Sunday, April 19, 2009
The Real Lou Grant
(Above: the Tribune Tower in its heyday)
Some people deserve their names - for example, Gray Davis and Michael Savage.
Roy Grimm, on the other hand, was anything but. Behind his no-nonsense persona and his ever-billowing pipe was a truly kind human being with a delightfully impish sense of humor.
Roy, the longtime managing editor of the Oakland Tribute, died on April 11 at age 83. Even though it's been 20 years since he retired, everyone who had the privilege of working for him still remembers him as the epitome of what a journalist should be.
"Underneath his often gruff, terse exterior beat a big heart," says Andy Jokelson, whom Roy hired as a nightside reporter in 1969. "He let his staff do their jobs, had faith in them and stood by them. He also went out of his way to privately thank and encourage people."
Andy covered the assassination of Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster in the early 70s', which often kept him working into the wee small hours of the morning.
" I remember waiting for the elevator at about 3 a.m. outside the Tribune city room as I headed home. Roy came out to the elevator to thank me for the night's work, and I still appreciate it."
Cliff Pletschet, the Trib's longtime business columnist, agrees.
"He didn't toss compliments around; so when Roy Grimm told you that you did a good job on a story, you can believe that you did."
Under Roy's leadership, the Tribune was the last of the old-time newsrooms. Whether you realize it or not, you've probablly seen that newsroom many times on TV. The set of the show, "Lou Grant," was an exact replica.
The series pilot was written by a former Trib columnist named Al Martinez, who went down to L.A. to write for the Los Angeles Times.
On the side, he wrote screenplays for MTM, which produced "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and its spinoff, "Lou Grant." And he modeled his fictional newspaper on the Trib, even calling it the Los Angeles Tribune.
Many of the show's characters were modeled after real people, including Lou Grant, who was modeled on Roy himself. Martinez even named him "Roy Grimm," but the producers objected that nobody would believe in a kindly curmudgeon named Grimm. It just sounded too pat.
"No problem," shrugged Martinez. So he named the character after the Trib's longtime editorial cartoonist, Lou Grant, instead.
For the record, Roy always insisted that he wasn't the model for Lou Grant, claiming it was actually a former city editor named Al Reck. But, of course, that's exactly the same kind of self-deprecating remark Lou Grant would make.
It seems sadly appropriate that Roy's death comes at a time when newspapers themselves are struggling to survive.
Their disappearance would leave the field to broadcast and Internet news outlets, which are devolving from reportage to advocacy, with Fox News for conservatives and MSNBC for liberals.
We need more old-school journalists like Roy, who had three strict but simple rules: Get the facts right, don't play favorites, and don't cut any corners.
But he would have cringed at my using a pretentious word like "journalist" to describe him. He preferred the more down-to-earth, working-class term, "reporter."
I miss him already.