The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


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(Oct. 31, 2007)

           In keeping with the spirit of El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Mexican holiday in which deceased friends, relatives and ancestors are celebrated (Nov. 1, 2),  I hereby pay tribute to a few people I have been fortunate to know.
          Geoff Kelly---Geoff and I worked together briefly at the old Valley News when it was still headquartered in Van Nuys, long before it moved to its windowless corporate coffin in Woodland Hills. He was an assistant city editor, as I recall, with longish hair and trimmed beard about the color of the Sherman cigarettes he smoked. It was a novelty having a youngish city editor, and the mostly young reporters took to himófor his enthusiasm, his smarts, and his desire to dig behind the official story-lines. His ready smile and great sense of humor didnít hurt anything. I last saw Geoff a couple years ago at the funeral of our old mutual friend and Valley News colleague, Carter Barber, at a church in Pasadena. Geoff had been at the Times for decades, and his hair was silvery, short, distinguished. He looked good. Geoff and Carter, it turned out, had worked together at the Pasadena Star-News, and though he hadnít seen Barber in years, Geoff was one of a few old mates who turned up. He and I hashed over old Carter stories, Geoff particularly relishing the memory of Carterís habit of waiting for women at parties to break out a cigarette, then rushing across a room like a broken-field halfback with lighter at the ready. Well, Geoff wound up taking a job at the Hong Kong branch of the International Herald-Tribune shortly thereafter, probably for the joy and adventure of it. He collapsed after a workout, and didnít get up. He was in his early 60ís, and with any kind of luck, he and Carter are yucking it up over a couple of beers right about now.          
          Bob Babbitt---People are too often surprising for the wrong reasons. They seem okay, then you get to know them, and before long they are talking about the dwarf living in their closet. And the media place ever-so-slight an emphasis on image, as opposed to what (if anything) might be behind it, the result being adoration of the likes of Paris Hilton and Rudy Giuliani. People truly deserving of attention, admiration, affection, for the most part seem to go about their days with all the obtrusiveness of hummingbirds. Such a guy was Bob Babbitt. I barely knew Bob, as he was a colleague of my spousal assistant, Annie, but I used to hear about him a good deal. Enough to figure out that this was a person of accomplishment, judgment, and smarts of an ilk that would be nice to encounter in a so-called community leader. Bob would likely quibble with that, but I think itís true. Red-headed, red-bearded and burly, he was vastly knowledgeable and curious, and could hold forth with great authority and joy about the history of trains, California, and how to rebuild car engines. As with Arthur Conan Doyle, he loved to collect paintings of fairies (unlike Doyle, he didnít actually believe in them), and he was apt to, on a whim, grab a camera, hop on a bike, ride the length of the L.A. River and document it with a website. He loved the old buildings of downtown L.A., Laurel and Hardy, good conversation, and a million other things. Bob grew up in the Valley, loved the Valley, and died there while riding his bike in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area one beautiful afternoon last May. He was barely in his 50's.
          Stella Zadeh---I only knew Stella for a couple of years when she was one of the city editors at the L.A. Herald-Examiner, but she made an indelible impression on me, and, I suspect, on all who knew her. Ripsky, she called me. Iím not fond of editors as a rule, because most Iíve known were editing with their egos and not a lot of skill, but Stella was an exception. She was A-1. It was all about getting the story with Stella, and getting it quickly and accurately---and getting it in the paper as soon as possible. Frankly, I loved working with her, and for her, even if she sent me out on a story at the end of my shift, at midnight, keeping me out covering a plane crash till 4 or 5 a.m.. She had her priorities straight. Lots and lots of fuss is made over women in powerful editorial positions, and not a few have tried to ride their promotions to fame. Few outside the paper or the news biz heard of Stella when she was on the city desk at the Her-Ex, but she was one of the things making the paper solid, back in the early 80ís. Oh, her eccentricities were legend, how she often said everything twice, and was on a strange, restricted diet that found her wolfing down cottage cheese and ketchup (I think) as she updated some reporterís deadline copy. Just larger than petite, with a dark brown 1950-ish (sometimes sprayed) hairdo, she had a sort of antic voice that reminded me of Margaret Hamiltonís. Some reporters steered clear of her, but she was always my preferred choice---especially over her male colleagues at the time. She went on to a career as some sort of TV agent, and I didnít see her much after that. She was cheated out of this rigged game at the age of 58 earlier this year.
          Mrs. Miyata---Now, I didnít know her first name, and Iím not going to look it up here, because I knew her only as Mrs. Miyata. She was the mother of my friend, Laraine, who I met during Obon, the Japanese summer festival of dance and remembrance and celebration of the here and now. Actually, Laraine is largely the reason that Annie and I came to take part in Obon, as she made us feel at home and helped us (especially me) to learn the Obon dances when we came for lessons almost ten years ago. Laraine took wonderful care of her mom, who was pushing 90, bringing her to the practices and to the various Obon festivals at local Southern California Buddhist temples. Mrs. Miyata was a tiny lady, always friendly, and always joking about how lousy her memory had become. ďWhat did you do over the weekendĒ was likely to elicit a laugh and something like, ďI donít remember, but it was good!Ē She turns out to have been the real bulwark of a large family and with her husband, a mainstay of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple for decades. We always stashed our stuff under Mrs. Miyataís chair at the various Obons, and she always greeted us heartily. This counted for a lot with me. One of the last things she said to me was ďYou should join the temple!Ē So in her memory, I did.
          Aunt Virginia---This fine lady was my motherís sister, one Virginia Shearer (later Rogalle), and to jot just a few words down about her here is probably rude of me. But then, she would understand. She was a woman of spirit, modesty, and humor. And did I mention humor? Oh, and humor, too. When I was a tyke, going to my Aunt Virginiaís house was always a happy thing, probably because I knew she would be smiling and laughing and cracking jokes. Her wit was mordant, ironic, biting, something that I seem to have picked up in ever so slight quantity. Once, when I ran away from school in the second grade, I ran to her house---the house where I first heard Elvis, not incidentally, back around 1960. I even lived with her for a while, when my divorced mom was overloaded with work, and am glad of it. Iím also glad that she lived a very long life, and got to see her daughter, Katie, raise three superb grandkids almost to their teens. Aunt Va. and her husband, Francois, stuck it out for---oh, could it be almost 50 years?---winding up on a much loved little ranch in the desert outside of Phoenix, with horses and dogs and owls and cats and coyotes. . .Although I didnít see her for decades, I got to visit her several times in the recent years before she went to take a nap one afternoon, and didnít wake up, and I was overjoyed to find her wit and insights as dry and acerbic as ever. Hardly a time goes by that I look at the moon and do not remember her holding me in her front yard, singing, ďI see the moon, the moon sees me/ God bless the moon, and God bless me.Ē And God, whose existence she and I both figured as likely as mosquitoes turning out to be secretly controlling world events, bless Aunt Virginia.
          Dave Barton---Dave was a copy editor at the Herald-Examiner who started out there as a copyboy, back in the days when you could still do that. He was a merry, impish, fast-talking, thoroughly engaging human being who left one (certainly me) smiling after every conversation, chat, howdy-do. Too many clichťs are rushing in here, and colliding. Nice guy. . .big-hearted. . .loved by many. . .dedicated professional. . .Dave was one of the people who just make life easier to bear. Devoid of guile, he always---always---smiled when he saw you, his eyes crinkling up and almost closing as inevitable puns and quips came. Not incidentally, he was a terrific---and extremely clever---headline writer, and very fine copy editor who went on to win awards and affection for many years at the L.A. Times. I didnít see him after the Her-Ex days, except for the occasional Grateful Dead concert, but I used to hear from him in e-mail once in a while, and the smile was there, too. He was a great dad and great husband, and he checked out at only 53. Goin' home, goin' home/ By the waterside I will rest my bones/ Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul. . .
          Mike Qualls---Qualls was a political columnist, and political editor, at the old Her-Ex in the Ď70ís and 80ís. He sat in the row in front of me for a couple of years in the newsroom, but Iíll bet we didnít exchange more than a few hundred words. He was very, very quiet, and very, very dedicated to his job. Not surprisingly, he was also very, very well respected. I see him now, elbows on the old metal desks we had, one hand holding a phone to his ear, and the other a cigarette, carrying on quietly with this or that contact. There was a mystique about Mike, and the word was that he rode the tail end of a helicopter over a cliff while serving in Vietnam. I always thought we had a quiet mutual respect, but probably Iím kidding myself as Qualls was just too busy doing his job to think much about that sort of thing. He went on to run City News Service for many years, and moved his last piece of copy at age 63. Rough racket, journalism.
          Shirley Maxwell---Mrs. Maxwell, as I always knew her, was the mom of my best childhood pal, Jim. I suppose it trivializes her to say that she wasnít far off from Mrs. Ward Cleaver, or any other nice, dependable TV mom of the Ď50ís. But her son, Jim, called her a traditional American mom, so I guess itís all right. She was a sweetheart, really, and always had a welcoming smile for me. Southern hospitality (South Carolina) colored her voice, her manner, and she was gracious enough to look the other way when Jim and I fired up some Tiparillo cigars in his bedroom at age 12, while playing poker. A mother of three, she spent most of her adult life in Thousand Oaks, keeping a splendid home and doing all those sorts of suburban things that moms used to do: bridge clubs, backyard tiki torch parties, assorted local social activities. She was also a longtime member of the Sweet Adelines singing group, and I always remember her in the kitchen, in late afternoons, crooning some old 40ís classic as she made dinner. She made it well into her 70ís, but it still seemed too soon.
          Paul Weeks---Paul deserves much more from me than this paragraph, and maybe one day Iíll manage that. (Stay tuned to this site, as a video interview with him is forthcoming, if I ever get the technical stuff mastered.) Weeks was one of the great L.A. journalists, or newspapermen, as he probably would have preferred. He went from the old Daily News to the Mirror-News to the Times, and all along the way he comported himself with principle, humor, love, and a conscience. At the Daily News and Mirror, he pushed for covering L.A.ís minorities---something that was done very little in the 40ís and 50ís---and at the Times, he wound up as the paperís civil rights reporter in the early 60ís. While there, he clashed with an editor for defending a black reporter at the Los Angeles Sentinel, and was removed from the beat. He warned that the city would ďblow up one of these days, and the Times wonít know what hit it.Ē The Watts Riots happened a year later. Paul went on to work for the Rand Corporation, but I donít want to make this an obit rerun. He was a great raconteur with equally great memory, who wrote a column right up to the end of his 86 years a couple months ago. He had a real joie de vivre about a great many things, from flying to music to dogs and cats, but what struck me was his enormous affection for the papers where he had worked, and for his colleagues. There are those among us ex-newspapermen who remember our old comrades and places of employment vividly, and with real love, and Weeks was at the top of that list. When he spoke of the days at the L.A. Daily News, I could almost feel them come to life---especially when he and I visited the old newsroom at Pico and Los Angeles Streets, along with a few of the other old ďNewsies.Ē Iím sure he would have argued this contention, but he never seemed old.
          Captain Kangaroo---I didnít know the Captain (Bob Keeshan) any better than millions of other kids, which is to say, I knew him very well. He started every morning with me for years in the 50ís and early 60ís, along with Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Dancing Bear, Mr. Green Jeans, Tom Terrific, et al. Such a program would be laughed and sneered at today, when kidsí shows are hyper-manic ADHD fests, but Iím grateful for Keeshanís dedication and gentle, reassuring persona. How much of an impact did his show have on me? Hereís how much. Very often, when I wake up very early and get up suddenly, I still hear the Captainís theme music, ďThe Puffiní Billy,Ē by Edward H. White, playing in my head. Why, it happened just this morning. That music helped me start my days when I was a tyke, and thanks to my subconscious, it still does. In this increasingly incomprehensible world, the Captain is still around, in a way, still telling me to have a happy morning.

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