John Roderick, an Associated Press correspondent who covered the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong and other Communist guerrilla leaders while living with them in their cave headquarters in the mid-1940s, has died. He was 93.
Roderick died Tuesday morning, friends and family said. He spent his last days in his Honolulu apartment gathering friends for final farewells, smiling and nodding when his weakened condition from heart failure and pneumonia prevented speech.
He was an avid journalist to the end, completing a memoir about his restored farmhouse in Kamakura, Japan, and writing his final piece for AP last month, a personal reflection.
“To my old eyes,” he wrote in his Feb. 18 report, “it seems almost a miracle that China has survived the pain and bloodshed to emerge from poverty and become one of the richest of Earth’s nations in so short a time.”
Roderick was a leading China-watcher for decades, covering the country from its pre-revolution days to the economic reforms of the 1980s. Reporting on Chinese events from the outside in the years after Mao’s victory in China’s civil war, he reopened AP’s bureau in Beijing in 1979.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai once praised Roderick as the journalist who “opened the door” to China for foreign news media.
“John was equal part lion and bon vivant. The result was a courageous reporter, elegant writer and marvelous storyteller,” said AP President and CEO Tom Curley. “He inspired generations of younger AP correspondents, and his loss is deeply felt.”
Ted Anthony, the AP’s China news editor from 2002 to 2004, recalled: “He would always tell us, `Keep learning. If you ever think you understand China completely, it’s time to go home.'”
In his final years, Roderick lived part of the year in the Japanese farmhouse restored for him by his adopted son, Yoshihiro Takishita, who with his wife, Reiko, remained part of John’s family for life.
In 2007, Princeton Architectural Press brought out Roderick’s book “Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan,” about the unusual 273-year-old farmhouse. The house became a show place visited by the elder George Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the queens of Denmark and Greece and others.
Roderick’s career with AP spanned five decades with postings in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In 1977 he was named an AP special correspondent ? one of only a handful ? and in 1985 the Japanese government honored him with its Order of the Sacred Treasure.
“We don’t suffer from boredom in this business,” he said in an interview at his home in Kamakura, south of Tokyo, in 1996. “We are very lucky, I think, to be in touch with history ? what people are doing and telling their stories.”
China was his passion, and a high point in his life came when as a 31-year-old reporter he spent seven months living among the Communist rebel leadership in their capital, Yan’an, in central China between 1945 and 1947.
“Going to Yan’an and meeting all those people was a turning point,” Roderick said. “It was a break for me.”
The city was flattened by Japanese bombers in 1938, and by the mid-1940s was a dusty honeycomb of thousands of caves dug out of the loess hills on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Mao and his Communists had gathered in the city in 1935, at the end of their “Long March” across China to escape their Nationalist Chinese foes.
In his book, “Covering China,” Roderick detailed how at meals, during dances and in conversations he took stock of Mao, Zhou Enlai and other top Communists ? men who would soon rule the most populous nation on Earth.
“I admired the fact that they were trying to do something for the poor Chinese,” he said. His opinion of Mao, though, soured with the brutality of Communist rule and the failure of Communist policies.
Roderick lived as his neighbors did in Yan’an ? in a tiny cave dwelling, where he slept on a makeshift bed and sand-filled pillow and banged out AP stories on his portable typewriter beside a charcoal-burning brazier.
Photos from the time show the broad-jawed Roderick wearing a long parka as defense against the desert cold, wincing in the sun as he posed with battle-hardened guerrillas.
After Yan’an, Roderick covered the breakdown of peace talks between the Communists and Nationalists and the ensuing Chinese civil war from Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing.
In 1948 he arrived in Amman, Jordan, two weeks after the creation of Israel and scored a world beat of four hours on the assassination of the United Nations peace negotiator, Count Folke Bernadotte, by Israeli extremists in Jerusalem.
Afterward he spent time in London and five years in Paris in the 1950s. He covered the fall of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, in 1954. After subsequent postings in Hong Kong and Paris, Roderick returned to Asia for good.
It was during this time that Roderick became the consummate China-watcher, studying Communist news dispatches from afar and working sources for scraps of information about what was going on behind the blinds that Mao had drawn over his country.
“My years of covering China from a distance were fascinating, frustrating and obsessive,” he wrote in “Covering China.” “One lived the story 24 hours a day; nothing else mattered.”
After a couple of false starts, the chance to return to the country that enchanted him finally came in 1971, when Roderick accompanied the U.S. pingpong team on an unprecedented trip to China ? the first time Americans had been invited by Beijing since 1949.
Born in 1914, in Waterville, Maine, Roderick was orphaned at 16. His career in journalism began at 15 at his hometown newspaper, the Sentinel. He joined AP in Portland in 1937 after graduating from Colby College.
In 1942 he moved to AP’s office in Washington, D.C. The following year he was drafted into the Army, assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and was sent to Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan province. After the war, he hooked up again with AP.
A year after reopening AP’s Beijing bureau, Roderick returned to Tokyo in 1980 as a special correspondent and roamed Asia, reporting on whatever story caught his interest. He retired ? prematurely, he later said ? in 1984 at age 70.
After his retirement he continued to write background stories for AP on China and the Middle East, and also wrote about his own 92nd birthday in 2006, which AP celebrated with a champagne lunch in New York. That year he began a series of monthly China-related articles on the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
A memorial service was set for Monday in Honolulu. Always the journalist, Roderick gave a close read to a draft of this obituary.
“My compliments … for the obit,” he said. “It’s worth dying for.”