a snowstorm on the 20th anniversary of the Kent State National Guard shootings to interview the mother of one of the victims. He says:
“She just kind of waved me off, and she said, ‘We’re not giving any interviews.’ Just like that. 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.”
I got the news this afternoon via Twitter, and the stream of remembrances on Twitter and Facebook has me sitting at my desk crying:
“ I only took one class from him, journalism history, and I absolutely loved it. I will never forget how incredibly kind he was to everyone and how much he truly cared about his students and their lives.”
“I also took his journalism history class, which was wonderful. The students often stayed late, willingly, because he was in the middle of an amazing story. WVU was lucky to have him.”
“It was George Esper’s class that really kickstarted my drive to be a sports writer. ”
“If you knew George Esper, you knew he could find the good in everything/everyone. He taught me more than he would’ve ever believed.”
“WVU Journalism professor George Esper embodied everything good and righteous about journalism.”
But perhaps the best comment I’ve seen comes from my friend and former student Dave Ryan:
“Let’s all remember George Esper by being better journalists.”
George Esper talks about covering VietNam: