Former Merced Sun-Star editor mourned by reporters, friends

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Mike Tharp is shown during his time as editor of The Merced Sun-Star.

Longtime journalist and former Merced Sun-Star executive editor Mike “Buck” Tharp has died after a two-year battle with cancer, his family said.

He died on January 6 at the age of 77.

Tharp had a long and distinguished career as a journalist, including numerous stints as a foreign war correspondent in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and South Korea. He packed the same olive bag with him every trip.

He made two trips to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 for McClatchy Newspapers while at the Sun-Star.

Mike Hedges covered three wars with his buddy “Buck” whom he had known for 30 years.

“In the places we were, you had to trust people,” said Hedges, who now serves as executive editor of AARP Publications. “I could believe that Buck would not suffer. I had a lot of confidence that he was the kind of person to be around in such places.”

Tharpe had a way of connecting with people on a human level when covering wars, whether it was visiting a refugee camp, talking to soldiers, or covering the people who lived in the chaos around them.

“He had a really lyrical writing style, but he also had the ability to empathize with the people he encountered,” Hedges said. “I remember when we were in Bosnia, while the rest of us were focused on the conflict, he was really interested in the children affected by the war in the area.

“He spent a lot of time with children and learned to communicate with them. It was his ability to empathize with people that added a real dimension to his work.”

Tharp knew his second trip to Iraq in 2009 would be the last time he covered the war.

“I’m done” he wrote in the Merced Sun-Star in 2009. “I don’t leave my house in Merced except for vacations. I will no longer walk to the sound of guns. This was my last war. I wouldn’t trade what I learned and felt for gold or fame. Covering wars allowed me to make lifelong friends. The war showed me the face of evil – and the heart and soul of courage, loyalty and honor. But it’s over for me. Now for memories and dreams. And for young journalists.”

Kansas Jayhawks and Elvis

Tharp was also a basketball junkie who was part of an NAIA national championship team at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He would talk basketball with anyone, especially when it came to his favorite club, the Kansas Jayhawks.

Tharp also loved all things Elvis. He even had a shrine to “The King” at his home in Merced.

Tharp has had a variety of experience in newsrooms throughout his career.

Before joining the Merced Sun-Star in June 2007, he taught journalism at Cal State University Fullerton for seven years. Tharp was US News & World Report’s West Coast correspondent in Los Angeles for 11 years and the news magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief.

Tharp was a reporter and bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal in Dallas, Tokyo, and San Francisco, a Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times, and Tokyo bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

“What Can Make Merced Better”

Tharp worked at the Sun-Star until April 2012.

“He didn’t just want to be an editor, he wanted to write and create,” said Tharpe’s wife, Jeralyn Nickell. “He was very interested in Merced agriculture. He wanted to know what he could do to make Merced better. He was worried about the place where he lived.”

Nickell and Tharp were college sweethearts. They reunited later and were married for 11 years, living in Plano, Texas, where Tharp taught journalism and writing at community colleges after leaving Merced.

While working as an editor at the Merced Sun-Star, Tharp oversaw a group of young reporters he affectionately referred to as his “wild dogs.”

Many of those who worked for Tharpe as a “wild dog” at the Sun-Star later moved on to larger publications, including The Washington Post, San Diego Union Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Journal-Review, Marketplace , The Modesto Bee and The Fresno Bee, among others.

“Mike was a huge influence on my career,” said Yasenia Amara, who worked at the Sun-Star for 18 months under Tharp and now works for The Fresno Bee. “He was a valuable mentor to me for many years, even after I left Merced.”

“He was the person I would go to for advice on a new job, to discuss a story, or to talk about my career goals,” Amara added. “He was always there for me.”

While editing stories, Tharp would call his reporters into his office and go over possible changes to their stories. He would ask journalists how they felt about the changes.

“He was a very talented writer, and the way he edited our stories made it better, even though he said we did all the work,” Amara said.

Tharpe’s reporters weren’t just employees, they were family.

Amara remembers calling in sick one day while working in Merced, and Tharp sent another reporter to her with a bag full of cold medicine and vitamins.

“He did that for me, too,” said former Merced Sun-Star reporter Karin Benedict. “I had no family in Merced. Paper really was my family. He cared about people in a way that many people didn’t, he wasn’t afraid to interfere in your life. It’s just that there weren’t many people like him.”

Tharp was the biggest fan of his reporters. Benedict says Tharp played a big role in her being selected twice as McClatchy Newspapers’ Iraq correspondent.

“It’s something I wanted to do, but I didn’t think they would give someone from a small newspaper in Merced a chance,” she said. “I think he helped to convince them. It changed the trajectory of my career.”

Benedict was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist while at the Virginian-Pilot for her stories about medical workers trying to save the lives of wounded American soldiers in a combat hospital in Afghanistan.

“Mike was such an advocate for his reporters,” Benedict added. “He took care of all of us in a way that I’ve never had another editor take care of me. He was an old-school journalist to the brain.”

Tharp followed his reporters after they left Merced.

“He was sending me job references,” Amara said. “Some of the jobs I didn’t think I was qualified for, but he thought I was qualified and encouraged me to apply. He pushed me to reach my full potential.”

Victor Patton, who worked under Tharp at the Sun-Star as a crime and court reporter and city editor, now serves as corporate editor of The Fresno Bee.

Patton admits Tharp may come off as brash and rude to some, but he has always stood by his reporters and wasn’t afraid to hold leaders accountable.

“Once, as I was nearing the deadline for a story, he yelled, ‘We’re not going to do piano here, earn that story!’ Patton said with a laugh.

“Mike was very dedicated, very smart,” his wife said. “Most people liked him, but he had a violent side. Whatever he did, he did to the best of his ability.”

Patton and Tharp became good friends, and they stayed in touch over the years after they left the Sun-Star for other jobs.

Patton said he was able to speak to his old boss a week before he died. “I thanked him and told him he was appreciated,” Patton said. “He left behind a legacy of journalistic excellence and reporters who worked around the world.”

Tharpe students also held a special place in his heart. According to Nickel, he kept in touch with some of his Cal State Fullerton students nearly 20 or 30 years later.

“I know everyone eventually retires from the adrenaline-filled life of a war correspondent,” Hedges said. “Sometimes people never find a reason for that intensity in their lives, but Mike found that while working in Merced with his group of young reporters, he called them ‘wild dogs,’ and teaching his students in California and Texas.”

Tharpe is survived by his wife Geralyn, son Nao, daughter Dylan and five grandchildren.

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Mike Tharp

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Mike Tharp as a columnist for the Topeka Capital-Journal. Photo by Rich Clarkson
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​​​​​​Sun-Star Executive Editor Mike Tharp and Naji Habib, 85, an Iraqi rice farmer, stand next to the Euphrates riverbed near his fields in southern Iraq. PHOTO BY McCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE Merced Sun-Star

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SUÑSTAR PHOTO BY GEORGE MACDONALD Not one to let his reporters experience things he wouldn’t do himself, ​Sun-Star city editor Mike Tharp takes a taster from Deputy Tom McKenzie, while Deputy Bill Blake (left) and Sgt. Vern Warnke make sure he doesn’t hurt himself during the fall. SUÑSTAR PHOTO BY GEORGE MACDONALD Merced Sun-Star

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FEATURED PHOTO Jimmy Horikawa, right, Willie Nelson, center, and Mike Tharp, right, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in 1984 presented a photo Merced Sun-Star

Sports writer Shawn Jansen covered Merced area sports for 20 years. He came to Merced from Suisun City and is a graduate of San Diego State University. Prior to the Sun-Star, Sean worked at the Daily Republic in Fairfield.

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