SAN FRANCISCO >> James C. Lagier, a former Associated Press bureau chief in the U.S. and Japan whose four-decade career included covering nuclear tests in the Pacific, filing the bulletin on Robert F. Kennedy’s death and overseeing AP’s reporting of the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people, has died.
Lagier’s niece, Sydney Lagier, said he died Saturday in Walnut Creek, California, after battling cancer. He was 80.
A native of Manteca, California, Lagier joined the AP in Honolulu in 1962 and retired in 2001 as chief of the Tokyo bureau. The two locations were fitting bookends to a career that also took Lagier to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Columbus, Ohio, and Fresno, California, as a reporter, newsroom manager and executive.
“Across the decades, I never met anyone who didn’t like Jim Lagier,” said Louis D. Boccardi, AP’s president and chief executive officer from 1985 to 2003. “That was all the more remarkable, given that time and again we thrust him into difficult assignments, whether dealing with internal AP issues or taking on a challenge somewhere in the universe we served.”
Early in his career, Lagier covered America’s atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific and flew on a B-52 bombing mission over Vietnam from Guam. While serving as news desk editor in Los Angeles in 1968, he worked on coverage of the assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and filed the AP bulletin on Kennedy’s death. As bureau chief in San Francisco from 1972 to 1974, he oversaw coverage of the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. And in Japan, he supervised reporting about the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people.
Lagier said during an interview with AP archivist Valerie Komor in 2008 that he felt like he was on a “yo-yo” at one point in his AP career.
“I felt like I was a vagabond, and I was so astounded that I was being chosen for these fabulous jobs,” he said. “I mean, a lower-middle-class person, born into poverty, suddenly having these electrifying jobs in the world’s oldest, largest and most lovable news-gathering organization.”
Lagier said a highlight of his news career was his tenure in the San Francisco bureau, where he was responsible for coverage of Northern California during Vietnam War protests. As news editor in 1970, Lagier oversaw a shooting at the Marin County courthouse that left four dead, including the judge presiding over the trial of a San Quentin inmate. Lagier previously worked in AP’s Fresno, California, bureau, where he wrote about Cesar Chavez’s efforts to organize farm workers.
In 1975, Lagier became bureau chief for Ohio. His news editor there, Henry Heilbrunn, recalled that Lagier frequently walked his newsrooms at all hours, stopping at desks to urge his staff to “be happy in your work.”
“Jim was the only guy I knew who could juggle journalism and management successfully. He was a star doing both jobs,” said Malcolm Barr, former AP reporter in Honolulu and Washington, D.C.
The following year, during the news cooperative’s intense competition with United Press International, Lagier was appointed general executive for New England, based in Boston. Then starting in 1979, he served as deputy director for newspaper membership at AP headquarters in New York City, where he helped maintain and strengthen AP’s newspaper base.
Lagier was transferred to Tokyo in 1993, returning to a country he had visited while serving in the U.S. Army in Seoul, Korea.
Lagier graduated with honors from the University of California, Berkeley in 1962 and left the AP for a year in 1966 to complete graduate school and teach journalism there. He was a benefactor to the University of California, establishing a charitable trust in journalism and leaving a gift to the music department.
Before joining AP, he worked as the sports editor and a general assignment reporter at the Hanford Sentinel in California.
Lagier was also an accomplished pianist and studied with jazz piano teachers in the New York City area.
He was the son of the late Rev. Joseph J. Lagier and the late Edna Lagier, of Manteca.