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Live Life Fully: Esper made me want to be a better person

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's a rare thing. You know it when it happens. You come across someone who will have a lasting effect on you. Someone with that "special sauce" who inspires you to be all you can be.

I've only had a few mentors in my life, and I just lost one last week. George Esper made me want to be a better person. Even though he's crossed over to the other side, I can still feel his guidance. Maybe even more. It doesn't take the sting away, though.

Since George's passing, I've been in a reflective mindset -- what I like to call heart space. The news is so fresh as I write, and it's caused me to slow down and focus on what's really important.

I was fortunate to come across George about 10 years ago in a professional capacity. He had left his journalistic career as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press to come to West Virginia University to assume a professorship at the school of journalism. Deans Chris Martin and Maryanne Reed sure knew what they were doing when they recruited George and expanded his scope of influence.

It was like sitting at the foot of the master when George started to download his experiences and wisdom. But the funny thing was he made everyone else around him feel like they were the stars.

For me and so many others, George was both an icon and a gentle giant at the same time. The role model for humility -- amid achievements few could ever hope to attain.

As the longest-running reporter to cover the Vietnam War, George stayed behind after the fall of Saigon. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to see those last helicopters taking people to safety -- knowing you could have been on one of them?

But that was George. He took his journalistic responsibilities so seriously he felt it was his duty to see the story through. "I knew if I left -- after 10 years of covering the war -- I'd never forgive myself," he said. "I had to stay. Even if I got killed."

When North Vietnamese soldiers entered the AP bureau, George offered them Coca-Cola and stale cake -- and then interviewed them. Hours later, AP's communications were abruptly cut, but not before the story got out.

Although health challenges began to affect him, George still had that twinkle in his eye that would light up a room. Magical, almost impish. He encouraged legions of reporters and students, and he used to say they were the ones who kept him young.

He always noted how blessed he was to know all of us -- even though we were the ones who felt blessed the most. We used to call ourselves the "FOG" -- Friends of George. I got to know folks like the former editor of USA Today as a Friend of George.

He was a dream weaver, creating the spark for others. The man oozed character and charisma. It was easy to build trust with him. He was strong, yet gentle. Adventurous. A catalyst who could see possibilities.

If George found out one of his colleagues or students was going through a challenge, he'd put that amazing rolodex in his head to work and look for resources to link to the challenge. Any time he could open a door, he would. And he wasn't the type to be deterred by a closed door.

Fortunately, George's legacy is being preserved with a documentary produced by one of his former graduate assistants, Elaine McMillion. Elaine has captured his indomitable spirit through his storytelling of those poignant times in his professional life. In addition to covering the Vietnam War and writing the daily roundup for the AP to distribute all over the world, he covered such life-altering events as the Jonestown massacre in Guyana and the Persian Gulf War.

George was extremely supportive of this column -- right from the very beginning. Encouragement like that from a veteran wire service bureau chief meant a lot to me. We used to visit and talk at great length. Over lunches and dinners. During meetings in his office. Through phone chats and emails. How I treasured those times!

During the past several days, tributes to George have popped up all over -- in print, on broadcast and cable outlets and online. A random sampling turns up some colorful descriptions:

"George Esper was one of those rare journalists you meet and you immediately love. That was the secret of his success -- attracting the affection of colleagues and getting people to open up. General Douglas MacArthur said, 'Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.' Journalists and mentors like Esper never die either. Their spirit passes on through their colleagues they inspire, and their words write history. Old journalists never die; they just move on to the next story." -- journalist David C. Briscoe Jr.

"I think the problem with his heart was that it just wasn't built big enough to hold all the love and kindness he had to give. Fortunately for us, it held out long enough to inspire -- literally -- generations of journalists. He never had an unkind word to say about anyone, and more kind words about his students than I've ever heard from anyone." -- Vicki Smith, The Associated Press

Rest in peace, George. You'll always be in my heart -- and soul.

Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications company specializing in advertising, public relations, government relations and interactive marketing. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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