So many Los Angeles Times reporters accepted the early retirement buyouts at the end of March that Angelenos are only now feeling the true impact of these cuts. When new retiree Cecilia Rasmussen, Metro section reporter and "L.A. Then and Now" columnist, published her last column, "DNA Test Could Force Rewrites of City's History Books” on April 6, 2008, the loss was particularly acute. For many readers, she was more like a neighbor than a name on the page -- a good friend ready to share old-time gossip and hidden historical treasures. Indeed, readers have left up to 21 comments at the LATimes.com site, thanking her for her work and praising her legacy. Fortunately, the LATimes.com posted links to her favorite stories so that we can savor them once again.
I caught up with Cecilia last week to discuss her last days at the paper. Even in casual conversation, Cecilia's knack for storytelling is evident. She has a wonderful laugh and it's easy to imagine interviewees opening up to her and telling them about their lives.
A resident of Sierra Madre for most of her life, Cecilia started working at the Los Angeles Times as a secretary in 1983 after a stint in international banking. Former Los Angeles Times editor, Los Angeles City Ethics Commissioner, and current LAObserved.com contributor, Bill Boyarsky, hired her and encouraged the development of her career from secretary to researcher to writer. Her first byline in the paper, "Flashback: Reliving Moments in L.A. County History 1961: The Bel-Air/Brentwood Fire" dated 1/18/91, came as a surprise. "The editors asked me to do some research during a big fire in the area, comparing its impact to the Bel Air fire in the '60s. I turned in my research and Bill told me to write it up and that was my first published piece in the Times," she laughed, "I started out writing small paragraphs, mainly about the city's social history, and that evolved into larger stories. "
She learned writing skills on the job, having studied business in college. Luckily, she had excellent teachers. "I learned to write one sentence at a time," she said, "I had so many great editors in the Metro section over the years--Bill, Patt Morrison and Tim Rutten." She changed her style over time. "I tried never to use one format. In the beginning, I used a similar pattern for story construction but got bored and tried new things," she shared.
The column evolved over time under a series of names: Flashback, LA Scene/The City Then and Now, L.A. Redux/The City Then and Now. It's hard to imagine how Cecilia was able to obtain so much detailed information so quickly in the pre-Internet age. Prior to the desktop computer revolution, Times researchers and archivists had to use key punch cards to analyze data from a huge mainframe computer. Using aids like this, Cecilia did most of her research at the Times in-house library and the public library. She told me with a laugh, "I'm not sure how I did it before [the digital age]. We've come a long way since the ProQuest [an information database] dial-up days. The Times never allowed us to use Lexis Nexis as it was too expensive in those days. "
With only a few days to research and write a piece for the weekly column, Cecilia combed city and county archives located downtown and conducted phone interviews in order to save time. But when she could, she would visit sites, saying "I have to see a place in order to write about it. Occasionally, I'd go into court records. My usual method was to track down a descendant mentioned in an obituary, court document or newspaper cutting." That's when the sleuthing really started. She found most folks via voter registration rolls and then cold called likely prospects. She explained that most of the time she could find descendants because "nine times out of ten an individual's descendants kept the same family name, changing only a middle initial."
She always tried to keep things fresh. She kept files of interesting story ideas and reviewed her stockpile on a regular basis for potential pieces. She must have been an excellent note taker as she carted home 42 boxes of files when she left the Times building for the last time on March 31st. She always rotated story topics like people, buildings and court cases to keep things fresh. Her favorite aspects of L.A. history include stories about the Wild West. Asked if her research brought her new insights into Los Angeles, she noted, "No, I've learned that nothing changes. People still have affairs and still murder one another. "
While most stories in her column seemed to center on the downtown area, since our city originated there, Cecilia believes L.A.'s history is most visible in everyday maps. "I like to read street names because there's so many stories behind them," she said, "Lankershim Boulevard is named after a man [ J.B. Lankershim ] who had an affair with a woman who said he gave her half of his estate and sued him...Or I like it when I drive the freeway off of the 210 in Covina and see the name Lark Ellen, which triggers thoughts about its namesake, an opera singer who had a relationship with Harry Chandler in the 19th Century."
Nuggets of fascinating stories about L.A. roll around when one converses with Cecilia. She has no plans to stop sharing interesting tidbits with her public. She has no immediate plans to join another publication, though there have been offers, and would like to write more books similar to her book, L.A. Unconventional.
Now that she has retired, Cecilia says that in addition to her friends at the Times she will miss going downtown most of all. "I really enjoy taking people on tours of downtown. Recently I took folks on a tour of the underground tunnels that I wrote about in a story for "LA Then and Now." These readers could not envision what I was describing and asked if I could show them. I took them on a walking tour of the tunnels in the blocks around the Hall of Justice and the Criminal court. There's a tunnel to Grand Avenue and the Federal Court. The jail tunnels are restricted to LA personnel but the other tunnels are open to the public. I learned about them from the D.A.'s secretary, a 72 year old who runs in the tunnels on her lunch hour. "
Cecilia says she's looking forward to the next chapter in her life and has few regrets. "I had the best job in the world. It was so interesting and I enjoyed working with so many great people at the Times. "
LA history buffs have no cause for despair as Larry Harnisch will now continue the "LA Then and Now" column for the Times.
UPDATE-I'm sharing a lovely memory from a former colleague of Cecilia's at the Los Angeles Times.
You left out an interesting tidbit in your very nice look back at the work of Cecilia Rasmussen. In the nearly 1990s the L.A. Times’ then fledgling “New Media” department created a book of Cecilia’s Then and Now columns. The book sold well, directly to newspaper readers, and also was used as one of the most popular enticements for a PBS pledge drive. Paired with clips from the station’s “Things that aren’t here anymore,” it offered long-time L.A. residents and new-comers like myself a glimpse into the city’s colorful past. I was the editor and CC was joy to work with.
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