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Will Lester, longtime AP journalist in South Carolina, Florida and Washington, dies at age 71

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Will Lester, a longtime reporter and editor for The Associated Press who played a critical role in the news organization’s 2000 election-night decision not to call the presidential race, died Wednesday. He was 71.

According to his family, Lester died unexpectedly at his home in Maryland.

Fellow AP employees held Lester’s good nature in equal measure of esteem with his dedication to covering the news. Executive Editor Julie Pace, who previously served as Washington bureau chief, said Lester “represented the best of AP,” calling him “a dedicated editor who cared deeply about his craft,” as well as “an incredibly kind person who treated everyone with respect and decency."

A native of Atlanta and a graduate of Emory University, Lester began his decades-long journalism career at The Lancaster News in Lancaster, South Carolina. After a stint at The Columbia Record, he moved to The Associated Press in 1982, serving as a reporter and news editor in the Columbia, South Carolina, office.

After that came his time in AP's Miami office, where Lester served as news editor before reporting on politics. It was that Florida political expertise that would come to serve both Lester and the AP invaluably after he joined the Washington bureau in 1998.

Former Washington bureau chief Sandy Johnson recalled how Lester's “critical voice” and in-depth knowledge of Florida politics helped steer AP through the murky waters of the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, as television networks called the presidency for Bush and then retracted it.

Lester was part of the AP team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for work on that longest of election nights, an honor Johnson called “a fine legacy for a much-admired colleague.”

Carole Feldman, news editor in Washington, recalled Lester hosting parties on the Chesapeake Bay for AP staff and their families, as well as his commitment to “keeping the Halloween pumpkin we kept on our editing desk filled with candy year round. He regarded the AP as his family, and he demonstrated that every day," she said.

“Will always had a sense of humor and, better still, perspective when all hell was breaking loose," said Bruce Smith, a retired AP correspondent in South Carolina who recalled a time when an angry state senator confronted Lester after he had written an unfavorable story.

“Will held up his tape recorder and told him something to the effect of ‘Senator, I have everything you said right here on tape,’ to which the senator sneered ‘Son, your tape — it lies!’”

“Will always laughed about that one," Smith added.

Anna Johnson, AP’s Washington bureau chief, called him “an extremely kind and generous colleague who always had a nice word to say about the people he worked with.”

Beyond his work covering the news, Lester was remembered for his dedication to supporting fellow journalists. Serving as a co-steward of the Washington shop for the union that represents AP journalists, Lester helped lead efforts to recruit new members and innovate ways to help keep employees engaged with negotiations.

As tributes to him rolled in on social media, many colleagues shared a common refrain, “Will always had my back,” several said. “Will had all of our backs,” replied another.

Lester also helped lead the awards program for the National Press Club, whose president Emily Wilkins said she was “always struck by his passion and dedication to recognizing and honoring the work of his peers.”

Retired AP editor Merrill Hartson perhaps best encapsulated Lester's multi-faceted talents and dogged sense for news: “When there was a Will, there was a way.”

A private family ceremony will take place at a later date.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP