George Ramos was tough. He fought and was wounded in Vietnam. He was a diabetic but ran marathons. At the farewell reception for him at the Los Angeles Times, he lectured the editors sternly to put more resources into local reporting.
In 1992, at the start of the L.A. riots, he was threatened by a gunman outside the Times building. George didn't budge, telling the man: "I'm a reporter...I don't know what you're going to do but I'm going to do my job." As George wrote later: "He didn't shoot. He just picked up a rock, flung it at the Times and ran away."
George's tough demeanor made it all the more surprising in 2007 when he openly broke into tears while being inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He was grateful and deeply moved by the honor. He always called himself "just a kid from East L.A."
These images leaped to mind Sunday when I learned the sad news: George Ramos had died at age 63 at his condo in Morro Bay. I learned through a friend that George had been having increasing trouble in the last months managing his diabetes.
George had planned to come to L.A. next Sunday and we were going to get together. The last time we talked, I asked him for his cell number. "I don't have one and I don't want one," he replied. "You must be the only one in California," I said. No, he laughed. "There are three of us."
Senor Ramos, as I often called him, came to the Times in 1979 after having worked for Copley newspapers in Los Angeles and for the San Diego Union. Times editors learned that was a valuable street reporter and that he could quickly produce a story. He was rewarded by being sent to Riverside as bureau chief of the one-man bureau. Colleagues in what passed as ethnic "humor" in those days gave him a can of spray paint and a clipboard as a going-away present. But before long, he was back as an assistant city editor in the Orange County Edition.
Our bonding experience occurred in 1983 when we were the co-editors of the series "Latinos in Southern California." The series went on to win the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, but while we were at work on it, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to succeed. There were 18 Mexican American reporters, editors and photographers at the Times and we were unhappy with the diet of news the Times was dishing out about Latinos. So we came up with our own story ideas, and Deputy Managing Editor Noel Greenwood gave the green light for the series.
George wrote a first-person story about growing up in East L.A. He described life in his working-class neighborhood as American as in Kansas. When I edited that piece, I told him that I wanted "more Grandma" - that she was a real character and that readers would relate to her story. George hesitated a minute and then jumped on a computer and gave us "more Grandma."
In one passage, George wrote, "I've never understood how a person with such limited English ability can give a running commentary in Spanish of 'Days of Our Lives.' But she does."
George later would tell that story to students to emphasize the human side of journalism story-telling - to write not only from the head but also from the heart.
Soon after the not-guilty verdicts were announced in the beating of Rodney King, angry demonstrators gathered at the LAPD headquarters downtown and ran down First Street, where they broke large windows at the Times. George was sent to check it out. That is when the gunman approached and George stared him down.
George told that anecdote in a first-person piece he wrote about the Los Angeles riots that had started on that same night. Expressing his disappointment about the rioting, he wrote: "Los Angeles, you broke my heart. And I'm not sure I'll love you again."
The truth is that George quickly regained his love for L.A. but he could also be one of its severest critics.
He was promoted to being a once-weekly columnist in the Metro section. He did some excellent work, finding little-known characters and sharing insights about his native city. However, he rarely got the coaching and guidance from editors that would have consistently made his work sparkle. Later, he returned to the reporting ranks.
After work, George taught reporting at USC evening classes. He was tough there too, but it would be more accurate to call it "tough love," better to prepare aspiring journos for the rigors of the reporting life. He took a year off to teach journalism as a professional in residence at the University of Arizona, where he was a big hit. And when the director's job opened up at this alma mater, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he jumped for it. It was no surprise that he was chosen for the position.
George loved his work with students, knowing that he influenced not only their careers but also their lives. But he had no stomach for academic politics and running a department during a time of declining campus budgets. After several years, he was back to teaching and mentoring students, not only at Cal Poly but also each summer at the Student Campus program of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Over the years, George helped boost the journalism careers of many hundreds of students. One of them, Lauren M. Rabaino, wrote in her blog: "But the most important thing to know is that though he put on a tough face, he really and truly cared about his students. He wanted us to succeed and he supported what he did."
George twice served as president of California Chicano News Media Association, now known as CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California. And he was a loyal contributor to its scholarship fund for aspiring Latino journalists. More attention had to be focused, he often said, to reporting from growing Latino communities.
George did not talk a lot to me about his Vietnam experience, but he did remark at times that he was still dealing with "demons from Vietnam." He regularly took part in ceremonies on the Eastside when Veterans Day and Memorial Day came around.
Tucson photojournalist Fred Araiza traveled to Vietnam with George several years ago. On their return, Fred arranged for an L.A. gathering at an American Legion hall; he called it "Welcome Home, George." Because the welcome for Vietnam vets had not always been warm during the contentious Vietnam period, this event served to honor George's service in the war. My friend George, the fearless reporter, the speak-truth-to-power guy, was very touched by the gesture. Beneath that big mustache of his, that big smile was a big heart.
Sotomayor, a former Times editor, is an adjunct faculty member at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He previously wrote about Ruben Salazar for LA Observed