A reporter who covered the human soul

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.

Years ago, visiting him in Portland, I poked through his mountain of negatives, his roomful of notes and files. For John, truth mattered.

It was all there, as if I needed any proof. The elaborate details of his encounters were enough for any dubious reporter. Besides, this was John Nance.

Wikipedia now defines our reality with entries that may be accurate but also may not. It says the Tasaday are widely regarded a hoax. Horseshit.

Through all of this, John’s humanity and humor blazed as warmly as ever. He wrote and taught and inspired anyone who crossed his path.

A Pied Piper, people embraced him instantly. His Portland haunt was the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, run by a lovable force of nature named Goody Cable.

During the happy California ‘90s, John met my friend Phil Cousineau, another of those rare grand inspirers, who was teaching at Esalen.

Phil cited a line from John’s book, quoting a Tasaday shaman: “The soul is the part of you that sees the dream.” John introduced himself. Whenever they talked over the years, sparks flew.

"For our times,” Phil wrote today, “John was the soul of journalism, the part of us that sees the dream and the nightmare that make up our world."

He, like all who knew John, was outraged at the controversy.

John ventured into the jungle at great risk 20 different times to visit the Tasaday, amassing thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of taped interviews. He helped to save their sanctuary.

Doubters who now overwhelm such sites as Wikipedia include one anthropologist who visited for only one day and others who never went at all.

Phil concluded: “These sanctimonious creeps were jealous as hell that John, a mere journalist, had scooped them.”

John met a wonderful mate, Sally Crane, and settled in Columbus, Ohio. Cancer took an ugly turn in January, and he went fast.

I spoke to him the day before he died. He was weak and tired, but he was all John Nance. We talked about old times and lifelong friends.

Then he died in the arms of Sally and his daughter, Gillian. He was 74.