Frank del Olmo was my mentor, my colleague, my boss and my friend.
I met Frank in 1978, when as a senior at Pepperdine University I did an internship at the Los Angeles Times. At that time, there were only a handful of Latinos at the Times – and in journalism, for that matter.
Frank was generous with his time and truly provided guidance and support that would continue throughout my career. When I returned to Los Angeles from a two-year stint as an editor for a Latino magazine in New York, I was offered a tryout with the Los Angeles Times after a recommendation from Frank.
I was hired in October 1981, still a little green, but inspired because I now was a colleague of Frank del Olmo, Frank Sotomayor, George Ramos and Juan Vasquez. I was fortunate enough to share a Pulitzer Prize with them and other Latino journalists at The Times in 1984 for a series of stories we did the year before on Latinos in Southern California.
After I left the Times in 1995, Frank was supportive of me becoming executive director of the California Chicano News Media Association, an organization he helped found in 1972 to help develop new Latino journalists, and an organization I had grown to become passionate about because of all its help during my career. Frank was the only founding member to sit on the board of directors since the group’s inception.
I never met Ruben Salazar, the former Times journalist and KMEX-TV news director who was killed in 1970 after being struck by a tear gas projectile fired by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy while covering a Chicano anti-war rally that turned ugly. But I am certainly familiar with his work and his impact on journalism and the Latino community in Los Angeles. For me, del Olmo, consciously or not, became the Ruben Salazar for a new generation of young Latinos.
It was a role that Frank was not always comfortable with, but one for which he was perfectly suited.
His death Feb. 19, of an apparent heart attack shortly before he was to join his Times colleagues Frank Sotomayor and Steve Padilla for lunch to discuss future Latino projects at the paper, reminded me of what was said about Salazar at the time of his death in 1970. It could easily be said about del Olmo today.
A memorial editorial the Times ran on Sept. 1, 1970, called Salazar “a most uncommon man who fought mightily for the cause of a group of underprivileged common men.
“He wrote of dropouts from inferior schools, of the Mexican-Americans’ lack of political power, of their search for identity in an Anglo world.
“Sometimes (he) was an angry man, and properly so, as he observed the inequities around him. Yet he spoke out with a calm vigor that made his words all the more impressive – and influential.”
This last description is especially true of del Olmo, who fought most of his battles behind the scenes, and whose quiet demeanor belied his passion for the Latino community and journalism. These were characteristics that touched people both inside and outside the newsroom.
Arizona Republic columnist Ricardo Pimentel, a former editor of the San Bernardino Sun, wrote of del Olmo’s impact on his career. “I wanted to be Frank del Olmo,” Pimentel said in a column shortly after del Olmo’s death. “I don’t even come close. He was a journalist whose influence was immense both inside and outside the newsroom.
“His was a soft-spoken voice that newswriters and newsmakers couldn’t help but listen to and trust. He wasn’t a bomb-thrower. He didn’t have to be. His words were always based on a simple notion of common sense.
“Frank knew there is no contradiction in being a Latino journalist, that it’s never been a matter of the adjective drowning out the noun. We are who we are, and our inclusion in newsrooms simply helps bring a modicum of understanding as we try to cover our increasingly diverse communities.”
Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News and president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, called del Olmo a “pioneer who burst open the door for scores of Latino journalists who have followed in his footsteps. He was truly devoted to the Latino community and to improving the overall quality of journalism.”
Dr. Félix Gutiérrez, a former executive with The Freedom Forum and currently a visiting professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, said historians will remember del Olmo for the rich legacy of his life, including becoming the first Latino on the masthead of the Los Angeles Times.
Del Olmo was a “barrier breaker and bridge builder whose reporting and commentary gave us insights and understanding to people and places too often overlooked by general audience news media,” Gutiérrez said at del Olmo’s memorial service. “We are all richer today because of the time that Frank spent with us helping us better understand ourselves and the complex and diverse world in which we live.
“For those fortunate to know him personally over the years, Frank del Olmo will always be remembered as the very best friend you could possibly have, someone who would be there whenever you needed him, would share his honest advice, and who took his role seriously, but not himself so seriously that he could not enjoy a good laugh, point out a curious idiosyncrasy, or share a quick insight on a person, event or trend.”
Even people who did not personally know del Olmo felt the impact of his columns.
“We all have friends whom we never actually meet, and Times Associate Editor Frank del Olmo was one of mine,” David Wilson of Long Beach wrote in a letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times. “When Frank wrote about topics that were outside my scope, he informed me. When he addressed matters that were familiar to me, he invited me to consider new aspects of the issue at hand. And he did so in language that was as clear and precise and controlled as any that has ever been written. Your newspaper and my mornings will both be emptier now.”
In the 1970 Times editorial on Salazar, former Los Angeles Congressman Ed Roybal said that Salazar’s burden “passes on to each one of us who remain behind, and we must continue to peacefully pursue his goals of social reform with steadfast determination.”
Del Olmo accepted that challenge during his nearly 34-year career at the Times over four decades. Now it is our turn, those of us who remain behind, to continue del Olmo’s work of making sure Latinos are part of the fabric of daily news coverage – not just in Los Angeles, but across the country.
Julio Morán is executive director of the California Chicano News Media Association, a part-time lecturer at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times.