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HIGH LIFE : Student Press Association Lives On : 'Old School' Journalist Passed on Skills to New Generation of Reporters

August 05, 1988|MICHELE MITCHELL

It was October, 1981, and while Ralph Alexander lay in the Long Beach Veterans Hospital dying of cancer, his mind was concerned with something else--as usual. Alexander had never been very big on thinking about himself. He hadn't done it for the past 72 years, and he didn't figure to start on his death bed.

After all, he hadn't dressed five-and-dime to pull the California Scholastic Press Assn. out of the red for nothing. He had coddled the workshop for 31 years, molding it into an esteemed organization that churned out media talent with more regularity than most journalism schools. He had to find a way to make sure it wouldn't slam to a stop when he was no longer at the wheel.

It had almost happened twice before when he was "the chief," as such colleagues as Syd Kronenthal, director of human services in Culver City, called him.

"Ralph had this dream, when he wrote sports for the (Los Angeles) Examiner, of getting kids motivated in the media," Kronenthal said.

Alexander was an "old school" journalist who believed young talent should learn by hands-on experience. So, in 1950, he approached his publisher, William Randolph Hearst. He pitched Hearst the idea of having a sports page written entirely by high school reporters. Hearst bought it, and the Scholastic Sports Assn. was created.

A network of young sports stringers could suddenly live out their Red Smith fantasies. In 1952, the "Traditional 30" boys were recruited to apply for the SSA's first-ever two-week workshop at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "I don't think there's a high school in California that Ralph didn't visit at one time or another," Kronenthal said of Alexander's recruiting trips.

In 1962, however, the Examiner merged with the Los Angeles Herald, and suddenly there was no need for the SSA. Professionals were hired in greater numbers and the prep writers were released. But Alexander managed to salvage the workshop, now under the title of the Interscholastic Press Assn.

"The day we got on the Greyhound bus at Cal Poly (in 1962)," recalled Steve Harvey, now a writer for The Times, "was the day Marilyn Monroe died. I remember seeing the headlines in the news racks."

It was also the start of journalism boot camp with an average of 10 one-hour classes a day and on-the-spot deadlines for each one.

"I had heard from people that it was a tough, long, hard grind," said Larry Welborn, court reporter for the Orange County Register and currently CSPA chairman. "It was my first time away from home, and I was going to room with someone I didn't know. But I always knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. When you go to an intense, high-pressure program and battle intense deadlines every day, it helps that dream to fit so much better."

Completing the sizing was the reach of the workshop, which extended to thousands of dollars in scholarship money that Alexander had raised.

"Ralph and the CSPA helped me to get a scholarship to Pepperdine," Welborn said.

In 1967, employees at the Herald Examiner went on strike.

"Ralph had only 90 days left to reach his tenure," Kronenthal remembered, "but he said, 'All my friends are on strike. I can't be a scab.' So he went too."

Alexander lost all his benefits, and came close to losing his workshop, now called the CSPA, as well.

"It was a real bitter strike," said Welborn, who was then a workshop counselor. "All the files were locked, the mailing lists, the programs. . . . "

But CSPA, financed in part by donations and by Alexander and his wife, Millie, scraped together enough to survive.

"The strike had just started," recalled Art Aguilar, a 1967 graduate the CSPA workshop and now editor of Southern California Publishing Company. "It was a topic of discussion when we left (the workshop). Ralph was out of a job and trying to run the workshop."

Aguilar almost didn't attend that summer. "I didn't think I'd make it," the graduate of Pico Rivera El Rancho High School said. "But then Ralph called me right before the (application) deadline and said, 'You'd better apply.' "

What he found amid the intensity of the camp was practically a second home. "If Ralph was the captain, Millie was the drill sergeant, and wouldn't let you forget you still had a responsibility to behave like a human being," Aguilar said. "I felt like Millie was my mother at the workshop. When she spoke, I listened, let me tell you."

The workshop was in critical condition.

"Ralph begged and borrowed to keep the program afloat," Kronenthal remembered. The files were moved to Ralph's garage in Long Beach, alumni sent donations, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo President Bob Kennedy allowed the program to be held at the college at no cost except for food. But now, Ralph needed to charge a workshop fee--something he'd never done and something he was adamantly against--for CSPA to survive.

"The toughest thing," Aguilar said, "was convincing Ralph that we needed to charge the kids."

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