“He was a really fine person, even if he’d never admit it.”
Those are the words of good friend and former San Diego Union-Tribune colleague, Bob Laurence. He was describing Al JaCoby, newspaperman, mentor and my friend for nearly four decades. Al, the founding president of ONO and host of the first ONO meeting some 27 years ago, died June 2. He was 81.
Alfred William JaCoby Jr. tried to pass himself off as a curmudgeon. Those who loved him and knew better pretended to buy his act. We knew that behind the rough and gruff exterior was a man who was passionate about news and who cared deeply for people. He loved newspapers; he loved being a newspaperman, and he was good at it.
He threw himself into every assignment that came his way, including being the The San Diego Union’s second ombudsman, He may have been No. 2, but he was No. 1 in giving the job visibility and gravitas He was trail blazer for other ombudsman – not just at The San Diego Union but at other newspapers as well.
Art Nauman, former executive secretary and the heart of ONO for more than 10 years, recalled that he became acquainted with Al when he was first appointed ombudsman for the Sacramento Bee in the summer of 1980. Like many of us who have been tapped for the position, he had deep reservations.
“I knew how the Bee’s ombudsman functioned and, frankly, I was dubious about the whole concept,” Nauman recalled.
The retiring ombudsman was eager for Art to replace him. Call around to some of the country’s other ombudsmen and just ask them about the job and how they do it, he advised. “But the very first guy you want to call is Al JaCoby down in San Diego. He does it the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Nauman recalls a lengthy conversation with JaCoby and remembers thinking “this fellow’s way of speaking sounds to me a little like W.C. Fields.” Al gave it to him straight. He told him the good and bad things about working as a news ombudsman.
“Very soon Al became my mentor, guide, advisor, crying post, fellow gossiper and – in the end, a comrade in arms.
“It was all done over the phone – until I finally met Al in the flesh at the first ONO convention in San Diego in, I believe, 1981. I think he had put the program together single-handedly.
“The first meeting more or less laid the groundwork for ONO’s future. For years afterward Al was ONO’s lodestar and its best friend, employing his no- nonsense style of leadership to keep it going, helping make it thrive and establishing ONO as a respected element of our profession.”
As the saying goes, it was the start of a beautiful friendship that outlasted JaCoby’s tenure as ombudsman and that included occasional visits between Nauman and his wife Alice, JaCoby and his wife, Pat, and sometimes, other ombudsmen.
Al had the respect of those who worked with him. John W. Sweeney, who then worked in the ad services department of the Union-Tribune and who described himself as a frustrated journalist, remembers overhearing a conversation between Al and a young reporter circa 1974, years before Al became the Union’s ombudsman. The story was about a fire in which a man was killed.
“But it’s a direct quote from the fire chief,” Sweeney overheard the reporter telling Al, who responded: “I don’t care, you can’t use it! God, man, consider the man’s family. How would you feel if your father had burned to a crisp? No, absolutely not! Lose it.”
No need to wonder who won that battle, is there?
Dan Berger, now a syndicated wine writer who publishes a weekly wine newsletter recalls Al as an amateur wine maker and wine lover.
“But by far, the most in-depth contact I had with Al was when he was the ombudsman for the Union,” Dan said.
One day, Dan was walking through a store parking lot and saw a woman in a new, bright red Porsche pull into the handicapped space in front, get out and begin to unload empty soda bottles into a cart.
“I was so incensed by the audacity of the episode that I went back to the Union” and wrote a column entitled “Open Letter to the woman in the red Porsche.”
“The tag line had something to do with her only handicap being mental.” Berger and the editor agreed that the column should include the woman’s license plate number so as not to indict all women in San Diego driving red Porsches.
Once his column ran, Berger started getting phone calls of support, followed by about 30 letters. This was long before e-mail.
“Not a single complaint—until week’s end when the woman’s lawyer called and demanded a complete retraction or she would sue for libel,” Berger said
“As ombudsman, Al JaCoby handled the call and then sauntered over to my desk to chat about it. He first told me it was a great column but that the woman was well-known and the article held her up to ridicule.”
Berger defended himself, saying he was just reporting her actions. Then he showed Al the bundle of letters in support.
Al called the lawyer and a few hours later returned to Berger’s desk. The woman claimed that she was using the parking space because her elderly and infirm grandmother was a passenger.
“Well, the grandmother must have been really small because the only thing on the passenger seat was a game program from the USC-Hawaii football game that had been played the prior week – in Hawaii,” Berger said.
“Al grinned as wide as I had ever seen and he said, ‘Are you prepared to write that if we need it?’” Berger said yes and an hour later Al returned to his desk to said the matter had been resolved.
“Al said he told the lawyer that the Union’s reporter hadn’t mentioned the USC-Hawaii game program being on the passenger seat, but was prepared to write a follow-up story (about the program) and the letters and calls of support he had gotten over the story.”
That’s when the lawyer agreed that another story “would not be a good thing” and withdrew the demand for retraction.
“Al was a great journalist, raconteur and one of my favorite people on the Union,” Berger said. “I will miss his wry humor, pithy observations on journalism, and his passion for a great bottle of wine.”
I will drink to that. Rest in peace, dear friend.
ONO President 1999-2000
ONO Executive Secretary 2001-2009