The Tardy Times
How Phiz Mezey's 'loyalty oath' firing 
iscerated the journalism program

Plus other newsnotes from the 1950s

. . . and an update on Al Martinez

IN THE FALL of 1951, when the future founder of The Tardy Times entered SF State as a 17-year-old freshman, he was awed by the grace, courtesy and talent of Norma Swain,  editor of the Golden Gater student newspaper.  She had a difficult job.
   Faculty adviser Phiz Mezey, a young photography teacher, had been fired the year before. She had refused on principle to  sign the loyalty oath, a nonsenical issue in the Red Scare witch hunts remembered for Joe McCarthy and HUAC hearings. (It was nonsensical because, of course, any defectors, traitors and sellers of secrets couldn’t wait to sign the oath and swear they had never belonged to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the motherland. The real targets were liberals.)
  A freshman was hardly likely to know then that in the previous spring, the loyalty oath problem had been resolved for the journalism program at SF State. Political appointees on the State Board of Education, then in charge of the normal schools being outfitted as state colleges, simply abolished the program. Instead of a journalism major, students would get a "journalism emphasis" degree in the Department of Language Arts. (Of course, the renamed English Department had little to do with what are usually thought of as languages or, for that matter, arts.) In the name of reallocating the system's resources, aspiring journalists in the Bay Area were thus encouraged to attend San Jose State. On that quiet campus, where the "loyalty oath" was not an issue, newspaper journalism would be bundled into a hodgepodge program of "communications"– public relations, broadcasting, advertising and so forth.
MEZEY'S successor, ambitious drama teacher Herbert Blau, had zero interest as adviser to the Golden Gater. (He would soon co-found the Actors Workshop in San Francisco and then the Repertory Theater in New York. Today he's a professor at the University of Washington.) As the newspaper's alleged adviser, however, he may have been afflicted with claustropobia. The Gater had been punished further by being shunted to a windowless dungeon in the catacombs under what was then the college campus at Laguna and Haight streets. Blau was seldom seen.
     It was up to Norma. She handled the difficult situation with cool aplomb, and so did her successors, the spring semester’s co-editors – Jerry Bowkett, an ex-Marine on the GI Bill, and Vic Spingolo, now a 77-year-old in Honolulu. 
NORMA and Jerry were married later that spring, and graduation took the  last of the seniors who had majored in journalism.  
    Two semesters later, I completed my sophomore year as editor of the paper and then dropped out. I had intended to transfer to Cal. Instead, I was drafted. I returned to SF State three years later to finish up my degree requirements, but by that time I was getting the GI Bill and working part-time at the Independent-Journal in San Rafael.
   After a stint with UPI in Washington, D.C., Jerry moved with Norma to her home state, Alaska, where he worked first for the Anchorage Times, then the Anchorage Daily News as its state capital bureau chief. Then he took over as editor of Juneau's daily, the Southeast Alaska Empire. He was director of information services and spokesman for the University of Alaska, and press secretary and special assistant to Alaska's first governor. Jerry (as Gerald E. Bowkett) is author of “Reaching for a Star,” a book published in 1989 about the final campaign for Alaska statehood.
    Norma, who taught English at the University of Alaska and elsewhere, joined Alaska's state education department. She was author of  “Directions 70s: An Assessment of Educational Needs in Alaska.” Norma and Jerry taught English for a year in China, employed by the Shanghai Institute of Tourism. The long Alaska winters got to them about 13 years ago. They moved to Sun City West in Arizona, where she writes, she says, “a word a year of poetry” and stories for children and young adults. Jerry works on fiction.
JERRY asked for an update on Phiz Mezey.  She had been one of eight SF State faculty members fired that year for refusing to sign the Levering Act's loyalty oath for state employees. Twenty-nine years later, the State Board of Control awarded her (and the other non-signers) the almost insulting sum of $25,000.
   To add injury to insult, the legislature refused to appropriate the money. In the same year, as if to make up for three decades, she was appointed to a part-time, then full-time, tenure-track position at SF State – as a new employee.  There was no reinstatement. As a professor with tenure, however, she taught photography  until she retired – this time, at her own request.
   I never knew her back in the day.  Her home on Bernal Heights is walking distance from our house. At age 80, she is celebrated for a lifetime of outstanding photography.

Life after death

AL MARTINEZ, SF State's most-decorated journalism alumnus, didn't roll over when learned last year that the new owners of the LA Times had spiked the column that won him the Pulitzer Prize and other awards too numerous to count. In an email to his colleagues on May 23, 2007, the 77-year-old pundit wrote: "To all: I dislike rumors and so I take these means to tell you all that I am a victim of the buyout/layoff frenzy. My final column for a newspaper I have worked for since 1972, in a business I have been a part of since 1952, winning more awards and honors than would ever fit on my wall, will be Friday, June 1st. I always thought that I would be the one to decide when it was time to walk away, when my prose faltered and my thinking blurred. But that's not the way it works anymore with the owners we have in the climate that exists. Too bad. I think I deserved a better way of ending such a long and honorable career."
  The response must have surprised the proconsuls from the Chicago Tribune who had decided on "a change in direction in our lineup of columnists." Former Timesman Bill Boyarsky, in LAObserved, wrote, "Of all the stupidities committed by the new owners of the Los Angeles Times, the dumping of Al Martinez is one of the worst. A newspaper is supposed to reach out to its readers. Al has that  unique gift. Even after ignorant editors exiled him far to the rear of feature sections, he retained his big and loyal following."
AL LEFT SF State in 1950 for the Korean War, but the Marine Corps infantryman sent occasional dispatches to the Golden Gater. He attended Cal and got his first reporting job at the now-defunct Richmond Independent. In 1955, the Oakland native was hired by the Tribune for a 17-year stint as a reporter, feature writer and columnist. In his novel, "The Last City Room," the Trib is reclothed as the San Francisco Herald with a cast of hard-drinking characters and a demented publisher who might remind people of the late Bill Knowland.
   Hired by the LA Times in 1972, Al wrote features for a dozen years before he began his columns in 1984. He was co-winner of the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service for a series on Latino communities, and he shared in two other Pulitzer awards. He also wrote .  "City of Angles, a Drive-By Portrait of L.A." and "Rising Voices: A New Generation." He had a hand in creating three TV series and contributed to more than 20 TV scripts.
THE DISAPPEARANCE of his column prompted a barrage of reader protests. Then a funny thing happened. He was summoned to the office of the new editor, Jim O'Shea, and his column was reinstated. (Nobody can recall anything like it in the half century since the Chronicle forgave Herb Caen and gleefully stole his column back from the Examiner. Editors never  admit mistakes. See the page on Stephanie Salter, Back Home in Indiana.) 
   "What O'Shea wanted was to apologize for the abrupt manner in which I was tossed to the dingoes and to ask if I would like to return one day a week. I indicated I would, but not down there in the basement, crunched between the movie ads and the comic strip "Zits." He said we'd work it out," he wrote in his comeback column.
    ". . .  I came to realize the connections I had made with those to whom I had directed millions of words over the past years. It was like an army had assembled, and the battle cry was to bring the old guy back. It worked. I am here in a better place than I was, doing what I like to do, trying to ignore the feeling that I remain in a pro tem status, realizing that in a certain way we are all pro tem."
In other 1950s alumni news:
Luisa (Hepper) Kathriner  lives in Chico, where she retired after long career as a teacher in Washington High School in Fremont. With her husband, Stephen Kathriner, she is still active in the Speech Performing Arts Association. They had to give up their beautiful Victorian house in San Mateo because, she said, she couldn't get up and down the stairs any more. While on a drive to check out other places, they stopped in Chico. “Everybody was so nice,” she said. . . . Dale Tussing (see the Tardy Books page) is about to retire as a professor of economics at Syracuse University). . . Claude Crownover, retired from a state agency, settled down in Paradise. That would be the town in Butte County, not the heavenly state of being where we might find Ken McDevitt, Le Pacini, Diane (Heagerty) McGauley, Frank Galo, Mac Hilliard, William deClark, Ruth Wood and too many more.
    But what word, if any, about Hal Grant, Lenore Ricci, Toni (Smith) Berry, Cecil Riley, Bob Horn, Vic Gipson, Herb Colton, Keith Pinckney, Aldo Baldini . . . ?

Lynn Ludlow
The Tardy Times
September 2008

Website Builder