A journalist of the old school

I remember Terry McGarry twirling his fingers over the keyboard at the sprawling new L.A. Times Chatsworth Bureau back when it overlooked strawberry fields.

"Did I tell any lies?" he asked, a wicked gleam in his eyes.

I was studying journalism at Cal State Northridge, and the Times had picked up a story I'd written for the CSUN Sundial and assigned Terry to re-write it. For some reason, they'd asked me to visit the newsroom.

"What?" I stuttered, mortified.

"Here, pull up a chair, read it. Did I get all the facts right?"

So I sat next to this jovial middle-aged man in the tie and sports jacket and read the story on his screen. Suddenly it flowed. Terry had punched up the prose, pepped up the verbs, made the transitions seamless, set up the quotes like solitaire diamonds.

"It reads great," I whispered.

"Nice job," he told me, and shook my hand.

Like we were equals or something.

I'll never forget his great kindness to me.

Later, I became an intern and got to know Terry better. He was a raconteur of the old school, a wire reporter who learned his trade in the trenches. He'd been Mexico City Bureau Chief for UPI, and the glamorous, romantic, heartbreaking stories he told left me agog. I still remember one about a poor Mexican peasant who traveled two days to bring his sick daughter to a hospital, which made me cry.

Working with Terry was like being in the movie "The Front Page." He was a link to the swashbuckling school of early journalism. I even forgave him when he asked me to fetch him coffee. I was going to the cafeteria anyway, it was no big deal. And I'm sure that impressionistic bits of him made it into my novels over the years, especially when I wrote about gruff but well-intentioned male bosses.

During those years, Terry and Marlane his wife always held a blowout St. Patrick's Day bash at their Tarzana hillside home, complete with men in kilts playing bagpipes. The invitations came on creamy embossed paper and read something like: "Tiaras and Military Dress Suggested."

The last time I saw Terry was several years ago. A Cold War buff, he took me on a tour of Valley sites where spy planes and bombers were once assembled and a secret government communications building prepared for the apocalypse along Ventura Boulevard.

Thoughtfully, he'd brought along a picnic lunch and brought a split of champagne and we picnicked up on a curve of Mullholland with the best view of the Valley, while Terry held forth about KGB defectors and the nuclear war that never came.

When we said goodbye, he pressed a KGB history in my hands and encouraged me to contact him if I ever wrote a mystery novel set in LA during the Cold War.

I drove home, thinking I should take him up on that, but then time passed, as it does. I'm sorry about that. He was full of yarns, was Terry, and a character out of a novel himself. I won't soon forget him.

McGarry died April 26 at age 73.

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