AP bureau chief who oversaw Latin American news coverage during turbulent times dies at 78

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – William Heath, an award-winning journalist and former bureau chief for The Associated Press who oversaw news coverage during some of Latin America’s most turbulent times, has died. He was 78.

Heath, who headed AP bureaus in Peru, Venezuela and Argentina, died Saturday at a New Mexico hospital as a result of complications following colon cancer surgery, family members said. He retired from AP in 1998 and had lived in New Mexico for the past few years.

An Idaho native, Heath graduated from the University of New Mexico and was first hired by the Albuquerque bureau of AP in 1961 for a temporary assignment that kicked off a decades-long career with the news organization.

He served as a newsman in Detroit and as a capitol correspondent in Lansing, Michigan, before working on AP’s Latin American desk in New York.

Heath’s first overseas posting was to Buenos Aires in 1968. In 1970, at age 33, he was promoted to bureau chief in Lima, Peru, serving there until 1973. He then relocated to the Caracas, Venezuela, bureau for the next five years, and finally assumed leadership of the bureau in Buenos Aires in 1978, a position he held just short of two decades.

“As AP’s chief of bureau in Venezuela and Argentina, Bill oversaw two of the news co-operative’s most important Latin American markets, and provided timely and insightful coverage of those often turbulent and always complex societies,” said Claude E. Erbsen, retired AP vice-president and director of world services.

Colleagues often looked to Heath for inspiration.

“He loved to tell tales of revolutions, coups and was nostalgic for an era when you could get genuine scoops and beat the opposition by weeks, rather than just seconds,” said Ian Phillips, AP’s Middle East news director who was hired by Heath in Argentina in 1994. “To a newcomer like myself, the stories were enthralling and made me want a piece of the action.”

During his career, Heath covered the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the Peruvian earthquake of 1970 and the 1982 Falkland Islands war.

In 1985, he received the oldest award in international journalism, the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, for excellence in reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Bill Heath is remembered by his colleagues as a distinguished, brave and tough-minded newsman, honoured for in-depth coverage in a career that spanned four decades with the AP, including most notably 30 years in South America,” said John Daniszewski, vice-president and senior managing editor for international news.

Heath was a fan of Argentina’s hot summers. When the season was over there, he was quick to book tickets back to the U.S. so he could “roast in the New Mexico desert,” Phillips said.

A memorial has been scheduled Saturday in the lakeside community of Elephant Butte, New Mexico.

Heath is survived by his widow Marta, his daughter Britta Dysart and a granddaughter.