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First Person

Too Late for Thanks and Farewells

February 20, 2001|ERIN TEXEIRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I waited too long.

I'd meant to get back in touch so many times after I returned to Los Angeles. Even tried to call several times. But the phone would ring and ring, and I'd become distracted by something--my new job, my bicoastal relationship, spending time with my family.

At least once a week or so for months now, I had scolded myself: Call Viola Dees.

She was the first person who had opened my heart as a reporter. She made me see how much good can come of writing people's stories, and how lucky I am to earn a living doing it. She also forced me to realize how callous journalists can become, even when the lives of real people are at stake.

In 1995, when I met her, Viola was an 86-year-old retired housecleaner with a heart condition and a fixed income. She was single-handedly raising her grandson, Walter, a troubled child born addicted to crack cocaine and still struggling with behavioral problems.

A frail, 90-pound woman, Viola was fueled by her fierce love for Walter, then 7, and her belief in the goodness of the world.

I was a reporter trainee at The Times, just four months into my first newspaper job. I had been sent to do an interview at Public Counsel, a pro bono legal firm that was helping Viola get legal custody of Walter. The child had been severely neglected in foster care and would, without his grandmother, likely be returned to that system.

I was immediately fascinated by the pair, and I was soon spending hours with them at their South Los Angeles home. I was also soon accepting Viola's embraces and fetching things for her. Between interviews, I made calls to sort out her bank problems and confirm doctor's appointments. I became accustomed to her habit of holding my hand for no particular reason while she was talking.

What was the harm? I heard the voices of my journalism instructors lecturing against this type of thing--getting involved--but it was too late. I cared. I wanted Viola and Walter to be OK.

For a while, Viola felt like a grandmother to me. She urged me to work hard and take good care of my boyfriend and visit often.

I labored over writing her story, wanting to get it just right.

The day before it was to be published, Viola called in a panic. Without warning, she was being evicted from the home she had rented for more than 50 years. She and Walter might soon be homeless.

I dashed to my editor so that we could include this development in the story. No, I was told. The housing situation was not relevant to the story. It would be a distraction.

I pushed, arguing that this was critical: yet another setback for this woman, another obstacle to raising Walter. The editor relented, slipping in a few sentences near the end. But when I picked up the paper the next day, the sentences were gone. I was heartbroken.

I had failed Viola.

I left work to walk off my anger, unable to face my editor--or Viola.

By the time I returned, the calls had started coming in. Where can I find Viola Dees, readers wanted to know. They wanted to help her and Walter.

The next day, letters started to arrive, many with checks tucked inside. I was amazed. Like most young reporters, I had spent much of my time covering crimes and natural disasters. Such stories rarely inspire much feedback from readers, let alone positive response. As the calls and letters kept coming, I began to realize that readers yearn for small, hopeful stories amid the corruption and devastation that fill the paper.

*

In all, Viola received more than 100 letters, dozens of phone calls and donations of money, a computer, school supplies, books. I wrote a short follow-up detailing the outpouring.

The readers, and their generosity, changed her life. She found new housing with the help of Public Counsel and got help getting Walter, who is now 12 and still having ups and downs, into a live-in school for children with behavioral problems.

One reader who wrote a letter was Tracy Seretean, then a radio producer from Santa Monica, who was interested in documentary filmmaking. Viola wrote her back. The two kept in touch in the months after the story ran and became friends. A few years later, Seretean would ask Viola to be the subject of a documentary.

But in mid-1996, I had left Los Angeles for a job at the Baltimore Sun. During the four years I was gone, I often wondered about Viola. Several months after I returned last January, I received a phone message from Viola's daughter, Freddie. The documentary about Viola and Walter had been completed, she said. "Big Mama" would premiere at a city theater the following day during a midmorning show.

Wow, I thought. Viola found me. And she's a film star!

I could not make it to the premiere, but I vowed to call.

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