Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Working for a legend

by Brian Kuhl

I first met George Esper 25 years ago in front of the Boston Harbor Hotel, before we walked over to the Associated Press office on High Street. George Esper was a world-renowned AP special correspondent whose reporting on the fall of Saigon made the front page of the New York Times. I was a few years out of graduate school, where I’d studied history and archival management, and George had hired me to organize his personal papers from Vietnam.

George was legendary among Vietnam War reporters for his doggedness and his facility with the telephone. He once managed to find and conduct a phone interview with an Air Force pilot, under tight wraps at a military base in Thailand, who had refused to fly more bombing missions to Hanoi. Another time he reached colleague Peter Arnett in the middle of a firefight to get the details — by calling the U.S. military commander’s field phone.

When I learned of his background, I expected a big ego, probably someone demanding. I couldn’t have been more wrong: George was mild-mannered and kind. For months afterward, I’d go to the AP bureau on weekends, where I worked in his office to organize his collection. After a year or so, I began helping him with stories by transcribing interviews and doing basic research. Though his wartime phone exploits were behind him, I did catch a glimpse of his skills once.

For an article at the end of 1999 about 20th-century wars, George asked me to research the official number of American casualties for each one. Reference books gave varying figures, so when we were both in his office once he suggested I call the Department of Defense for their numbers. Inexperienced and not a natural reporter, I got the runaround before being put on hold. Seeing my plight, George took the phone. When someone picked up again, he was like one of the field commanders he had earlier reported on. “Hello, this is George Esper with the Associated Press,” he boomed. “Who am I speaking with, please?” And, forcefully but politely, he got the information.

When George retired from the AP in 2000, I moved his Vietnam collection and other files to his home in a suburb of Boston and began working there. More often than not he was out, and he’d tell me to let myself in. “The key’s under the mailbox,” he’d say, referring to the magnetic key case stuck to the bottom. That was George, trusting and open. The Vietnam papers largely finished by then, I organized notes from later articles, tear sheets, speeches, even financial paperwork. I worked at his desk, the white cat that he loved, named “Dog,” meowing at the stranger in the house.

Friends and colleagues of George always spoke of his loyalty and generosity. He’d mentored many young AP staffers, whose letters I filed for him gushed with thanks. After retiring, George taught at the journalism school at his alma mater, West Virginia University, where he trained a whole new generation of journalists.

And George’s old colleagues from Vietnam were like family. Once in 2003, I was at his house working while he was there. His health had started to decline and he was feeling a bit down, saying he was tired of visiting the doctor all the time. Then AP photographer Nick Ut, whom George first met in Vietnam, called. Instantly, George lit up: “Hi, Nicky! How ya doing?” His own troubles forgotten, he fully engaged with Ut in the topic at hand.

I learned the news of George’s death, 10 years ago this month, when I was in China, where I had moved in 2005. Our last contact was early the following year. I emailed to say I’d be back home for a short visit before taking a new job near Shanghai. If he needed help with paperwork, I was available. But we just missed each other; he’d already gone back to West Virginia for the semester. Ever the foreign correspondent, he replied, “Good luck on your Shanghai assignment. Sounds exciting.”

Brian Kuhl is a writer and editor who lives in New York.