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VALLEY BUSINESS

It Will Be the Sun Editor's Moment to Shine

Journalism: Thelma Barrios, known as a Valley booster and unbiased newspaperwoman, will be honored.

May 18, 1999|ROBERTA G. WAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FERNANDO — It's hard for Thelma Barrios to be on the other end of an interview, since for nearly 40 years she's been the one asking the questions.

As editor and publisher, and at one point owner, of the San Fernando Valley Sun, Barrios is seen not only as the backbone of the nearly 100-year-old newspaper, but also as a vital link in keeping this town a community, of giving a voice to the public, and of being a conduit of information between government and citizens.

It's lofty praise and makes her squirm to hear it.

But that's why she's being honored June 3 with the Chief Dominick J. Rivetti Award, presented by the San Fernando Police Advisory Council for "years of dedication to the citizens of the San Fernando Valley." The award is named for the current police chief, who was the first recipient.

Barrios is astonished that anyone thinks she has had an impact on San Fernando, or done anything remarkable. She was just doing her job, she said.

Write a story about her? "Oh, honey, I'm not very interesting."

Give a dinner in her honor? "Oh, honey, who'd want to come?"

"Thelma just doesn't think she's done anything remarkable," said Isabel Boniface, a member of the Police Advisory Council. "She's so modest and unassuming, it took almost two months to get a bio from her. She's been the backbone of the northeast Valley without receiving or wanting any Brownie points."

Ask folks about Barrios and the same descriptions keep popping up: modest; honest; reliable; big-hearted; backbone of the community; totally dedicated to her neighborhood and her newspaper.

"Thelma has always recognized the need to have a newspaper grounded in the San Fernando Valley to cover local stories that are lost in bigger papers," says former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, who represented the northeast Valley from 1980-96 and was the second Rivetti award recipient.

"She provides a vital and a vanishing link, a real tie between people and what is happening in their neighborhood. It's a link that rarely exists these days."

Barrios, Katz continued, "has given readers the opportunity to learn about people and issues they wouldn't otherwise know about," such as development in Wilson Canyon or city liquor ordinances.

When Mission College classes were held in a mishmash of San Fernando storefronts, the Sun detailed the trials and tribulations of efforts to establish a permanent facility.

Although Barrios was a supporter of the college, she said, the paper was careful to report only the news. "We don't take a side," she said.

That sense of fairness, admirers said, applies to every issue the Sun covers, even the news from service clubs and other community groups.

"Her ability to be responsive to an organization's needs and in getting information out to people, plus a presence that makes people trust her are vitally important, especially in a small community," said Joe Sandoval, president and chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Chamber of Commerce. "She's not afraid to find out what's going on and is a valuable resource."

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Barrios moved to Los Angeles with her mother, brother and sister in the early 1940s, when "many people were on the move, looking for a better life," she said. When her father lost his two furniture stores in Ohio, the family headed west.

Barrios landed two jobs--a day job in sales and modeling at Bullock's Wilshire department store and a night job as cashier at a theater near USC.

At the theater, where you could see two movies and a newsreel for a dime, she met her future husband, Joe Barrios, a USC freshman who wanted to be a dentist.

But the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor "turned everyone's life around," she said, and the following June they married. In November, Joe joined the Navy and Thelma went to work for Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank.

After the war, the Barrioses moved to a new housing tract in burgeoning San Fernando, where plentiful (and inexpensive) housing, jobs and opportunity drew returning soldiers.

In the days before freeways, San Fernando seemed like the end of the Earth. But you could buy a plot of land for $100, find a job and raise a family. San Fernando Road was a main artery north to Bakersfield and travelers often stopped at a local diner before heading over the Grapevine to the Central Valley.

Joe joined the San Fernando Police Department, where he worked for 32 years, and the Barrioses raised their sons, Richard and Michael. Her husband died five years ago.

Around 1960, Thelma Barrios noticed a tiny ad in the community paper, the San Fernando Valley Sun, seeking "a man to do collections."

When Barrios inquired, the owner said he didn't mind if that man was a woman, "as long as the money comes in."

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