Much of the journalism world will remember Leroy Aarons as a warrior for newsroom diversity:
News exec comes out of closet, founds group for gay and lesbian journalists.
I will remember him as my first and finest mentor, a storied member of the Eastern media elite who gave it all up to come to our rickety newsroom in Oakland, to make us, a lot of us, believe.
It was 1983, and everything about The Oakland Tribune was rickety — the elevators, the Christmas parties, the paper’s piggy bank. But Bob Maynard, the new owner-publisher, didn’t care. He was on a mission to prove you could do quality journalism on a shoestring, in a building with sloping floors, with a staff full of doubters. All you needed was passion.
In came Roy Aarons.
Much like Maynard himself, Roy didn’t so much enter rooms as he did fill them up. He didn’t so much work with reporters as he did tame skeptics, anoint learners and recruit fellow seekers. His truest gift, among the many, was his endless belief in the Possible. And if you could ask him now, I’m sure he would say that is why he joined Maynard’s crusade, leaving behind his stints at Time, People, The Washington Post, his parties with Katharine Graham, his stories on the war in Israel and on John Lennon and Jesus.
‘a Neewwspaper, Baby!’
From the moment Roy stepped into our midst, stories were no longer assigned; they were Aaronized, a phenomenon that could terrify and vex as much as inspire. To wit, the day President Reagan announced he was getting a hearing aid. Roy, hell-bent on our being the first and last word on it all, pronounced:
“I don’t just want a story on hearing aids — I want the ?aids, the sociology of hearing aids … I want pictures! I want diagrams!”
And when did he want it, I asked, figuring Aarons would say something like next week, or even Sunday. I was a feature writer, accustomed to getting some time to think.
Roy’s Michelangelo jaw tensed. Up went the hands. “Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Tomorrow! This is a neewwspaper, Baby!”
And then he danced — literally danced — away.
My husband, who was Roy’s managing editor in Oakland, told an obit writer that Aarons “was American journalism’s best chance of proving that perpetual motion was possible. His energy was invigorating and liberating.”
Big ideas, boundless hope
To me, that captures the essence of Roy’s presence in our newsroom, but with a twist. While he invigorated and liberated us (and sometimes drove us nuts) with big ideas and boundless hope, we in turn, invigorated and liberated him by not blinking once at who he was outside of the newsroom: A gay man who had fallen in love with a young Israeli financier named Joshua Boneh, with whom he was building a life.
In an extraordinary interview last year with Aissatou Sidime-David on the Chips Quinn Web site, Roy explains:
“When we moved to California in 1983, some people knew I was gay, but not a lot. I joined the Tribune, and said to myself, ‘I am not going to one more newspaper job in this country and hide my life under a barrel.’ So, very shortly after I arrived, I held a reception at our home for the staff. They all showed up, and there was Josh and I greeting them at the top of the steps. And I was out.”
We would learn later — because he told us — that for all his journalistic success in the Eastern establishment, Roy painstakingly hid his homosexuality and lived in fear that he would be found out, his career ruined. He would tell us that part of his decision to join Bob in Oakland was to do great journalism, but to do it, for the first time in his life, on his terms — living fully and openly with his partner, and inviting his colleagues to share his happiness.
Starting a revolution
Roy often said that the richness of the life he lived in Oakland — the intertwining of his personal and professional selves — gave him the courage to stand up at the now famous 1990 ASNE convention, and tell the assembled that he was proud of the group’s survey on gays and lesbians in newsrooms, proud, not just as an editor, “but as a gay man.” With that, he started a revolution.
Bob Maynard died in 1993 of prostate cancer after selling the Tribune to Dean Singleton’s Alameda Newspaper Group — and, not incidentally, after winning the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for news photography. Roy, who died Nov. 28 at age 70 after a long fight with bladder cancer, left the Tribune soon after his national coming out. He founded the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and as his six-person group became 1,200. He went on to write books, plays and operas, to sing, to garden, to play, to mentor the young, to grow older with Josh.
But during that particular time, in that particular place, Roy and Bob were what journalism could be, should be — without bitterness or cheapness, without corporate hammerlock, without the systemic fear of being radical, wonderful, full of surprises. People who believed in themselves, and in you.
We can honor them by dwelling where they walked, in the Possible.
Mary Ann Hogan, an independent journalist living in South Florida, was a reporter at the Maynard-era Oakland Tribune during the 1980s. She credits Aarons for inspiring her second career, as a writing coach. Since 1997, she has been involved as a training editor with the Chips Quinn Scholars Program for Newsroom Diversity. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.