“Always there for us” – Students and faculty remember Alex Tizon

Correction: A previous version of this article said Tizon was 58. He was 57.

University of Oregon journalism senior Shirley Chan wanted to end her time in college with a full circle: have her last class be taught by the same professor who taught her first course at the journalism school — the class that convinced her to pursue a journalism career.  

But Chan didn’t know that her Reporting II class would be that professor’s last class, too.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist turned UO faculty member Alex Tizon died on Thursday, March 23, due to what Eugene police said were medical causes. He was 57 years old.

The following morning, UO School of Journalism instructors emailed Tizon’s students, notifying them of his death, and that grading would be postponed. Students were both devastated and shocked by the news. Tizon appeared healthy to his students in the week leading up to his passing.

Emma Childs, another Reporting II student, said that Tizon didn’t show any signs that he could’ve been in the last stages of his life.

“Nothing, besides the normal, ‘I’m tired and stressed.’ I knew that he was writing a big piece for the Atlantic, so he was on deadline, so he would say that he wasn’t always sleeping. But that was it,” Childs said. “I got a text from one of my other friends from the J-school, and I was in disbelief. I kind of started shaking.”

Tizon is remembered by many of his students as a professor who instilled a “question everything” spirit into his students and shattered professor-student dynamics.

In Tizon’s courses, class would take the form of a conversation. He would let students talk about what was going on in their lives that could be impacting how they were doing in class.

“We kind of created a community, which I really liked,” Childs said about her time in his Reporting II class. Tizon would get his students to share their work with the class and would critique them. “People were sometimes a little embarrassed to talk about their work, so we had to get used to that sort of setting,” Childs said.  

Tizon would also give everyone in his class his personal cellphone number.

“He would always much rather communicate on a more human level than just professional to student. So it was always really helpful to talk to him and reach out,” Chan said. “He was always there and available. He was always there for us.”

Tizon was born in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1964. After moving across the country eight times during his K-12 education, from Honolulu to New York City, Tizon finished high school in Salem before enrolling at UO. He graduated with a degree in political science and went on to earn a master’s degree in communication from Stanford University.

Tizon had a 17-year career as a reporter for the Seattle Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his coverage of a federal housing program for Native Americans. He also worked as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, reporting on such events as the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Tizon has also contributed to the news TV show “60 Minutes,” co-producing a segment on mail-order brides in Asia, and freelanced for Newsweek magazine. From 2009 to 2010, Tizon returned to the Philippines as a Knight International Journalism Fellow, where he started crowdsourcing for the media to keep track of the Philippine government’s efforts to alleviate poverty in its poorest regions.

“He was a fantastic reporter, and an absolutely brilliant writer,” said UO Journalism instructor Lisa Heyamoto, whom Tizon mentored in 2001 while she was an intern at the Seattle Times. “But through all of that, he would kind of pivot into a different kind of frequency of humanity than the rest of us.”

Tizon’s 2014 memoir, “Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self,” which focused on his experiences as a first-generation immigrant and observations around how Asian male masculinity is portrayed in the West, won the 2011 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize Work-In-Progress Award sponsored by Columbia University and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation.

UO senior Natalie Hardwicke, another student, will remember Tizon as a professor who was very supportive of his students. In teaching a profession that is often associated with being intrusive, Tizon gave Hardwicke confidence to seek out interviews that aren’t always easy to get, reminding her that it is her job to do so. She is in the middle of writing an article about “Women in the NRA,” which Tizon took an interest in and was helping her publish.

“We talked about it almost every day, and just having him there giving me advice, and able to work with everything, it honestly made this term,” Harwicke said. “He was phenomenal, and I am going to miss him so much.”

Tizon is survived by his wife, Melissa Tizon, and two daughters, Maya and Dylan.

The UO Counselling Center has after-hours counselors available over the phone during spring break. Their number is 541-346-3227.

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Andrew Field

Andrew Field

Former Japan Times intern. Daily Emerald reporter and FishDuck editor. Tokyo-Singapore-Houston-Eugene, but Oregonian forever. West Ham United and Portland Timbers fan.

If you got a tip for me on an issue you feel I should be covering, don't hesitate to leave me an email ([email protected]).