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.