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Some of L.A.'s Best Treasures Are Human

June 05, 1995|JACK SMITH

It was a banner week (two weeks actually) for us old folks.

First, the County Commission on Aging held a luncheon at the Music Center to honor 87 men and women on the 29th annual Older Americans Recognition Day.

It was a long afternoon. Each of the 87 honorees was called forward to receive a resolution from the supervisor (or his or her stand-in) of his or her district.

"Whereas, these older volunteers work with our youth, assist the homeless, support food pantries, visit shut-ins, advocate on behalf of nursing home patients, deliver and serve meals to the elderly, provide transportation to the frail and work in community hospitals . . . and through these activities and others our older population continues to demonstrate the commitment to enhancing the quality of life for us all. . . ."

Briefly, until she was called upon, the unsinkable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, supervisor of the 2nd District, sat next to me and I was telling her one of my interminable stories when she had to leave. She never came back.

A couple of nights later I was a guest at a dinner meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists at Taix French Restaurant. The evening was devoted to the "Front Page" days of journalism in Los Angeles, when there were five Downtown newspapers in vigorous competition.

I told of writing my first story on the Black Dahlia when I was on rewrite for the old Daily News in 1947. I wrote that "The nude body of a young woman, severed at the waist, was found on a weeded vacant lot near USC early today."

When the paper came up, I was surprised to see that it had been changed to read "the nude body of a beautiful young woman" and so on. That's when I found out that all nude young women whose bodies were found dissected were beautiful.

I also meant to tell the origin of the name "Black Dahlia," but I got distracted. Our police beat reporter told me that the proprietor of a Long Beach drugstore often saw Elizabeth Short when she came into the shop with a few of her teen-age friends to have milkshakes at the bar. I phoned this man and he told me that she wore her black hair in a bouffant hairdo, and because of this, her friends called her "the Black Dahlia." Bells went off in my head. I immediately wrote a new lead for my story, giving her that name. Though the point is contested, I think we were the first paper on the street to use that dramatic sobriquet.

I also told the story (going over my time limit) about the scandalous Confidential magazine trial. I was taking turns on that assignment for the Daily News with Jack Jones, each of us writing under his own name. An offended reader wrote that not only was it deplorable that the News would cover such trash, but our shame was evident in the fact that our two reporters wrote under phony names.

Another old-timer present was Will Fowler, who worked for the Herald-Express and happened upon Elizabeth Short's beautiful severed body before any other reporter. Will called his celebrated city editor, Agness Underwood, who came over for a look, and the story was on its way.

Of course the murderer was never found, and books have been written about who it might have been.

The third event in honor of older citizens was the 70th annual meeting and awards luncheon of the Central City Assn. at the Biltmore. It honored 20 persons as Treasures of L.A. Each was presented with a bronze and marble trophy by Mayor Richard Riordan.

I happened to sit next to one of the treasures, Paul Conrad, retired Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist whose syndicated work continues to appear in the paper.

Conrad is indeed a treasure. He can say more with a few strokes of his pen than most political commentators can say in a whole column. None of the treasures were allowed to make speeches, which was a pity. I'd like to have heard Conrad. Not that I didn't get an earful from sitting next to him. He was a better listener than Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, though not as good to look at.

Among other treasures were Rafer Johnson, who lighted the torch for the 1984 Olympic Games; Wolfgang Puck, who is said to make a good pizza; John Wooden, the coach; Milton Berle, who nobly restrained himself from making a speech; Nobel Prize winners Rudolph Marcus and George Olah; muralist Kent Twitchell; the Homeboy Bakery; Dr. Cecil Murray, pastor of the First A.M.E. Church; actor George Takei, and designer Carole Little.

Altogether, it was a good week (or two weeks) for us old-timers. It reassures us that we are not unappreciated, and inspires us to make further contributions.

I'm not finished yet, and I know Conrad isn't. Of course, Conrad is just a kid.

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