Remembering Al Martinez: a teacher and student of people

By Henry T. Mendoza III:

The great thing about Al Martinez was the respect he had—for life, for his beloved wife Joanne, for the children they raised and nurtured, for his grandchildren, for good martinis, for Italian food, for cigars and for most of the people he encountered in his 85 years.

That was one of the best things about Al—when he met someone he reveled in bringing them to his readers. Mostly it was people, but it was also places and sunrises and sunsets. Even animals.

Al Martinez, longtime writer for the Los Angeles Times, died Jan. 12, 2015. He was 85.

Al Martinez, longtime writer for the Los Angeles Times, died Jan. 12, 2015. He was 85.

Al was a big personality who did not throw words around with his voice, preferring to put them on a page and write them in his eloquent style. That was our fortune.

I was lucky to meet him at the Los Angeles Times in 1980. When I worked there his desk was right in front of mine, so when he came in to pick up his check every two weeks he would say hello. I was in awe. Not for what he said to me, at first, but for what he wrote between those visits to the newsroom. Al preferred being out amongst people turning up their stories rather than sitting behind a desk in an office.

One time he was in the newsroom going through his mail, seemingly in a hurry to get out. The city editor called him, from about 30 feet away, for a meeting. Al sneered—he didn’t seem happy about that, but he walked up to the middle of the newsroom for the meeting. A few words were spoken and Al blew cigar smoke in the editor’s face. The meeting was short. (In those days, smoking was allowed indoors, even cigars.)

Those of us in the back of the room quietly smiled. After all, the paper had a reputation as a writer’s paper, and Al was as good as any, so we felt he was entitled.

Sharing a meal with Al was always fun. I felt privileged to be invited to join Al and his buddies for lunch—Jerry Belcher, Jerry Cohen, Bill Boyarsky, Steve Harvey, Bill Billiter and others. Al’s stories were often hilarious, always full of honest observations. I was a youngster with those writers, but Al made me feel like I belonged—as he did with everyone.

Years later, Al ran into me at an Italian restaurant we both loved. We then met there a few times and I was able to drag more writing lessons out of him. He also shared those lessons with my students at Cal State Fullerton. Everyone enjoyed that.

That’s why we all loved his writings and will miss new ones.

Al was a student of people, rich and poor and of every race and ethnicity. He taught us much about our Los Angeles and our world through his words and the way he lived.

In 2002, CCNMA honored Al with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and I was proud to introduce him.

Thank you, Al. We miss you already.

Henry T. Mendoza III is an adjunct professor of journalism at California State University, Fullerton, and a former executive director of CCNMA.

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