Perry Deane Young, a journalist and author who first found fame as a Vietnam War correspondent, has died in Chapel Hill.
He died on New Year’s Day at age 77 surrounded by family and close friends, the family said in an email. The cause of death was cancer, according to a post on his Facebook page.
Young, a native of Woodfin, near Asheville, grew up on a farm before coming to Chapel Hill in 1959 to attend UNC. He returned to Chapel Hill in 1993 and lived the past 25 years in a basement apartment at the Compass Center, serving as grounds caretaker in exchange for rent.
When he wasn’t writing or grounds-keeping, Young could often be found at the Dead Mule, a Franklin Street watering hole where he was a regular. Thursday, the bar’s chalkboard sign read, “We miss you PDY!”
“Amazing things would come up a lot in passing conversation,” said Don Eason, a fellow Dead Mule regular. “Like in the ’60s when he was back and forth from Vietnam to New York, he lived at the Chelsea Hotel and would bump into Janis Joplin, Mick (Jagger), (Jimi) Hendrix. Following him around back then would have been awesome.”
Young also wrote plays and books, including the 1977 best-seller “The David Kopay Story,” about a professional football player’s odyssey after he came out as gay. Young was gay himself and brought ample empathy to the project.
But Young was best-known for his stint as a war correspondent for United Press International. He arrived in Vietnam at the height of the conflict, the same day the January 1968 Tet Offensive started.
In Saigon, Young ran with a crowd that included fellow reporters and photographers Sean Flynn (son of the actor Errol Flynn), Dana Stone and Tim Page. Page was later fictionalized as the Dennis Hopper character in the 1979 movie “Apocalypse Now.”
“Of all the Vietnam movies, ‘Apocalypse Now’ was the one that got it most right,” Young said in a 2015 News & Observer interview. “It’s still like my home movie of that time. It captured the whole wacky scene where weird danger was all around and you didn’t know who the enemy was. And that loony colonel, there were real guys just like that. I knew them.”
Vietnam also yielded up Young’s best-known book, “Two of the Missing,” a Vietnam memoir centered on the stories of his journalism colleagues Flynn and Stone (who both disappeared in 1970). A German electronic musician, Sascha Carl, looked Young up after reading “Two of the Missing” and got him to record spoken-word narrations to his group Reel Banditos’ 2015 album “Indochina.”
“Tim Page told him the project was so bizarre that there really wasn’t a reason not to do it,” Carl wrote Thursday in an email. “Working with him was great. He was a true gentleman, very polite and helpful. I’m still very proud of what we managed to create together.”
Young was also a mentor to other writers, photographers and artists in the area. Michael Benson remembered the last time he saw Young at the Dead Mule, when Young told him he had cancer. But Young was more interested in talking about Benson’s upcoming photography show.
“That’s very much how he was, a very supportive mentor,” Benson said. “He was always so calm, warm, reassuring. Such an important person but not the type of guy who would stand on a mountain yelling his own praise.”
Almost to the end, Young stayed active and continued writing. Before he died, he had more projects in the works.
“The saddest part is he still had work to do and was looking forward to the next adventure,” said his niece Shirley Young Simpson, who lives in Colorado. “He was to take a trip out here in the fall and to L.A. in November to work on a rewrite of the David Kopay story. None of that happened, unfortunately. He was too sick to go.”
In keeping with Young’s wishes, there will be a celebration of his life at the Dead Mule in late March, the family announced. Details will be announced later. Those wishing to honor his memory can make donations in his name to the Compass Center for Women and Families at P.O. Box 1057, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.