The love of a good story and the ability tell one in a convincing and attention-grabbing way was central to Jeff Nesmith’s life, both personally and professionally.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter could spin a captivating and often funny yarn for friends and family. But his gifted writing and reporting for The Atlanta Constitution, and later the Washington, D.C., bureau of the newspaper’s parent company Cox Enterprises, had greater impact.
Nesmith was helped along by his knack for getting people to tell him things they may well have regretted later, and by his ability to talk his way into almost anywhere.
When investigating an illegal gambling operation in south Georgia in 1965, he and former colleague Bob Hurt show up outside and were told it was members only.
As Hurt tells it, “Jeff said we were just a couple of traveling guys, passing through, looking for a drink and a good time and wondered if we could join.” The lady at the door looked them over for a second then allowed them in.
They later had to hightail it out of there, convinced they had blown their cover after getting noticed snapping pictures with a spy camera of slot machine players.
“Jeff was a tenacious reporter. He was brilliant and he could tell a story like no one else,” said Bill Rankin, an AJC reporter who was a close friend of Nesmith and his family. “He taught me everything…he was like my journalism school.”
Nesmith spent a good chunk of his career specializing in science and medical reporting, covering Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it was a new and relatively unknown agency. In other writing, he spotlighted human rights abuses, shady dealings by public officials, the mob and military affairs. He broke a raft of investigative stories, from the illegal gambling operation to government mismanagement of military heath care.
His job often gave him a front-row seat to history, allowing him to cover events such as the first moon landing in 1969, sitting in the stands with Hank Aaron’s family when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and digging into the aftermath of the first Gulf War.
“He was an endlessly curious person,” said son Jeff Nesmith III. “I think it contributed to what made him a really great writer and storyteller. He paid attention and didn’t go into anything unprepared.”
Hollis Jefferson “Jeff” Nesmith, Jr., 82, died Jan.13 of cancer. He is survived by his wife Achsah, a former journalist and presidential speechwriter, son Jeff III and daughter Susannah Nesmith, and two grandchildren. A celebration of his life was set for Friday night at the National Press Club in Washington.
Tenacity and curiosity were far from the only qualities he brought to his reportage, said colleagues and friends.
“As a reporter he never cut a corner,” and was a stickler for precision and fairness, said Andy Alexander, who worked with him in the Cox bureau for the entirety of Nesmith’s 30 years there.
Nesmith felt that if a story was being “edited in a way that diminished its clarity or wasn’t true to the facts for the reader, he would argue with you and stand his ground,” Alexander said.
That dogged dedication served him well when he and a reporter for Cox’s Dayton, Ohio, paper jointly snagged a 1998 Pulitzer Prize, considered by many to be journalism’s highest honor, for penning a series of stories focused on how the military was failing in health care treatment of former servicemen and servicewomen and their dependents. Colleagues say it involved a year of painstaking work, interviewing victims and combing through malpractice case files.
After the win, he told his son in a recorded interview, “For a week I was walking around about six feet above the ground.”
His investigative work and questions often ruffled official feathers both in the U.S. and overseas.
Sent to Saudi Arabia to cover the aftermath of the first Gulf War, he got crossways with the kingdom’s authoritarian government. He was told to leave. When he protested that he couldn’t do that, the ominous reply was “You don’t understand. You must leave immediately.”
He wound up essentially hitchhiking to Kuwait.
At home, he applied his curiosity to multiple fields. He was able to fix almost anything mechanical. He was skilled in the kitchen, and an intrepid traveler, visiting places mostly off the beaten paths.
And in his story-telling with friends, he wasn’t afraid to write himself in as the butt of the joke.
Susannah Nesmith said when her dad was on assignment in the Dominican Republic a prostitute approached him. He kept telling her to “vamoose” — American slang for “get outta here,” but which sounds like the Spanish word for “Let’s go.”
Nesmith, unfamiliar with Spanish, became convinced he was being set up for a robbery by the persistent woman. So he ran, falling into a manhole.
“She fished him out and then took off,” Susannah Nesmith said, “and he came home with this 12-inch cut on his shin.”
Only after he returned home did he learn of his linguistic mistake.
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