Alexander Higgins, last AP bureau chief in Iran and longtime leader in Geneva, dies at 66

GENEVA (AP) — Alexander G. Higgins, who covered the U.S. Embassy siege in Tehran as The Associated Press' last bureau chief in Iran and served as a longtime AP bureau chief in Geneva, has died. He was 66.

In a 38-year career with the AP, Higgins reported from both sides of the Iron Curtain and covered the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He was expelled from Iran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime in 1980.

Much of his most recent work focused on explaining the significance of the $10 billion atom collider near Geneva and its search for the origins of the universe.

Higgins died Thursday of cancer in a private clinic in Genolier, Switzerland, said his wife Valerie Higgins.

Affectionately known to all as "Sandy," Higgins was born Oct. 25, 1943, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the second of five sons of an American missionary and a Red Cross worker freed from a Japanese internment camp in China in a prisoner swap during World War II. His mother gave him the nickname in honor of a Scot who also was interned in China with the couple.

He earned a scholarship to study at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, served two years in the U.S. military and then played football at the University of Pennsylvania.

Higgins started his journalism career with WOAY television in West Virginia, sweeping floors and taking on odd work until he got his break filling in for a sick sports presenter. He would then read news and weather, too, while finishing an English degree at the West Virginia College of Technology.

He showed a sense of adventure early on in his career. When a professional wrestler pulled out of a fight that Higgins was supposed to provide commentary for, he was given a pair of tights, taught simple holds and sent into the ring.

Even in his more typical tweed and linen jackets, Higgins' warmth, generosity and sense of humor touched colleagues, friends and government officials alike. He was known to belt out Gilbert and Sullivan tunes in a rich baritone, quote Shakespeare, and politely prod interviewees from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to the estranged sister-in-law of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

"Those of us fortunate enough to work with Sandy knew him to be the most cheerful and upbeat journalist in the business," said Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. "He approached each story with enthusiasm and infectious curiosity. He was a natural teacher and left his imprint on many journalists over his career."

Higgins joined the AP in 1972 in Boston, and worked as a newsperson in New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York. A German and French speaker, he was transferred in 1976 to the West German capital of Bonn, once a key outpost near the European front of the Cold War.

In Europe, Higgins wrote about terrorism, communist oppression of the Roman Catholic Church and the devastating 1977 earthquake in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania.

"Sandy was a gentle, self-effacing colleague to whom everyone always opened up, including news sources," said former AP Deputy International Editor Larry Heinzerling, who worked with Higgins in Europe. "It was a trait that helped make him such a formidable reporter."

He moved to Tehran as the AP's bureau chief in November 1979, and covered Khomeini's calls for war against the United States, revelations about the deposed shah's secret police and its CIA ties, and the early days of the 14-month crisis triggered by Iranian militants who seized the U.S. Embassy and held over 50 American citizens hostage.

Higgins was ordered to leave Iran in February 1980.

"I have known many generations of AP men and women," said Richard O'Regan, who led the news agency's news, photo and business operations in Europe through much of the Cold War. "Sandy was one of the most devoted members of that fabulous AP family."

Higgins was the AP's bureau chief in Cairo from 1980-1982, then worked nine years in Washington. He was based in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War. He then spent 19 years as the AP's chief in Switzerland and Liechtenstein from his office at the U.N.'s European headquarters.

From Geneva, Higgins covered peace talks between the new nations of the former Yugoslavia, and reported on the refugee crises and genocide of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars. In Switzerland, he wrote extensively about Jewish claimants and Holocaust-era assets in Swiss banks.

In recent years, Higgins devoted more time to training young journalists even as he continued to write about international conflicts and detainee conditions in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. He led the AP's coverage of the Large Hadron Collider underneath the Swiss-French border, and its Big Bang simulations aimed at understanding the secrets of the universe.

Higgins is survived by his wife, their children Rachel and Alexander, and his stepsons, Theo and Richard. He will be cremated in a private service. The family plans to hold a memorial service in September.