The Skyline and the Man

Today marked the passing of one of the most gracious public figures I have ever met: Stan Chambers. Over the course of six decades, Chambers become a symbol of the news business at its best as well as one of its most admired reporters.

Chambers attended Loyola University for three years and was part of the Air Force ROTC detachment before being instructed to transfer to USC for special courses. In 2008, after his book, “KTLA’s News at 10,” was published, I interviewed Chambers for the summer 2008 issue of the university’s magazine, then known as Vistas. I don’t think I have ever interviewed a more gracious and welcoming person. I met him in the KTLA studios, and he made me feel like I was an honored guest that day. Few people had Stan's generosity of spirit.

When Maureen Pacino ’93, Glenn Cratty, then the university photographer, and I sat down to conceptualize a photo, we knew we wanted to avoid the predictable environs of a TV studio. Glenn said, “I know just the place: Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. There’s a great view of the skyline from there.” We asked, “How do you know?” Glenn, who now shoots in Colorado, used to scout L.A. in his free time, to build up in his brain a collection of visual backdrops for occasions like this. So we asked Stan to meet us there.

On a blustery afternoon, Stan drove up with his wife, Gege. We asked him to pose in the grass, near the edge of a hillside. The winds were strong enough that all four of us grew colder as the shoot wore on. As you may expect, Stan never complained, though I believe he felt the coldest of all. The shot we came away with is here. What you cannot see is that just to Stan’s left is Maureen on a small ladder directing a portable light on Stan. I’m a foot or two from her, chatting with Stan and trying my best to make the afternoon somewhat pleasurable for him. And Glenn is sprawled on his belly in the grass, some 70 feet away, with a telephoto lens, yelling his instructions to all in a voice loud enough to be heard above the wind. Gege wisely and warmly stayed in the car.

Stan later said that he liked the interview and especially loved the photo. He particularly appreciated that Glenn positioned him so that the tower of City Hall appears just by his right elbow. One of his strongest memories of the L.A. skyline is of how it looked before skyscrapers defined it. City Hall had always been an iconic symbol of Los Angeles to Stan Chambers.

Read our interview with Stan Chambers here.

(Photo by Glenn Cratty)

Read more blog posts by the editor below and here.

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On Merton’s 100th Birthday

Today, January 31, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, monk, writer, poet and peace activist who lead readers to discover faith, to discover Catholicism, simply through his words. James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America Magazine, has described his encounter with Merton through the monk’s autobiography. Martin, in fact, visited LMU in 2011, and I had a chance to interview him. We didn’t discuss Merton, though I’m certain the monk would’ve loved the fact that humor was a focus of the interview.

Martin’s life, and that of many others, was changed by Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain.” I have to confess that I started reading the book — I was in my 20s at the time — but I didn’t finish it. I often have wondered if I should feel ashamed of that, as if it demonstrates a lack of intelligence, or a lack of faith. On the other hand, a biography of Merton that I also began, and finished, at about the same age, is a book I've always treasured: “The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton,” by Michael Mott. That volume is where I first read of Merton’s epiphany moment at the corner of 4th and Walnut, during a visit to Louisville:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” by Thomas Merton)

I don’t believe Merton’s insight is only for the mystics, or saints, among us. On a few occasions, usually in cities, I’ve stopped on a corner of an intersection and thought to myself, “Everyone I see is loved. Everyone is redeemable. Wow, I get it. I think I know what Merton meant.” That moment strikes me as the closest we, or I, can come to seeing with God’s eyes. The world’s troubles, in our time as well as Merton’s, are ever-present, unavoidable. For a reason I cannot explain, we seem to need to stop and look for the ever-present good, for what it is that joins us all.

Here is one of my favorite poems by Thomas Merton, written in memory of his younger brother, John Paul Merton, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and died from injuries suffered in a plane crash over the English Channel in April 1943. You can find the poem in “Selected Poems of Thomas Merton,” published by New Directions.

For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed—
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

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The River Journey of 1959

We learned this week that freelance writer Sandra Millers Younger hauled in an award for LMU Magazine on the strength of her writing. Younger wrote “Operation Huck Finn,” a feature in our fall 2013 issue about a group of students who in 1959 reenacted Huck Finn’s fictional trip down the Mississippi River in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Younger received the bronze award for Best Article of the Year in the 2015 CASE District VII Circle of Excellence Awards. CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) is an international association of educational institutions. District VII is the region that includes institutions from Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Utah.

Part of the story’s attraction, simply as an idea, was the familiarity of its subject matter: Alumni who studied American literature at any point in the past six decades probably read the novel. If they hadn’t, then they probably did in high school. Also, there’s something impulsive about the trip, which likely arose out of the same spirit that makes it hard to resist perfect pranks. Combine that with the students’ meticulous commitment to detail needed to actually plan and organize the trip, and you have a story with timeless appeal and several very sharp hooks.

Younger’s treatment impressed me as soon as I read her draft. Its tone was comfortably both light-hearted and serious, a balance I find very difficult to achieve. She captured the students’ adventurousness: A charismatic professor sought volunteers for a ludicrous idea, and six students raised their hands. How many parents lost sleep during that journey? Also, the group included a Mexican American, Carlos Salazar, and a Japanese American, Alan Kumamoto, both in the class of 1962, and Younger conveyed the undertone of racial tension that they sensed while traveling through some parts of Missouri. Best of all, she introduced into her text short segments of Twain’s novel — Huck’s comments — that helped frame the August 1959 journey. Here’s my favorite:

“It would a been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.”

I thought that was brilliantly used. Thanks, and congratulations, to Sandra Millers Younger.

You can read Sandra Millers Younger’s award-winning story here. Read more blog posts by the editor below and here.

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Wed, 01/28/2015 - 10:20

What a fantastic story, and terrific to see the recognition for the writer. The blog report here made me go back and enjoy it all over again! Congrats to Sandra Millers Younger on the well-deserved award and kudos to LMU Magazine for continued success!

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The Work of Ponzi

Working as an editor can often seem a gray existence. Sometimes I go for weeks with my nose buried in text, the stuff that makes the pages turn gray. If the universe of the publishing profession could be expressed geographically, I’d say most editors’ lifetimes are lived out in Seattle. I like Seattle quite a lot, actually, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. But, like Seattleites, editors respond when the sun breaks through into a dull afternoon. It’s a glorious moment.

For me, bright light cuts through the clouds when an illustration for an insightful piece of writing arrives weeks into the editorial process. It was a glorious day, then, when we received Emiliano Ponzi’s illustration for an essay by Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., about the significance of the election of Pope Francis.

Ponzi’s work is a stunning, sublime statement that exquisitely expresses much of Deck’s commentary as well as the heart of the newest successor to Peter only months into his pontificate. Francis’ pastoral gifts have been evident from the moment he stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica after his selection. When Maureen Pacino ’93, LMU Magazine’s creative director, called me into her office, I knew in minutes that the story headline had to be “Assisi Road.”

I could compose choruses of praise to Ponzi’s art. But better is to point to his work. The new edition of Communication Arts magazine, a premier publication in the world of design, profiles him in its latest edition and includes several of his illustrations. The illustration the editors chose to introduce their nine-page, in-depth feature about this internationally known artist is the one that first appeared in LMU Magazine.

Take a look. The range of Ponzi’s imagery is inspiring. And the story — yeah, the good-old gray text — is an excellent piece of writing that gives an insightful look into the mind and intentions of a wonderful artist.

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90 Percent Luck

As I read about the death of writer and director Mike Nichols this past week, I was reminded of the broad pedigree of his work: films including “The Graduate,” “Catch-22” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”; theater productions including “Uncle Vanya,” “HurlyBurly” and “Spamalot”; and television works such as “Wit” and “Angels in America.”

Not long ago, I came across some of his comic routines with Elaine May. It’s been said there were no comedians like them, and watching their “Mother and Son Skit” decades after it was performed is as funny now as anything on TV today. Just as appealing are the generosity of spirit and the sense of teamwork that May and Nichols exuded when working together.

I put in a call about Nichols to actor Brian Avery ’63 because I remembered his telling me that he worked with the famous director. Avery had come to campus this past spring to help LMU Magazine produce a video of recitations of Chaucer’s Prologue. Reciting the passage has been a rite of passage for LMU English majors for longer than most of us have been alive. He said then that he was cast in a crucial role as Katherine Ross’ groom in the now-classic Mike Nichols’ film “The Graduate.” Yes, it’s Avery who is left at the altar at the film’s famous conclusion. It’s hard to forget the scene, and just as hard to forget when someone tells you he’s the guy who gets jilted.

Avery remembers first encounter as a young actor with Nichols. Under contract to Universal, he was instructed to meet Nichols at the Paramount studios about a role in a film. He walked into a room with director Nichols, screenplay writer Buck Henry, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, and producer Lawrence Turman. “Mike and I just started talking, and we got on,” Avery recalls. “After a while, Nichols turns to Buck Henry and says, ‘Wouldn’t he be great opposite Dustin?’ It was the first time I’d heard the word Dustin — he was unknown then.”

Turns out that Avery concurs with most everything that’s been written about Nichols since his death on Nov. 19. “I never saw him get angry. I never saw him be unkind to anybody. He was a joy to be around.”

I asked Avery how he felt when he landed an early-career role with Nichols as director. Ninety percent of the business is luck, he replied, some of it bad. Avery once passed up a role in “Auntie Mame” with Angela Lansbury, he recalled, to do a TV pilot with Filmways, which had a string of successes: “Mister Ed,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres” and “The Addams Family.” “Auntie Mame” ran for five years; his pilot, which looked a sure thing, wasn’t picked up. So Avery has always felt lucky to appear in “The Graduate,” and later in Nichols’ “The Fortune.”

“Mike Nichols was bright, joyous and fun,” Avery says. “He stimulated you. When you were on the set you knew you had his support. He was just waiting for you to show him what you could do. I did the best work of my life with Mike.”

In the photo above, Brian Avery appears in his role as Carl Smith and Katherine Ross as Elaine Robinson in “The Graduate.”

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Shouldering the Mantle

When I was growing up in a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Philadelphia, my best friend and I practiced saying Mass in his basement. We not only imagined ourselves as priests, we talked about someday becoming saints.

My calling to ordained life dissipated before high school, but I remain fascinated, and wistful, about friends who enter the priesthood or become nuns. When Brendan Busse ’99, M.A. ’11 told me a few years ago that he was about to enter the Society of Jesus, I felt envy.

Brendan now teaches at Seattle University, but he was an LMU campus minister when I met him about seven years ago. One day he told me about an unusual retreat: He took a group of students to a Skid Row shelter in downtown Los Angeles for a weekend-long encounter with homeless people and poverty in America. I asked him to write an article about it, and, secretly, I desired his job.

That first piece of writing led to several more: a reflection on his Jesuit pilgrimage, a meditation on the meaning of Advent and, most recently, his commentary on World Youth Day. I don’t see Brendan often these days. I’m not his closest friend, but I do feel an important bond with him, rooted in the common experience of trying to write about religious experiences.

Fortunately, I can keep track of Brendan’s adventures, and his writing, through a blog he maintains. He and other Jesuits started a website called The Jesuit Post, which, says Paddy Gilger, S.J., editor-in-chief, is about “Jesus, politics and pop culture.” Brendan is one of several contributing writers. His best stuff is thoughtful, wise, descriptive, self-deprecating and inviting. The world needs writers like Brendan.

My friend is several years along his path toward ordination. I sometimes wonder how the mantle that is the choice he took upon his shoulders now feels. (If it’s causing mild discomfort, Ignatius would probably say that’s a good sign.) Brendan’s choice could present him with decades of dedicated service to others, grace-filled entry into lives of hundreds, in catastrophes and epiphanies, and countless opportunities to find God in anyone. Such a life — if well-lived, I think — would give you a smile on your deathbed.

That’s the kind of life I imagined when my friend and I pretended to be priests, when receiving and accepting a call wasn’t a rare event, at least not in my Saint Anne’s neighborhood. But conditions have changed since the mid-1960s. The number of priests and nuns has plummeted, as we know. The workload of the Society of Jesus, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary is no lighter than before. Yet, there are fewer to shoulder it. Living out the religious vocation today seems to carry an added responsibility: to transmit the vocation — including the work — to those with no call to ordination.

It is often said that the heart of Ignatian spirituality can be found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Randy Roche, S.J., director of LMU’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, will tell you that the exercises were never intended for the sole use of the ordained; they’re intended to be useful to anyone. I think religious orders rooted in Ignatius’ view of the world have an advantage in transmitting the vocation, because they do not call a few to enjoy a rare honor or exclusive status in the world. I imagine them saying, “Take what we, somehow, have been given, and receive it yourself.”

Brendan’s writing at The Jesuit Post will intrigue me because the site is another place where he will live out his choice, comfortably or not. If Brendan had come to me 40 years ago to ask what I thought about his joining the Jesuits, I would’ve replied, “Can you meet the standard?” Today I’d answer, “Can you make Ignatians of the rest of us?”

(Photo by Joe August ’13)

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Seamus Heaney, Rest in Peace with Your Father and His Fathers

One of the great Irish singers died today. Seamus Heaney passed away today in Dublin at the age of 74.

Heaney was one of the world’s great poets, of course, and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995. He often has been considered as important an Irish poet as Yeats. “Death of a Naturalist” is his first volume, and later collections include “Station Island,” “The Spirit Level,” “District and Circle” and “Human Chain.” But I call Heaney a singer because of my memory of the only occasion when I heard him read.

In the mid-1990s, Heaney was invited by poet Robert Mezey to read his work at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Mezey, now retired, taught poetry at Pomona. The reading took place in a lovely, long, warmly lit drawing room, filled with books and high-back chairs. Heaney read at a fragile podium, with one small lamp clamped to its top. The light lit his book and left his face in shadow.

I can’t recall Heaney reading any of his own poems that evening. That embarrasses me. I feel as if I’ve allowed a few treasures to be misplaced forever. Despite that, his reading was unforgettable. It changed my experience of poetry. Before reading his own work, Heaney said he wanted to read W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I don’t remember what he said about it. (There’s another gem that rolled into a mouse hole somewhere in my mind.) I’d taken in that poem from the page a few times over the years, but never before had I heard it. That night, I heard the music in poetry for the first time in my life. Heaney's reading of the poem was, very much, like a beautiful song, an exquisite melody that could make one cry.

Today I came across Heaney’s poem “Digging.” It’s a tribute to Heaney’s father and the laboring work he did. If Heaney’s death is the loss of a great Irish singer, then this poem shows us we’ve lost one of Ireland’s great workers as well.

A few hours after learning the news of Heaney’s death, I emailed John Menaghan, a poet and professor of English at LMU as well as director of the Irish Studies Program. I wanted to ask him what he thought of Heaney and his work. Menaghan sent me this:

“Heaney Alone”

“One summer 10 years or so ago I found myself in Mulligan’s, a pub near the Trinity College campus that has a reputation for attracting writers and journalists. It was a quiet night, and I sat alone at one end of the bar, waiting for my pint of Guinness to settle before taking a sip. While waiting, I cast my eyes around the room, only to discover, sitting at the opposite end of the bar, the great Seamus Heaney. To my further surprise, he was also alone. Two opposite impulses arose in me. One was the obvious one, that I should seize this chance to slide down the bar and have a chat with him. The other was to leave him alone, because it occurred to me that there must be very few times in recent years when he’d been able to have a quiet pint in a pub, without being besieged by people wanting to be able to say they’d had a personal encounter with Seamus Heaney. And no one else in the pub was bothering him, so why should I? In the end, I left him alone, and a part of me always regretted it. Because although over the years I saw him read numerous times and even at one reading went up to introduce myself and thank him for a great reading, I felt I had missed my chance to get to know him in the more relaxed setting of the pub, and perhaps even become friends. Yet another part of me still thinks I might have done the right thing to leave him alone that night and let him enjoy his own company. And today, when I heard he was gone, it was seeing him alone at the end of the bar in Mulligan’s, rather than giving a reading in any number of venues large and small, that came back to me most powerfully, and made me feel a wordless connection with this great master of language who was, in that time and place, just another Irishman sitting in a pub, enjoying his quiet pint.”

Listen to Seamus Heaney read his poem “Digging” here and his poem “Blackberry Picking” here.

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The D.C.-Lincoln Heights Connection

Our next issue of LMU Magazine, arriving in a few weeks, will feature a piece we’ve dreamed about for almost three years: a photo essay and feature story on the murals of Los Angeles. L.A.’s murals are inspiring and beautiful, and they’re just about everywhere. They are why the city has been called the “Mural Capital of the World.” But to get the shots we’d need, we feared Jon Rou, the university photographer, would be faced with multiple, time-consuming photo shoots all over Los Angeles.

As we began planning the upcoming issue, we could resist no longer. Fortunately, we discovered the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center), organizations that document murals and fight for their preservation. The Mural Conservancy, in particular, posts an extensive database with images of L.A. murals that is searchable by location, title, artist and topic. That allowed us to plan the murals we’d shoot, rather than wander L.A.’s streets for weeks. Members of the conservancy can also take custom tours of murals, led by Executive Director Isabel Rojas-Williams, and I joined one that featured some 10 murals within walking distance of Olvera St. in downtown Los Angeles.

The second step was to identify members of the LMU community who work on or study murals. I knew Karen Mary Davalos, professor and chair of the Department of Chicano/a Studies, would be an invaluable resource, because she teaches courses on Chicano art and culture in the region. She wrote an essay we’ve posted on the magazine’s website. She also directed me to Christopher Torres ’09, her former student who studied murals in New York, Paris and Los Angeles. He now works as a designer at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, architecture firm in Los Angeles. Then I rummaged through the roster of the Department of Art and Art History and discovered that Professor Damon Willick specializes in the history of L.A. art. Plus, he grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he visited the “Great Wall of Los Angeles” as a child. Finally, Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, professor in the Department of Theological Studies, explores art and religion in her research, and she has loved murals for years. They’re all part of the feature story you’ll soon see.

But my most exciting “find” came very late in our editorial process when I discovered Man One (Alejandro Poli ’93), an L.A.-based painter and artist — an alumnus who is a muralist. I say discovered facetiously. Man One’s work can be seen in Los Angeles, Mexico and elsewhere. He’s been featured in a KCET documentary and honored by the Los Angeles City Council for his dedication to the HeArt Project, an art workshop for L.A. youth. His work has been commissioned by MTV, ESPN and Adidas and others. Man One has a been an important L.A. artist for much longer than when I first began dreaming about murals.

Our staff was thrilled to have experts — professors and designers — featured in our story, but finding an alumnus who is a muralist felt almost like finding gold nuggets in a nearby stream. We had to get his work into the magazine. So I spent an afternoon in Man One’s Lincoln Heights studio hearing about his work and the inspiration he took from murals as a child when he began to experiment with graffiti art.

In the course of our conversation, I mentioned a legendary Washington, D.C., street artist who went by the name Cool “Disco” Dan. Man One knew his work. A few days later, I emailed poet Joseph Ross ’80, who lives in D.C., and who once wrote a piece about imagination for LMU Magazine. Joe, who has a Cool “Disco” Dan poster, and I have become friends, and I told him about my meeting with an LMU alumnus in Los Angeles, a muralist, who knew the work of Cool “Disco” Dan. Within a few weeks, I saw a post on Man One’s blog about a poem Joe had written about a Man One mural in Los Angeles.

That story borders on being convoluted, I know. But what thrilled me was that a creative idea that lay dormant for three years began to pull in members of the LMU community in Los Angeles as it came to fruition in LMU Magazine and then somehow managed to create a bridge between two very different artists, a poet and a muralist both LMU alumni, on opposite coasts of the country. I like to imagine that LMU Magazine draws us together, but I never imagined that it could happen quite like this. Like a spark that jumps a freeway, a creative idea can become explosive.

(Above, a detail of “They Claim I’m a Criminal,” a mural by Man One (Alejandro Poli ’93) located at 6120 S. Vermont Ave., in Los Angeles, photographed by Jon Rou)

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Fri, 05/17/2013 - 07:53

Great reflection, Joe --

In fact, tonight I'm reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a themed reading on graffiti art. I'm reading some of the Cool 'Disco'Dan poems, among others. I'm looking forward to your issue including ManOne. His work has heart.

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“42”

This past weekend, “42,” the new Jackie Robinson movie written and directed by Brian Helgeland, was released. Helgeland earned a master’s degree in screenwriting from LMU in 1987, and his personal film pedigree is now lengthy: “L.A. Confidential,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “A Knight’s Tale,” “Mystic River,” “Robin Hood” and others. About four weeks ago, he stopped by our office for an interview that will appear in the next issue of LMU Magazine, which should hit mailboxes in late May and early June.

Before Helgeland and I spoke, I read “Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball” by NPR’s Scott Simon and most of “Jackie Robinson: A Biography” by Arnold Rampersad. I was as struck by what I learned of Robinson’s life after he retired as I was by what he endured in a Dodgers uniform. After leaving the playing field, Robinson wrote a newspaper column, had a radio show, toured the nation to speak out on civil rights, raised money for the NAACP, and met or spoke frequently with U.S. presidents, vice-presidents and others to press them on a wide range of public policy issues that were crucial to the nation’s future. Robinson’s second career was so full that I would be proud to claim one-fifth of his accomplishments as my life’s legacy. His contribution to U.S. society and politics in the second half of the 20th century, I’m convinced, still is not fully appreciated.

When Helgeland sat down at our small table to talk, I was itching to discuss Robinson’s later feats. I pointed out that even though Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier as a player, he found himself fighting the same battle against injustice after he retired: He visited Florida on behalf of the NAACP and was forced to stay in the same segregated hotels that he slept in as a player.

Helgeland agreed, and he made an unusual comparison: “I look at it using a World War II analogy. Robinson is Normandy, and the war [against segregation] isn’t over. But they’ve landed and there is a place to fight from and move forward.” As for his film, Helgeland said he intentionally focused on the two brief years of Robinson’s career in which he went through the fire, so to speak, as the first black baseball player in the segregated major league game. “I wanted to pick a crucible moment and illustrate the man through a moment in his life.”

“42” has been taking some criticism for being predictable. I have to confess that I haven’t had a chance to get to a theater to see it yet (but I’ve never seen a movie within five days of its release). But a colleague took her two young children to see it on opening night. She said the film made a powerful impression on them. Helgeland told me that one of Hollywood’s accepted wisdoms is that a film protagonist must change between the beginning and the end to hold the viewers’ attention. Robinson doesn’t change in “42,” Helgeland said. Perhaps Robinson’s self-assuredness and sense of purpose take the curve out of his character’s arc. Jackie Robinson knew who he was, and the people around him were forced to decide who they were as a result. I have a feeling that my colleague’s children saw that and learned something about themselves because of what they watched on a big screen. I hope the adults who see the film do so, too.

(Warner Bros. image)

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Wed, 04/17/2013 - 20:43

Thanks for this commentary. I'm thrilled to read of Robinson's advocacy work. He set a wonderfully inspiring example. I can imagine a nation-wide organization: "The Jackie Robinson Committee for Justice in America" with branches across the U.S., and advocating for racial justice.

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Revisiting the Chickenpox

This past Friday, Feb. 15, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about “Middle Men,” a new collection of short stories by Jim Gavin ’88. The piece was written by David L. Ulin, the paper’s book critic.

Gavin attended the well-regarded master’s-level creative writing program at Stanford University not long ago. I learned about him in 2007, when I was trying to put together a feature story of LMU Magazine’s predecessor, Vistas. The feature was composed of essays by six writers on the subject “The Persistent Power of the Written Word,” and it included three well-known L.A. writers: Lynell George ’84, one of L.A.’s best essayists, Brian Helgeland ’87, one of the film industry’s best screenwriters, and Denise Hamilton ’81, one of the city’s best novelists. We also published Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80, ’01, professor of theological studies and a fine columnist on topics religious, and Patrick Furlong ’06, who was keeping a fascinating blog about his experiences doing service work in Ecuador. The only fetter I roped the writers with was the theme itself. I encouraged them to write what they wanted.

Gavin was the only one of the six about whom I held no preconceptions. That meant I was taking a bit of a gamble. But he had been awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship while at Stanford, and I certainly knew who Stegner was, along with his work. Stegner is one of the U.S. novelists whose work I most admire. If Gavin was deemed worthy of an award named for one of the great writers rooted in the West, then he probably belonged in the Vistas feature. (You could say that hunch was a pretty good one: A short story he wrote called “Costello,” which is in his new collection, was published in the New Yorker magazine Dec. 6, 2010.)

My biggest fear in the project was that one essay would be weaker than all the others. Fortunately, none were weak, and Gavin’s was quite strong. A line I particularly liked was “I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write.” That one sentence conveys ideas, explicitly and implicitly, that could easily take three, maybe four, sentences to make obvious. I remember that when the issue was completed, I looked forward to what Gavin would produce, and I hoped the burden of receiving a fellowship with Stegner’s name on it wouldn’t be a heavy one. I haven’t picked up “Middle Men” yet, but I always look forward to reading a writer who wants to actually write.

Here’s Gavin’s 2007 piece in Vistas:

The Chickenpox

“In Joyce Cary’s ‘The Horse’s Mouth,’ Gulley Jimson, painter and felon, counsels a young man who claims he wants to be an artist: “Of course you do. Everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles and the chickenpox.”

“I guess you could say I caught the chickenpox at LMU. I had entered my freshman year as a communication studies major, but after a few classes I realized the strange and hermetic concepts of that discipline — situational dyads, belief congruency, adaptive structuration — were beyond the limits of my understanding. I spent most of my freshman year playing basketball and Ping-Pong in the pungent hollows of the old Alumni Gymnasium.

“I also met some great friends, members of that bright, lazy and morbidly curious apprentice class who graze in the shadows at every university. We traded books, records, movies; the more obscure the better. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself when I got to LMU, but whatever it was, I was drifting happily away from it. This type of ‘awakening,’ I suspect, is all too common and probably represents a threat to the prosperity of our nation.

“In any case, I eventually stumbled on a copy of ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon. I knew nothing of the author or the book, but it seemed to jump off the shelf, like it had been waiting for me. Pynchon’s grand and looping narrative was also beyond my understanding, but beautifully so, instilling the ordinary world with a vivid and enduring sense of mystery. In pursuit of this mystery, I finally retreated, like so many vain and romantic young men, to the English department.

“Inspired by many excellent professors, my symptoms got worse. I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write. At this giddy stage, being a writer somehow means drinking rum in sultry foreign capitals and showing up for the occasional honorary banquet. The blank page, the empty room, the freighted hours — such horrors never cross the mind.

“Thankfully, in the coming years, as my illusions faded, I still found myself carving out time to sit down and put together sentences. Whether or not I ever become a writer, I am going to write. The condition is terminal.”

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