An ode to George Ramos

He was always proud to say that his Cal Poly class ring said both "BS" and "'69" -- and he wasn't afraid to make an inappropriate joke about it in front of 60 parents at graduation.

George Ramos was never afraid to show his true colors -- even in what should have been a very official, professional role as Department Chair of the Cal Poly journalism department. He was a riot. He was sometimes inappropriate. He cursed a lot. But he knew his shit, and he knew it well.

It's funny, maybe ironic, that I'm sitting down to write a blog post about the death of George Ramos -- the very man who taught me how to write obituaries.

But this post isn't so much an obituary as it is an ode to all George Ramos did to shape me into the person I am today. It's an ode that I think will resonate with those students who knew him as a professor and editor. So, let's start at the beginning.

***

My story with George goes back before my college days. Flash to October 2006. I was 17. We were at Cal Poly for a journalism field trip to meet George Ramos, the then-chair of Cal Poly's journalism department and recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes. The trip was made possible thanks to Claudia Elliott, an editor of small weekly newspaper in my hometown, and former classmate of George's when they both attended Cal Poly.

I was immediately drawn to George's enthusiasm about advising The Mustang Daily, Cal Poly's student newspaper -- an enthusiasm that stemmed from his days as an editor in the '60s. It was more than enthusiasm. He loved what he did. The burning, obsessive kind of love. The kind of love that you wake up for every morning. You could see it in his eyes and hear it in the way he spoke about the newspaper.

Before that overcast Saturday morning, I had never considered going to a CSU for college, but I walked out of the Mustang Daily newsroom clutching George's business card in my hand and picturing myself walking through those halls as a student editor myself.

A few months later, I emailed George and thanked him for taking time out of his weekend to talk to my newspaper staff (I was editor in chief of grizzlygazette.net). I ambushed him with questions about myself potentially attending Cal Poly and getting involved with the paper.

From Lauren to George, Feb. 7, 2011: [...] Thanks to your uplifting spirit and general enthusiasm, I discarded my dream of being a Cal Bear and took a keen interest in becoming a Mustang. I am writing to you just to find out more general information about your journalism program. Do I get to start taking journalism classes as a freshman? How long do I have to wait until I can be a writer for the Mustang Daily? What are the chances that I'd get to work with the online/multimedia aspect of the paper? [...]

He was quick to respond, with very detailed answers. He told me I could get involved as a freshman and told me which classes to take. He was the kind of person who took the time for things like that -- anything to help his students. This was just the first of many email exchanges to come.

The day I emailed him to tell him that I got into Cal Poly and would be a student in his journalism department, his response was to the point: "ALRIGHT!!!! CONGRATULATIONS!!!!" (I always loved how his emails always contained either no capitalization or all caps).

His time as department chair at Cal Poly wasn't all sunshine and smiles, though. George could navigate through court records with his eyes closed, but he definitely didn't have a Pulitzer in administrative bookkeeping, a large part of what the department chair does. In August 2007, the department announced that George would be stepping down as department chair:

When he took the job, Ramos told Cal Poly Magazine that his No. 1 goal was to get the department accredited again the department lost its accreditation the year before Ramos arrived. In a recent department alumni newsletter, Ramos said accreditation was lost because of inadequate governance, a lack of diversity, and substandard facilities and equipment. He described ways the department was working to address those issues, ranging from new hiring to pushing for a new studio for the campus radio station.

Kara Lynch of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications said that the school is not listed as accredited in its most recent information, updated for the new school year.

But at the start of the 2008 school year, George kept his role as advisor to the Mustang Daily, and he continued doing what he did best -- teaching us how to report.

"I'm still the reporter. I'm still a journalist," George told me and the rest of his Public Affairs Reporting class on the first day of spring quarter 2009. "I don't really consider myself an academic."

He said he doesn't want his students to see him as a professor, but as an editor. And a ruthless editor he was. He knew how to tear our stories to pieces and tell us when our writing was pure crap. But all his criticisms made us stronger.

George always supported my hated of the Central Valley of California where I grew up. When I got a journalism scholarship for covering women's issues, he sent me this email:

lauren, this is more evidence that you're headed for a great career in anything you want to do with your future. i'm personally glad you decided to foresake the san joaquin valley to come to poly. george r.

Like I said, always honest, never afraid to show his true colors. Never afraid to brag about his three Pulitzers or tell you the story of how he'd go door-to-door in East LA looking for sources in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Southern California.

Although I respected George immensely for his contribution to three Pulitzer Prizes while he was at the L.A. Times, I was even more impressed by his ability to go out of his comfort zone and embrace the web. It was a move I never expected from him.

“You’ll get away from those damn keyboards and go out and report,” I recall him saying during the first day of his Public Affairs Reporting class. Comments like this weren't uncommon. He knew the web was important to the changing journalism landscape, but it wasn't for him -- it was for us kids to figure out.

But something in him must have changed when he decided to join the web-only investigative reporting site, Cal Coast News. Before he joined the San Luis Obispo blog team, the website had a reputation of being highly sensational and speculation-based.

George himself often spoke ill of it in the classroom, which is perhaps why it came as such a huge surprised when he joined as an editor. I sent him an email applauding him, saying, "George Ramos at a blog?! I love it!" and encouraging him to make a Twitter and Facebook account. He told me he didn't know about all that social media stuff, but he saw it as a great opportunity to improve the quality of the blog and learn about new journalism.

If he stuck with it this long, he must have enjoyed it. His no-bullshit approach has only made the blog more credible during his time there

I have tons of other stories to share about George. I'm sure everyone else does too -- and please, if you do, feel free to share in the comments. But the most important thing to know is that though he put on a tough face, he really and truly cared about his students. He wanted us to succeed and he supported our hopes and dreams.

I salute you, Mr. Ramos, for all you taught me. If I hadn't met you five years ago, I probably wouldn't have gone to Cal Poly. I don't know who I'd be if your colorful personality wasn't a part of my life. George will live on through his words and in the hearts of those who had the honor of knowing him.

What people are saying about George's passing

Below I've collected response from social media about George's life and his impact.