Obituary | February 2023

Buck Tharp: 1945-2023

From left: Rich Read, Brenda Read, Jeralyn Nickel and Mike Tharp

Rich Read

I landed in Tokyo in 1987, eager to get started as a foreign correspondent. Riding Japan’s economic ascendancy, the FCCJ was in its heyday, with hundreds of journalist members from around the world and legions of associates who rounded out the club’s events and fattened its finances.

Plenty of correspondents at the top of the foreign media’s social hierarchy took little interest in a green American freelancer fresh from a year’s reporting in Bangkok. But Mike, of U.S. News and World Report — “You Snooze” as he and his sidekick (and my college classmate) Jim Impoco put it — and Brad Martin, then Newsweek bureau chief, were generous with beers, laughs and reporting advice as I began pursuing stories across Asia, the Soviet Far East and Down Under.

I regarded Buck and Brad as senpai as I opened a one-man bureau for the Oregonian — Portland, Oregon’s daily newspaper, where I had worked for five years previously. The publication with a name unpronounceable in Japanese joined other U.S. regional papers that were posting staff in Tokyo.

Mike, tall with shaggy black hair and a down-home accent, spiced up weekly foreign ministry briefings with blunt questions and ribald humor. He spun across the dance floor at FCCJ events with his then wife, Shelley Smith. While Mike had a wild side, he was always the gentleman, incapable of passing through a door ahead of a woman. He would stand in a Yurakucho Denki Building elevator saying “Dozo” and motioning politely for as long as it took for a startled Japanese “office lady” to realize that this towering gaijin actually meant that she should step out the door before him. When he became FCCJ president, I began serving on the board, where he presided with humor and crisp efficiency, keeping club finances in the black and professional events lively.

I moved back to Portland in 1994. Mike stopped by the next spring, en route to visit his brother, the Oakridge, Ore., police chief. With a grin and a guffaw, he popped a cassette into the VCR. He had just celebrated his 50th birthday, he said, and could still do a mean basketball layup. Sure enough, the video showed Mike dribbling hard, going in for the shot and dunking the ball. He always got a kick out of his athletic accomplishments, a major part of his life. Somehow he always found time thereafter to keep up with my stories for the Oregonian, sending generous critiques.

Mike loved telling stories about his reporting adventures, especially his war coverage, with a mix of bravado and self deprecation. Having been to North Korea a couple of times, I especially recall a story that he told about his trip there during the ping-pong diplomacy days, when he got in to cover an international tournament. I think that Brad might have been on the same trip. There was an encounter with a tractor that had an obscene name which Mike found hilarious. 

Brad, Urban and all of us who have been to the DPRK are familiar with the tight controls placed on visitors, especially journalists, who typically get assigned a minder named Mr. Kim to take them to predesignated sites, interpret and watch their every move. Like every foreign reporter seeking authentic glimpses of the “workers’ paradise”, Mike cast about for ways during the ping-pong visit to escape his Mr. Kim, finally developing an original strategy. One morning before the start of his approved itinerary, Mike donned his jogging shorts and T-shirt and headed out of his hotel room. He strode across the lobby, where Mr. Kim awaited, attired in the usual cheap suit and tie. Mike didn’t stop. Outside, he broke into a relaxed run, quickly outpacing the frantic Mr. Kim, whose short legs and dress shoes were no match for Mike’s long legs and jumbo-size running shoes.

Mike cruised through the streets of Pyongyang, soon reaching the outskirts, beginning to get more revealing views of everyday North Korean life. All went well until two soldiers suddenly stepped into the road ahead of him. Yelling at him in Korean, they raised their AK-47s. The soldiers directed Mike to kneel down in the street in front of them. Soon he was on all-fours, the soldiers standing above him still yelling, a rifle pointed at each temple. This wasn’t good.

“Ping-pong, ping-pong,” Mike kept saying desperately, raising his right hand and waving it like a table tennis paddle.

Eventually, Mr. Kim showed up and rescued him. Mike had survived another scrape without causing a major international incident, and as always, had emerged with a good story to tell.

I kept in touch with Mike sporadically during his teaching days and his editorship in Merced. I recall a story about him stepping forward during a meeting between reporters and cops to volunteer to take hit from a Taser gun. He was always particularly proud of his kids, and told me about Nao’s photography and Dylann’s reporting accomplishments. Like all of his friends, I was thrilled when Mike told me about reconnecting with Jeralyn and his plans to drive a U-Haul to Plano. He kept active in journalism, writing about veterans for the Dallas Morning News

I am quite sure that Mike made the difference in 2018 when I applied for the job of Seattle bureau chief and national reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He got in touch with his old friend Norm Pearlstine, by then LAT editor in chief, and gave him the word that I was OK. That led to a terrific few years at the end of my career covering the pandemic as it made its U.S. landfall in Seattle, the riots there and in Portland following the George Floyd killing, Northwest wildfires, Alaska mine developers, Coast Guard icebreakers and so on.

In the summer of 2019, Mike and Jeralyn came through Seattle. I was eager for Brenda — my main squeeze, as Buck would say — to meet them. They stayed in the master bedroom of the apartment in the waterfront tower where I was living and working, with a sweeping view across Elliott Bay to the Olympic range. We had a memorable evening on a houseboat-out-of-movie owned by Russ Daggatt and his wife Gemma — Brenda and me jumping from a second-floor diving board into Lake Union. Russ was a running buddy of Mike’s from Tokyo days. He and Gemma have since become great friends of ours.

It was wonderful to see Mike after so many years, and to get to know Jeralyn. It meant a lot to me for them to meet Brenda, whom I went on to marry last September. Buck was his same old jovial self. But it was hard to see the physical toll that the years had taken. Neuropathy made him unsteady on his feet, and there were other health challenges. He wasn’t going to let a bunch of ailments get in the way of a good time, though, and we enjoyed every minute of the visit, all the way until Jeralyn pushed his wheelchair onto the plane back to Dallas.

Mike and I stayed in touch after that by text, email and phone as he dealt with escalating medical issues. His courage and cheer toward the end were epic.

Mike saw me all the way from obscurity in Tokyo through fame, if not fortune, with the Pulitzers, to newfound obscurity and true love in retirement. It’s been a fantastic ride. I was sure lucky throughout to count him as a solid-gold friend.

Ron Yates

Mike Tharp was a good friend and longtime colleague. I first met him more than 45 years ago when we were both foreign correspondents based in Tokyo, Japan. Mike was with the Wall Street Journal, and I was with the Chicago Tribune.

Since then, we remained in almost constant contact. I watched Mike put together a stellar career at the highest levels of journalism, working for major news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. Most recently, he served as executive editor of the Merced Sun-Star.

We bonded quickly after meeting in 1976 in Tokyo because we had a lot in common. We were both natives of Kansas and graduates of the University of Kansas, and we both played basketball in high school and college.

Here’s a little history about Mike:

Mike began his journalism career as a copyboy for the Topeka Daily Capital when he was 16 and later worked there as a darkroom boy, sports desk assistant, intern, and environmental writer. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English literature from St. Benedict's College, Atchison, Kan., where he was student body president and a two-year letterman on the national championship basketball team.

He then spent a year in grad school at the University of Wales as a Rotary Foundation Fellow, followed by a semester on scholarship at the University of Notre Dame Law School, from which he was drafted into military service. As a soldier in Vietnam, he wrote for the Army magazine Hurricane and was awarded a Bronze Star.

After completing coursework for a master's in journalism at the University of Kansas, he was hired by the Wall Street Journal, where he served as a reporter and bureau chief in Dallas, Tokyo, and San Francisco. He also was a correspondent for the New York Times in Tokyo and Tokyo bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review. In 1989-90 he was elected president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, and I served as his vice president.

For 14 years, he was a bureau chief in Tokyo and a correspondent in L.A. for U.S. News & World Report, covering four wars in the 1990s.

He taught journalism for seven years at Cal State Fullerton University, where he was awarded an M.A. in Communications in 2007 and was named Outstanding Graduate Student. He became the local news editor of the Merced Sun-Star in June 2007 and executive editor in October 2008.

He won first place for local news writing in the 2007 Inland Press Association Contest for his story on a Merced marine killed in Iraq, and a Gruner Prize for meritorious public service in journalism for 2009. He covered the war in Iraq for six weeks for McClatchy in the summer of 2008 and returned there in mid-June 2009 for another deployment.

Mike was a consummate professional. He was an excellent reporter and a superb writer. Journalists such as Mike are rare and his expertise and talent will be missed – both in the newsroom and at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he taught journalism.

RIP, old friend.

Rich Tharp

Cousin Mike Tharp, 13 years older, inspired me to earn Eagle Scout, play high school basketball, and be an adventurous journalist. Also mentor to college students, young journalists, and ballplayers, Mike stayed friends for life with hundreds. We played hard together. Among Tharp raconteurs, Mike was best. His filmmaker son Nao and I humbly step into Buck’s storyteller void. Huge shoes ....

Anthony Rowley

I was not exactly looking forward to my first encounter with Mike Tharp back in 1981. I was business editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and he had recently been appointed chief of the Review's Tokyo bureau in the old Nikkei building in Otemachi.

The Review, or FEER as many knew it, had also dispatched a young English journalist James Bartholomew, fresh from the Financial Times, to the Tokyo bureau to beef up the magazine's coverage of Japanese finance and economy.

As sometimes happens in newspaper bureaus, the chemistry between the bureau chief and the number two did not always work. Mike was a laid-back Texan, while Bartholomew was a “proper” - perhaps even a little uptight – Englishman.

When the friction boiled over, the then editor of the Review, a former British diplomat named Derek Davies – a rather fiery Welshman – ordered me during a visit I made to Tokyo to read the riot act to the warring colleagues and get things running smoothly again.

One Monday morning I strode into the bureau determined to lay down the law to both Tharp and Bartholomew. Mike was a giant of a man physically, which could be intimidating, while James was languorous and unconcerned.

I began my little speech about the need for harmony within the bureau when Mike suddenly grinned broadly, stuck out his hand to shake mine and said: "Sure, boss.” James erupted into giggling. The tension disappeared in an instant thanks to Mike's big-hearted personality. My job was done. He was a big man every sense. Our loss is the great newspaper in the sky’s gain.

Urban Lehner

I was the late, great (how painful it is to have to call him late) Mike Tharp’s immediate successor. It was late July to early August 1980. Typical Buck: he and I were going to be direct competitors, but he arranged a two-week transition in which we had about five meetings a day with sources of his he was introducing me to. Having just come from the more cutthroat world of Washington I was bowled over by his generosity. 

Norman Pearlstine

Buck succeeded me in Tokyo as the WSJ’s correspondent and I believe that Masayoshi Kanabayashi (aka "chief") left AP-Dow Jones to work as Mike's assistant. But Mike and I never worked together and his New York editors discouraged him from having much to do with the AWSJ team in Hong Kong. I recall he got into North Korea with a visa to cover an international ping-pong tournament.  Buck and I also spent a long, drunken night in the Hamilton Hotel's basement bar in Itaewon, Seoul, after we failed to leave before the overnight curfew kicked in. We did a couple of joint interviews in Japan and South Korea. I marvelled at how good a listener he was. He let the person he was interviewing do all the talking after asking one or two questions. He was able to sit, saying nothing, until the person he was interviewing felt the need to break the silence.

Roger Schreffler

Mike was a great friend and senpai. I can't count the number of times I reached out to him for advice over the years, both professional and personal, and he was always there. We had a mutual love of basketball, including the greatest Kansan (by way of Philadelphia) ever to play the game.

A short note for FCCJ members: Mike made me one of the chairs of the club's library committee back in 1989 when he was president. That would be my first active role in the club.

I will miss him.

Robert L. Kirschenbaum

Buck was always an optimist. Particularly when things were down for me, buck would buck me up. He will be greatly missed.

Mary Corbett

Buck was always someone I wish I could have known better before he left Japan, as he was always remembered around me as someone with infinite common sense, knowledge and love for the club whose advice was in constant demand long after his retirement and which he dispensed very generously. 

Bob Reid

Truth be told I don’t think I ever met Mike face to face. However, as a once-faithful reader of the Far Eastern Economic Review, I knew his name and admired his work. So, when he reached out to befriend me on Facebook years ago, I was proud and humbled to accept. He was kind enough to say he remembered my work when I was based in the Philippines in the 1980s and 1990s. I considered that high praise coming from him. I admired his service in Vietnam and his love of Asia. Over the years we exchanged notes in the spirit of grumpy old survivors of Asian journalism of a bygone age. I shall miss him.