George Ramos scared the hell out of me.
At the time—my senior year of college—I wasn’t really enthused by the prospect of having a professor point out my writing flaws to an entire classroom or wrathfully question my editorial judgment in allowing an over-the-top sex columnist in the college newspaper. I often wondered in my head—and aloud to classmates—why he would put his students in unbearably awkward situations, why he would get so angry when we let him down, and why he made us work hard to get every detail right.
I cursed him some days and loved to brag about him on others. I often think about him and wonder if he’d be proud. Or maybe he’d just remind me of all the trouble I caused him, how much grief I gave him. That’s one thing I know, I likely made his life as difficult as he made mine.
George Ramos, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times reporter and the former head of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo journalism department, was found dead in his Central Coast home in late July. He was only 63. As soon as reports of his passing hit news sites throughout California, my college friends began posting links to stories on Facebook and sending me emails with subjects lines that read “So sad.” A Facebook page dedicated to his memory was up the day after.
It all seemed to hit me like a slow-motion punch—the kind in the final scene of a boxing movie, with beads of sweat and saliva angelically soaring out of frame and the fighter’s jaw unhurriedly dislocating.
Surely, I thought, this could not be. George, as he asked us to call him, was indestructible. He had covered the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict and the 1992 Northridge earthquake, risking his life to share the stories of those most hurt. He co-edited a 26-part series on Latinos in Southern California, which received the Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service, the granddaddy of journalistic awards.
Before that, he served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army first lieutenant in the field artillery. And after decades as a reporter, George went into academia and became a poignant figure in the lives of many students. He made us more passionate journalists and stronger people.
The news of his death came as I was working on the Smart Issue. These sort of issues always give me hope for younger generations; while social media and technology may turn them into funny, little cyber-creatures, there are so many schools developing programs that will positively shape young minds, and there are so many kids who are already spectacular people. What’s harder to assess and to highlight is the individual role teachers play in our lives and the lives of our children. The difference between a “good” teacher and an “OK” teacher is vast, and it’s a difference measured in not just test scores but in student passion and achievement.
When I think about the teachers who made a difference in my life—not just in school but those mentors who continue to force lessons upon me—it was never the “easy” teachers who I remember, never the teachers who let us watch Rudy during freshman biology, never the teachers who stood by and let me fail with a sympathetic smile and a pat on the head. Instead, especially today, I’m remembering most the one who scared me to death but brought out the fight in me.
George Ramos will leave several legacies—as a reporter, as an LA native, as a Latino. But I’ll remember him as a teacher.