Frank Crepeau, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Associated Press who mixed a warm and winning wit with tenacious reporting as he covered the declining Soviet bloc and war-torn Middle East, died in New York on Wednesday following a stroke, his family said. He was 74.
Among other stories in a four-decade career that took him from covering Wisconsin sports to reporting on high-stakes diplomacy, Crepeau scored the first interview in exile with Russian author Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn and filed the electrifying bulletin reporting Anwar Sadat’s peace pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
He retired in 2001 as assistant international editor, a job in which his sympathetic ear and wise counsel helped a generation of AP journalists in conflict zones and hard-pressed bureaus around the world. “He took the time to get to know us and keep us motivated,” recalled London correspondent Tom Wagner.
“We knew Frank for his insights on events in so many parts of the world and also for his kindness and sense of humor,” said Tom Kent, AP deputy managing editor. “Frank always had a fresh idea for a story, a new perspective and he was just a really nice person.”
Crepeau served as bureau chief in Moscow during the rise of the Soviet dissident movement, and as head of AP’s office in Israel as the Camp David process brought the promise of peace. But it was while based in Germany on his first foreign assignment that he got an early taste of Cold War politics.
In January 1969, five months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Crepeau rushed to Prague to cover the funeral of Jan Palach, a student who set himself afire in Wenceslas Square to protest the occupation of his country. But Czech authorities rounded him up along with 12 other Western correspondents and expelled them, confiscating Crepeau’s notes and film in the process.
“A modest, quiet-spoken man, he nevertheless is tenacious on assignment,” his first foreign bureau chief, Richard O’Malley, wrote at the time.
Based in Moscow in 1971-76, Crepeau landed a big exclusive in 1974 with the Solzhenitsyn interview in Switzerland, a week after the Soviet government had stripped the Nobel Prize author of his citizenship and expelled him.
“Frank, what are you doing here?” Solzhenitsyn asked as he spotted the skinny, balding American standing away from a horde of reporters dogging the celebrated exile on Zurich’s cobblestone streets. The AP correspondent had interviewed Solzhenitsyn a year earlier in Moscow after the writer was refused a permit to live in Moscow with his family.
In a second exclusive interview, the “Gulag Archipelago” author told Crepeau he would continue writing in exile and had as much right to live on Russian soil as those who had “the audacity to physically throw me out.”
Assigned to Israel in 1976, Crepeau was there a year later when Egyptian President Sadat, in a dramatic peace overture, made the first official visit by an Arab leader to the Jewish state.
When the Egyptian’s motorcade reached Jerusalem, Crepeau filed a bulletin capturing the historic moment with simplicity: “JERUSALEM — President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Jerusalem Saturday night.”
Francis X. Crepeau was born Aug. 7, 1932, in Seattle. He served two years in the Air Force in the early 1950s, including duty in Japan, and was a graduate of Montana State University.
He joined the AP in Madison, Wis., in 1960. In 1964, he transferred to the Boston bureau, and he joined the Foreign Desk in New York two years later. He was assigned to Germany in 1968.
Crepeau was named assistant international editor in New York in 1980. A disabling stroke in 1998 led to his later retirement.
He is survived by his widow, Anne, and a son, Alexandre, both of New York, and two grandchildren, Natasha and Nicolas. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.