Karen Peterson: Ex-reporter finishes a story that started in ’69

EXECUTIVE EDITORMarch 9, 2014 

The story on today’s front page about the identification of a local Vietnam War veteran’s remains is a personal one for the reporter who wrote it.

Richard Sypher isn’t a News Tribune reporter now, but he was when the paper ran stories about Capt. Douglas Ferguson’s plane being shot down over Laos at the end of 1969.

Sypher wrote a lot about Vietnam War casualties and prisoners in his early days at the paper. He interviewed their families and read reports about their deaths. It was the war of Sypher’s generation. He’d served himself in the Army from 1966 to ’69.

But Ferguson’s story was especially close to Sypher. They’d graduated together in the Class of 1963 at Wilson High School. Sypher didn’t know Ferguson well but had been friends with Ferguson’s wife, Linda, since they were 15 years old.

“She was the kindest, sweetest person,” Sypher told me when he stopped by the paper Friday. “They would have made the perfect couple. And they were for 10 months.” Ferguson shipped out five months after their wedding and died five months later.

Sypher wrote three or four stories about Ferguson, he said. He interviewed family members who held out hope he’d survived.

“His father could never accept that he was gone,” Sypher said.

After reviewing reports written by other flight crews and reading the military investigation, Sypher believed his classmate had been killed. But he wore a metal missing-in-action bracelet with Ferguson’s name on it for years, until the day in 1976 when Ferguson was officially listed as killed in action.

“I thought, ‘OK, the story’s closed,’ ” Sypher said.

Sypher left the TNT in 1986 and went to work for the Frank Russell Co. That ended a newspaper career he began at 15 working for the Tacoma Daily Index. He’d worked on his school papers at Mason Junior High, Wilson High School and the University of Washington.

Then last summer, 44 years after Ferguson’s crash, Sypher received an email from another Wilson classmate saying Ferguson’s remains had been found.

“I knew that they would find him eventually,” Sypher said. “and they did.”

Last week, the Air Force made the identification official, and Sypher knew what he had to do.

He called TNT local news editor Matt Misterek on Tuesday. He said he was writing the final chapter of a news story he covered in the ’70s, back when he helped cover the Vietnam War for The News Tribune. He offered it to us for publication.

Most people who want a story in the paper call and ask us to write it, I told Sypher on Friday. Why didn’t he do that?

“Not a chance. Not a chance,” he said with a grin. “I was the one who’d done all the work on that story.”

But it was more than a competitive spirit driving Sypher to write.

“This is the last thing I could do for Doug,” he said.

Misterek worked with Sypher on the editing and recommended it for today’s front page.

“Running this story really excites me because it not only allows us to put an ending on the story of a young Tacoman who gave his life for his country,” Misterek said, “it also allows us to help a long-retired newsman put a -30- (to use an old newspaper term) on a story he cares deeply about.”

We are honored to run it.

SPORTS JOURNALISM AWARDS

John McGrath was named one of the nation’s top 10 sports columnists among newspapers of our size last week by The Associated Press Sports Editors. McGrath has been with the paper since 1991. His winning entry featured five columns from last year, including his look back at the transformation of Alex Rodriguez from happy kid playing baseball for the Mariners to Major League Baseball pariah when he was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.

The TNT also received honorable mentions for our Sunday Sports sections, our daily Sports sections and our Sports special sections, including last year’s Seahawks season preview.

Sports editors from across the country judge the APSE awards.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com
@TNTkpeterson

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