A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best Reporter That Ever Was

(Photo by Richard Koci Hernandez)

It was a blue Christmas for many members of the Bay Area journalism community because Paul Grabowicz died from cancer the day before.
I've had the privilege of working with some great reporters, including Kevin Fagan and Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle and Harry Harris, the great crime reporter for the Oakland Tribune. But I think Kevin, Henry and Harry would agree that Grabs, as we called him, was the best of the best. He was our hero as well as our friend.
If you were a politician on the take, or a developer who was covering up the fact that he was building on a dangerous earthquake fault, or someone in power who was abusing his authority, Grabs was your worst nightmare, a guy who would never rest until he unearthed the truth.
But if you were an ordinary Joe getting screwed by the system, or a younger reporter in need of guidance, or one of his students at the UC Berkeley journalism school, or a homeless kitty cat, you never met a sweeter, kinder, more generous person in your life. And you never will.
Grabs was a reporter of the old school: funny, profane, cantankerous, hard drinking, irreverent, necktie askew, typing with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, and a cuss word for everyone and every occasion. But his grouch persona was just a mask, and we all saw through it to see the abiding love - there's no other word for it - that lay barely below the surface.
"The UC Berkeley School of Journalism had no higher honor than Grabs flipping you off as he passed you in the hall, which somehow always felt like being bathed in warm light," said former Express reporter Kara Platoni, who taught with him at the J-school.
Whenever I saw him, the first words out of his mouth were always "(Bleep) you," which felt like a love letter.
Grabs worked at the Tribune for 20 years, then spent the next 20 years teaching journalism at Cal, although he refused to call himself a journalist. True to form, he preferred the old-fashioned, working class term, "reporter."
Paradoxically, for someone who was the embodiment of the old school, he was the first to embrace the new school. At a time when most journalism professors were pooh-poohing the Internet as just a passing fad, he recognized that his duty was to prepare the next generation of reporters for the digital age.
He taught the J-school's first course on blogging and created a training program, the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, to help reporters learn digital skills.
"Without him, the school would not have entered the 21st Century," said former dean Tom Goldstein.
In 2013 the graduating class asked him to be the keynote speaker at their graduation, and he advised them to keep digging but not to forget to have fun. "Journalism that only seeks to entertain is frivolous," he said. "But journalism that is only high-minded is a bore."
My deepest sympathy to his wife Anne, to his beloved kitties, and to all of us who now have to live in a world without him in it.
(Bleep) you, Grabs. There will never be another one like you. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. (Grabs would have used a different word.)

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