George Ramos, reporter and friend -- R.I.P.
Karen Velie, an investigative reporter he had mentored at the online CalCoastNews, insisted that police break in and check on George. He hadn’t been answering calls. More ominously, a days’-old newspaper lay untouched outside his door. Anyone who knew George knew that he would never fail to read the paper.
George was 63, a Vietnam combat veteran and a ferocious reporter who had a share of three Pulitzer Prizes, including the biggie, the gold medal for public service that The Times won in 1984 for its series on Latinos in Southern California. George and I later shared a piece of two other Pulitzers for our work on The Times’ coverage of the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Our last email exchange was in April, when he exulted over another gold medal Pulitzer for The Times, this one for unearthing the scandals in Bell. "Yippee!!" he wrote me. "What a thrill!!"
George sat behind me in the newsroom for a number of years, and his voice could be heard across our little corner, in English and sometimes in Spanish, giving no quarter to the public officials and gatekeepers who were, from the sound of it, giving him dodge-and-weave answers that he wouldn’t put up with.
George never married; he was married, though he wouldn’t have put it that way, to the work, the craft, and to passing it along. After a long day in the newsroom, he spent evenings teaching an intensely demanding class in news reporting at USC. I taught the news writing class that students had to take before the news reporting class, and between us, we put the students through some very tough paces. George was immensely proud that some of his "grads" went on to become great journalists, here at The Times and elsewhere.
Other evenings, George was on television with me. For a while, he co-hosted "Life & Times," the multiple Emmy-winning public affairs program on KCET. This was not George’s only brush with Hollywood. He liked to tell the story of being a reporter in San Diego when a future cult-film favorite, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," was being filmed, and he and a colleague -- he swears it was future PBS host Margaret Warner, though I don’t know what her version of this is -- had their fleeting seconds of cinema fame as a couple of people being, well, attacked by killer tomatoes.
George left the Times about eight or nine years ago, as I recall, and moved north to head up the journalism department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He lived in Morro Bay, and he told me that he missed his native L.A. sometimes, but he loved his new place and his new work.
Whatever he was doing, though, he dropped it every four years and went off to the Summer Olympics, wherever they were. George learned the world first-hand, through his travels, from his combat tour in Vietnam, to his journeys for the paper, to his pilgrimages around the world to the Olympic Games.
George had diabetes and was not always as attentive to the demands of it as he should have been. One alarming afternoon, he had an attack at his desk, shaking uncontrollably. I grabbed chocolate cookies from my stash and fed him those until we got help. He changed his diet and exercise after that, but sometimes, he admitted, the temptations of a burger or the burritos at El Tepeyac were just too much to resist. It may have been the diabetes that was responsible for his death.
George’s father had died some years before, but he had his brother, his beloved mother, and his aunts, his tias. I think they were one reason he looked out for me, like a big brother to a little sister he’d never had.
For my money, one of George’s best columns, one that went powerfully and personally to the heart of cultural and generational and political differences even in the Latino community, was the one he wrote in 1994 about his kitchen table family argument with his Mexican-born, U.S.-citizen mother over Proposition 187. She, a fan of Rush Limbaugh, supported it. George didn’t. The column generated a tremendous response from readers, many of whom had had their own kitchen-table quarrels over Proposition 187.
George was the journeyman journalist, covering everything. After the riots erupted in May 1992, George hustled to the Eastside to get locals’ reactions to the verdicts and the violence. Back at the paper, he was working at his third-floor desk when rioters moved from Parker Center, the police headquarters, to the Times building.
He wrote, "I rushed outside … to report on the destruction of my newspaper's first floor offices, when a black man in Raiders garb pointed a gun at me. After a tour in Vietnam, I thought I'd seen everything. In the years since my return to the U.S., I have tried to discount the increasing violence in my city, most of it the street gang variety. I guess I hoped that what I wrote about the tearful predicaments of its victims might help change things. Now, with my own life in the balance, I told the gunman matter-of-factly: 'I'm a reporter. I'm taking notes. I'm doing my job. I don't know what you're going to do but I'm going to do my job.’ He didn't shoot. He just picked up a rock, flung it at The Times and ran away."
George and I were two of a quartet of Times columnists who wrote front-page essays about the riots, essays that figured in The Times’ Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.
George began his essay, "Los Angeles, you broke my heart. And I’m not sure I’ll love you again." He did, but differently.
He undertook to learn a third language, Korean, to better cover and understand his city. He made a point of spending time in neighborhoods where he, an L.A. native, had only driven through.
But it was on a drive near his old stomping grounds that something happened to George that resulted in another one of George’s "bests." He was near Atlantic and Pomona boulevards east of downtown when he spotted an East Los Angeles acquaintance, a fellow soldier he had encountered on a helicopter pad in Vietnam, near Chu Lai.
George called him CT Andy, for their City Terrace neighborhood. There was CT Andy, selling $2 bags of oranges out of a shopping cart. When George spotted him, CT Andy recognized George, abandoned his cart and took off running.
"It took me nearly a mile in my Nikes to chase Andy down,"George wrote. He caught him, and asked Andy what had happened. Why was he reduced to this? Andy was an angry and embarrassed man whose electronics career in the defense industry had gone south, and he couldn’t find similar work. Any work at all, actually. Which is how he came to be selling oranges and peanuts out of a cart. He spoke about disappointing his family, about the facelessness of off-ramp vendors.
That’s the kind of encounter with the real Los Angeles that George brought to the table -– to his readers, to his colleagues, to his students, his friends.
He’ll still manage to fire up a classroom, or a barroom, any time, any place someone mentions him and someone else -- a student, a colleague -- will smile at the memory and say, "Oh yeah -- George Ramos. What a guy."
-- Patt Morrison
Photo: George Ramos, a longtime reporter, editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times, has died. He was 63. Credit: Jim Mendenhall / Los Angeles Times