Nov 19, 1949 - Dec 24, 2015.
BERKELEY -- Paul Grabowicz, a former Oakland Tribune reporter who became a pioneering and beloved teacher of digital journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, died Thursday at home in Pleasant Hill. He was 66.
Upon learning of his death from cancer, his students, fellow lecturers and former Tribune colleagues remembered Grabowicz as an old-school, irreverent and curmudgeonly journalist who became an early champion of online news. He is survived by his wife, Anne, who said Thursday that "he was taken way too soon. He had so much more to give to his students. He was one of the lucky ones who really loved his job."
At the Oakland Tribune, where he worked for 20 years as an investigative reporter before leaving for academia, he was a meticulous reporter who tirelessly chased down stories about corruption and crime. He was known affectionately as "Grabs" at both the newspaper and the UC Berkeley journalism school, where he was a senior lecturer and administrator for 20 years. "He was one of the best investigative reporters I've worked with in my 50 years at the Oakland Tribune" said reporter Harry Harris. "His coverage of crime, corruption, terrorism and other issues should be textbook material for anyone in journalism. Bay Area journalism has lost one of its greats."
Grabowicz joined the UC Berkeley journalism department in 1995 and founded its pioneering New Media Program, the journalism school reported Thursday on its website. "Nobody embodied the character and mission of the School of Journalism as fully and irreplaceable as Grabs," said UC Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman. Remembrances from students, fellow teachers and former co-workers flooded social media and other platforms in response to the news of his death.
Cynthia Gorney, a contributing writer at National Geographic, shared memories of meeting Grabowicz four decades ago while she was a UC Berkeley journalism student."We entered into a relationship of love and quarreling that never ceased," Gorney said. "I loved that guy. Nearly every one of our conversations involved cussing. If he wasn't swearing, you knew there was something wrong.
"It's a cliche to say I never met anyone like him and I never will, but it's absolutely true," she said. One of many popular memories of Grabowicz was at the university's graduate journalism school holiday party. "The highlight of the J-school holiday party, including last year if my memory serves, was Grabs walking in about an hour after it started in his Santa suit," Gorney said. His old-school journalism values and visionary approach on the promise and potential of multimedia platforms stood out for many. "He would tell all of us print reporters that everything we wrote was too long, and that it would be better on the Internet, but we knew he still respected print reporting," former student and instructor Kara Platoni said Thursday. "He taught public records ... until he got sick, so he was a great champion of teaching students how to dig, how to go to the assessor, how to ask difficult questions, how to dig up court records, how to read a spreadsheet, how to find documents."In a strange way, although he was at the cutting edge, he was deeply rooted in traditional reporting skills and in conveying them to a new generation of reporters." Gorney recalled the workshops Grabowicz began as a weird experiment on teaching the team-built construction of multimedia websites.
"Before long, veteran journalists were calling me to try to pull strings to get higher on waiting lists. He remained absolutely steadfast in this and won all of us over to this clearer understanding of what was going to have to happen," she said. Grabowicz drew praise for his work investigating city and regional institutions with equal measures of aplomb and care. George T. Hart, a 36-year Oakland Police Department veteran who retired as the Oakland police chief in 1993, offered his condolences and memories.
"Paul was a straight-up guy if there ever was one. He called it as he saw it," Hart said. "In my experiences with him, he would always get the full story, the factual story. He wasn't quick to rush to judgment. Because of his research and getting the facts right, when the story came out in the Tribune it was right on."
Tom Orloff, a former Alameda County District Attorney with a 40-year career as a prosecutor, recalled Grabowicz's work with respect. "He was one of the really good guys," Orloff said. "He was extremely insightful and competent and fair and he had fun with his work." As a youth growing up in Southwick, Massachusetts, Grabowicz picked tobacco, according to the journalism school. He attended Clarkson University in northern New York and soon transferred to UC Berkeley. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in sociology, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1975, Grabowicz began reporting for the Berkeley Barb, and over the years, he wrote for the Washington Post, Esquire magazine, The Village Voice, Newsday, the Online Journalism Review and Nieman Reports, according to the journalism school.
Eric Newton, another former colleague at the Oakland Tribune, recalled on the journalism school's website that "Paul was a huge part of how the Tribune systematically investigated almost every major institution in the region from the early '80s to the early '90s. He was the backbone of the investigative team. "He would often help other reporters who were on to some kind of investigation but needed help digging something up. He was constantly helping other people," said Newton, former head of journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and now on the faculty at Arizona State University.
Roy Mejia, the owner and bartender at Oakland's 19th Street Station bar, remembered Grabowicz's pairing of work and relaxation. "He was young, younger than me, and he cussed a lot. I'd say 'hey Paul, you eat with that mouth?' He was a little salty, salt and pepper," Mejia said. "But he never was disrespectful, a decent person, a nice guy. He drank bourbon, they all drank bourbon with a beer back, a little glass of draft as a chaser." Mejia recalled meeting Grabowicz in the early 1980s. "He was a very hard-working reporter. He would not stop. I remember he and (former Tribune city editor) Bob Cuthbertson would sit there and talk business. It was different times back then, but he used to be in there every night and talk about how stories were going to come together. Him and (another former Tribune city editor) Sam Williams and Gayle Montgomery, the political writer, it was like a bunch of kids playing cards." His longest-lived legacy will come from the students he taught and inspired to pursue journalism.
Meghann Farnsworth, managing editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting, recalled his inspirational role. "There's so much criticism of journalists because of the changes and fluctuations in the industry, but Grabs represents so many of the reasons we stay in: to embrace opportunity, and to follow traditions," Farnsworth said. "We can take inspiration from someone willing to give knowledge to others, but pursue innovative avenues. Hopefully, those of us can take that spirit and constantly reinvent ourselves and embrace youth and change."
Lily Mihalik, senior designer on the Los Angeles Times' data desk, remembered Grabowicz fondly. "He was the person you might least expect to be pushing multimedia at the grad school, you would think it would be younger faculty pushing," Mihalik said. "He was really the driving force behind the school so, in some ways, it worries me a little that he's gone. It benefited me in the end to work on storytelling tools for journalists, and I wouldn't have gone into that if it hadn't been for him."
"The biggest thing is that he was ahead of his time in his reporting, in the way he taught," said Kara Andrade, a former student now pursuing her doctorate in American University's communications program in Washington, D.C. "He showed you could be an academic and still continue to do your work and make your work be relevant and have social impact, so that's what I continue to do now.
"Whatever you learn in the ivory tower, make it relevant and do public good with it. I'm going to miss him a lot. It was always heartening to know he was training the next generation of journalists with the same openhearted spirit. He was a great mentor in every way."
A memorial service at the Journalism School will be held in January; funeral arrangements were pending.