SOJC faculty share stories on how Professor Alex Tizon changed their lives during memorial service
University of Oregon journalism faculty spoke about Professor Alex Tizon as a mentor and journalist who changed the lives of those around him.
UO School of Journalism held a memorial on Tuesday for Tizon, who died in his Eugene home on March 23. Students, faculty and staff gathered at 5 p.m. at the foot of Allen Hall’s atrium staircase. They encircled instructors who stepped out and told stories of working with him, inspired by his ability as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to evoke a unique sense of humanity in his articles.
UO instructor Lisa Heyamoto described how she met Tizon while interning for the Seattle Times in 2001, where he was a staff writer. Stationed at a desk across from his, Heyamoto was falling asleep when he called her out.
“I was so embarrassed,” she recalled. “But I was a young reporter still finding my voice, and he took me under his wing, and helped guide me when I could not yet see my path.”
Heyamoto then got a job at the Seattle Times. In her first year, she read Tizon’s story about a high school janitor who became an award-winning fiction writer, instilling a sense of purpose in becoming a journalist.
“The story made me realize how meaningful it could be to tell ‘quiet stories about quiet people,’” she said, “and for the next ten years, every single time I got stuck as a writer, I would re-read that piece, and it would help me find my way.”
When Tizon became Seattle Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times, he unknowingly wrote about Heyamoto’s mother and stepfather, massage therapists who started a massage magazine and museum. Their work started to get a lot of press coverage.
“Most of the stories were the kind, I’m sure you are familiar with, about ‘wacky couple does wacky thing. Let’s write a wacky story about it,’” Heyamoto said. “But it doesn’t really feel good, from the perspective of the person, when you see something you are passionate about treated in that way.”
But Alex’s reporting on it was different.
“He actually took the time to understand who they were, and why they were passionate about this unusual subject,” Heyamoto said, “and he wrote a beautiful story that really made a difference in my family’s life.”
UO SOJC Professor Scott Maier said that while he was a news reporter in Seattle his editor slapped an article on his desk and ordered him to learn from it. The story was part of a series of articles exposing corruption within a federal housing program for Native Americans — it would win Tizon a 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
“This was an incredible story that Alex and his colleagues had worked on, showing how, using federal funds, tribal members were living in palaces up here, while their brethren were living in squalor down below,” Maier said. “It was happening, not only just in Seattle, but throughout the Northwest and the nation.”
Maier said that years later while he was working at the UO he bumped into Tizon in an elevator in Portland. Maier told Tizon that he was teaching at UO, and Tizon — a UO alum — replied, “You have my dream job.”
UO would then hire Tizon as an assistant professor at the School of Journalism in 2010, reuniting him with Heyamoto, who was taking her graduate studies. A year later, Heyamoto became a journalism instructor too.
For Heyamoto, the greatest thing of all was seeing Tizon instill the same inspiration in students that he brought her throughout her career.
“I saw him captivate 400 person J100 lectures without using keynotes. He would stand there and quietly talk, and they were on the edge of their seats, just dying to hear more,” she said. “And this past week, I cried alongside students who were shown a way forward just the same way that I was, and found a guide when they needed it most.”
After the event, six of Tizon’s former students lingered by a wall, staring silently at a wall where memorial-goers wrote messages with black and blue markers.
“When Alex entered a room, he did it with such grace. When he left a room, he left you wanting more,” one message read. “He was such a force, we all wanted more.”
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