George Esper: war correspondent, beloved professor, friend

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I don’t know that death gets any easier as you age—be it your own or someone else’s. I can’t say that it’s any less so for me now, than it was 15, 20 or even 30 years ago. It certainly isn’t any less sad.
Three notable deaths are being reported today: Ben Gazarra, 81; Steve Appleton, 51; and George Esper, 79. Of the three, I only knew one of them.
But I connected with the other two. I connected with Gazarra through his work. (He just gave an excellent performance in the movie “Hugo.” Although Gazarra had many memorable roles, I loved the one from “The Spanish Prisoner”—which also features a very rare, serious performance by Steve Martin.)
I connected with Appleton, the CEO of Micron Technology, because he was a parent and a pilot. We’d both flown high-performance aircraft, and I can completely identify with his quote that, in the end, summed up his life: “I’d rather die living than die dying.”
I only connected with those two men—but I knew George. If you didn’t or, perhaps don’t even recognize his name, you’ve probably never attended West Virginia University, worked in journalism, or been involved in the Vietnam War. George did all three, and along the way garned quite a reputation for himself. He is, in fact, one of a handful of Associated Press special correspondents. (He was also the AP’s Saigon bureau chief.)
I can’t remember when I first met George. It might have been after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006. But perhaps it was at one of WVU’s School of Journalism’s many lectures.
What I do recall, vividly, were our lunches together. Only a handful, as we were both busy writing and working, but enough to make an impact. I confided in him about a thorny professional problem I was having, and he gave me very sage advice—which I followed.
We also talked about the book I was then working on, and we exchanged stories from the trenches. Not the war trenches—the police trenches, since we both once covered a police beat. We talked about the changing face of journalism, and where we thought we might individually go from there. We talked about how consuming the job of a writer can be, when you really love it like we did—and the toll it can take on one’s family and social life.
I was supposed to visit him, when I went north. But I never made it that far north. So we were supposed to meet up again when George returned to his teaching post at WVU. When I couldn’t reach him at his office, I began to worry and so tried his cell phone—and learned he’d just returned to his Braintree, Mass., home, from a serious hospital stay.
I promised to send him something to read while he recuperated, and I did: a copy of my book, which he read. I learned that he had the next time we spoke, when he commented on it. I think by then he realized I had served in a war of another kind, here on the homefront, and no less bloody than the one he had been covering on foreign soil.
More than anything else we spoke about though, I remember hearing reflected in his voice the deep fondness he had for his students—and I could tell just how much he missed them. Missed teaching journalism. Missed Morgantown, W.Va., and WVU.
The last time I tried to call George, the call wouldn’t go through. It wasn’t that long ago. I made a mental note to find another way to reach him. And then—fearing the worst—I didn’t. Death, you see, really is no easier when one is 78, 48, or a mere eight-years-old.
I miss you, my friend. We all do.

Categories: West Virginia

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