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A reporter who covered the human soul

Remembering John Nance, the journalist who wrote of the Tasaday people.

In a picture taken on August 9, 2009, Lobo Bilangan points to the forested mountain where he used to live during his childhood in Blit, Lake Sebu in the Philippines. When he was young Lobo swung on vines and hung around a cave, the long-haired, loin-clothed poster child of a sensational Stone Age tribe, the Tasaday people, lost in the time warp of a remote Philippines rainforest. Now with the Western scholars, journalists and celebrities a distant memory, Lobo Bilangan wears faded tracksuits, chainsmokes, and eats canned sardines — just one among hundreds of poor farmers slashing and burning their way through the forest. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

TUCSON — For a shot of faith in what’s good about humanity, in the face of so much that isn’t, consider John Nance, who died this week in Ohio.

Nance understood that “news” was about people — individuals and societies — not grand events. That made him an uncommonly good reporter.

But that was not the half of it.

He was a favorite among his colleagues in Vietnam. We loved him for his generous spirit, humor and warmth that touched us all.

For John, it was never about racking up scoops but rather finding stories that helped explain why people could sacrifice so much for their values.

When John moved to Manila as Associated Press bureau chief, we found reasons to drop in, laughing until late and recharging psychic batteries.

I missed a rocket attack on Phnom Penh because I stopped off in Manila, coming back from America, to deliver his beloved chunky-style peanut butter.

And I was in Manila when he emerged from the Mindanao jungles, beaming, to announce he had found a Stone Age tribe that had never seen the sky.

It was a great story. But more, he bonded tightly to that tiny group of leaf-clad people, the Tasaday, an unspoiled subset of humanity.

Soon, John published his masterpiece book, "The Gentle Tasaday."

Others followed into the jungle. The Tasaday added two words to their limited lexicon: "ka-cheek" for a Leica and "ka-chunk" for a Nikon.

And then, perhaps inevitably, people who never made it to the Tasaday’s remote clearing declared the story a hoax.

John spent decades working to set the record straight. But in these times being there to report firsthand can count less than arbitrary nay saying.