Big shoes to fill and giant steps to take

It’s been a dark month for journalists. We’re losing our mentors and teachers and friends.

I’m not talking about Brian Williams’ fall from grace because of alleged fabrications. That will sort itself out soon enough. And while I will miss Jon Stewart behind the desk of The Daily Show, I wish him well in new endeavors. Hopefully he’ll direct more movies and get to spend time experiencing his family growing up. Newspeople tend to miss those things when they chase a story. Some of us don’t realize it until the therapist brings it up.

But I digress.

In the last month, an alarming number of giants – people who thrilled me with their literary finesse and inspired me to take this winding path of words – have shuffled off this mortal coil. Their lessons shared, it’s now up to those left behind to keep the goodness going. Hopefully we will be able to bring ourselves up to and over the bar they set and not shamefully limbo beneath it.

It all started January 12, when Al Martinez, a columnist I read in the Oakland Tribune as a kid and followed to El Lay, when I found him writing for the Los Angeles By God Times. I was going to name one of my pets Elmer, as he said people thought his name was when he said it too fast. I loved his look at life and credit him for helping me develop my own edge when I became a Southern Californian, working in a city that was so much more intense than the suburb where I grew up. I loved his spirit and tenacity to stand up for himself when the corporate bean counters tried to downsize him out of his rightful place in the public pulpit and celebrated when he started writing for the Daily News, LA Observed and AARP. Simultaneously.

Three weeks later, one of my colleagues from the Daily News died; Rick Orlov, who had a unique take on City Hall, where he was a trusted reporter and a selfless supporter of anyone who wanted to better themselves as a journalist. The end of his reign as the king of the press room means that a new regime will take over; one that will have to build from the ground up to earn half of the respect that sources had for Rick. It may completely change how politics are covered in Los Angeles and not necessarily for the better.

Bob Simon of CBS’s 60 Minutes, who survived torture at the hands of the Iraqi army, died Wednesday night when his livery car crashed in New York. A correspondent for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Simon was a trusted source who reported from locations all across the globe. He earned 27 Emmys for his work and after being released from captivity, went on to write a book about it.

Simon told the LA Times in an interview (noted in LA Observed) that he wrote the book “Forty Days” about his experience in captivity because “This was the most searing experience of my life. I wrote about because I needed to write about it.”

Catharsis. The need to write. Every writer can relate.

On Wednesday, New York Times columnist David Carr died after collapsing in the newsroom. He’d just come from a panel discussion and, like most of us, went back to the office to finish off the day, or organize notes for the next morning or just decompress from the information hustle. His unique take on the world of media will be missed.

On Sunday, the world lost Gary Owens, best known for his work on Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In,” a show that helped us keep our sanity in the ’60s. His greater body of work included inspiring voice actors and being an example for those of us who occasionally took to the airwaves to announce the news. Timing, tone and timbre were things I took away from his school of life.

And my heart simply sank when I learned this morning that one of the pillars of LA news, Stan Chambers, had died. Stan was an innovator who persisted when challenged, inspiring more than one generation of reporters. His autobiography is one of my favorite books and his example of professionalism and leadership drove me to do better whenever I could. I’m even going to miss him on New Year’s morning. When I covered the Rose Parade several years ago, I was more thrilled to be standing near him as he did an interview than I was by the stunning floats. There’s something about being in the camera light of a legend….

There is a some comfort in writing about my feeling of loss, because it helps me deal with my fear of how my field will change without the responsible ones – the old timers, the people who knew traditions, had institutional memory, could tell it like it was in much more than 140 characters, breathing life into cold facts and making them stories you wanted to read and learn more about.

I feel like I’m one of a group of kids who just graduated from school and were thrown the keys as the revered faculty drives off, leaving us in the dust. Did we learn enough? Can we do them justice? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, raise a glass to some ass-kicking journalists and start the round of stories anew. We have a very high bar to hit.

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