Back in the 1990s, I was working as a news editor at The Seattle Times, putting commas in the right places, writing headlines and helping decide where to put things in each day’s edition. That last part was never a problem for stories by Alex Tizon.
“A Tizon story? Put it on Page 1. Photos by Alan Berner? Make it the centerpiece.”
I was reminded of that in a sad way on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore when people who knew Alex or admired him gathered to hear readings from “Invisible People,” his book of stories he had written for books, magazines and newspapers where he had worked. His work was there, but Alex was not. He died in 2017 at age 57.
His work was read by a student from Seattle University and by his younger daughter, who is a student at the University of Washington.
People who brought this book together explained their roles and why they wanted to see these stories published in a collection.
Melissa, Alex’s widow, remembered Sam Howe Verhovek, who worked with Tizon at the Los Angeles Times, coming up to her at Alex’s funeral and saying, “Don’t throw anything away. Let’s preserve his voice.”
Sam wanted future journalists to learn from the way Alex used literary techniques to tell news stories. So Sam went through what Melissa had saved, won cooperation from Atlantic magazine, the Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times and got David Boardman, former Seattle Times executive editor, to “go to bat” for this book at Temple University Press. Boardman probably had the inside track there as he is now dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple in Philadelphia. He referred to the book as “great journalism by a great journalist.”
Several of Tizon’s co-workers and editors wrote introductions to his stories reprinted in the book. As a former news editor, I see this book is a gift to me and my memory. The problem a news editor has is trying to remember a story – no matter how good – as it flies by in the whirl of four editions a day (back then). The story is there one day, then we’re reading copy for the next day’s paper. And now, with the news running on a full 24-hour news cycle, I wonder how anyone will remember anything that happens.
But Tizon’s book reminded me of how well he could, as one of the commentators said Thursday night, take an assignment that might be a throwaway to another reporter and “find a story with anyone.”
I also remember that Alex still told the news. In a story he wrote about a young bride from the Philippines murdered with two others in the hallway of Seattle’s King County courthouse, he talks about the mail-order bride business, the village in the Philippines where Susana came from, her life there, her time with Timothy Blackwell, who brought her to the United States and then, outside an ugly trial to annul their marriage, shot her three times, also killing a baby she was carrying.
When terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing more than 3,000 and injuring 6,000, Tizon teamed up with photographer Berner on a cross-America trip. The story I remember from that series was the interview with Birdella and Ollie May Wells, a daughter, 49, and mother, 74, sitting on their front porch and “talking to neighbors passing by.”
They were “raised on grits and church hymns.” Ollie May’s “face was as stretchy as a rubber band, her voice, happy as a banjo.” She referred to the terrorists as “Kamikazmi-nauts” and noticed that “much of America seemed to be thinking of God right now.”
“An airplane goin’ into a building will do that,” said Ollie May. “Praise be to Jesus,” said Birdella.
It’s an added delight to read the stories that didn’t pass over my desk at The Seattle Times and to reread those that did in a voice that needs to be preserved.