By: M.L. STEIN
ETHAN ALLEN THOMAS Jr. was an unlikely intern prospect for the Los Angeles Times.
An ex-con for armed assault and a one-time crack dealer and gangbanger in South Central L.A., he had no journalism training and no idea of how to go about getting an internship at a newspaper that carefully screens its summer news applicants from the best that local journalism schools have to offer.
How he got the internship is one of the more remarkable stories of the newspaper business ? and ultimately one of the most tragic.
One day in 1993, the 20-year-old Thomas reported to his parole officer only to learn that his office had been moved and was replaced by a dance studio.
As she gave him the new address, the studio owner, Trena Johnson, found something likable about Thomas and began quizzing him about his future plans. The young man, who had won a $150 award in a high school essay competition, said he wanted to be a journalist.
Johnson gave him a series of facts and asked him to write a news story, and then two more. She liked what she saw and decided she would try to get Thomas an internship at the Times.
Having no journalism background herself and knowing no one at the paper, she simply made a cold call to the switchboard operator. After getting bounced around five or six times from one department to another, Johnson got lucky. Someone rang her into associate editor Narda Zacchino’s office. Zacchino’s secretary was away from her desk and Zacchino picked up the phone. “She [Johnson] was so compelling in telling me about this kid that I kept listening,” Zacchino recalled in an interview. “I finally asked her to bring him in for a meeting.”
Johnson and Thomas came, he with stories he had written to show Zacchino.
“I was really impressed,” the editor said. “I could have put his stuff in the Times that same day.”
Thomas was on his way to fulfilling his dream at that point. Zacchino and others managed to get him a 10-week paid internship, although there were no slots for him.
“We broke a lot of rules,” Zacchino said. “But besides being a good writer, Ethan was smart and inquisitive. Nothing got him down. He was a joy to have around. And he was a news junkie. He even watched C-Span.”
She assigned Thomas to the Life & Style section, putting him under the wings of staff writers Michael Quintanilla and Bob Sipchen.
“You could see right away he had talent,” said Quintanilla, who became Thomas’ chief mentor. “He had a love for writing and wrote about what he knew ? life in South Central. Ethan had a gritty side but he was trying very hard to turn his life around.”
To help him do that, Quintanilla took Thomas out on assignments with him, letting him sit in on interviews and even ask questions.
“They were good questions,” the reporter remembered. “Ethan was curious about everything. He was even fascinated by the press releases piled on my desk and would pore through them.”
“All of us wrestle with ourselves trying to find our better nature,” Sipchen commented. “Ethan had struggled with that and I honestly believed he had won the battle against incredible odds.”
Sipchen, the author of a book on street gangs, Baby Insane and the Buddha, recollected Thomas as being a “presence in the newsroom with his big grin and his tenacity. For me, he symbolized hope and how important it is to be open to helping people change their lives.”
Both Quintanilla and Sipchen invited Thomas to their homes and he, in return, took them to meet his mother and grandmother.
All the while, the aspiring intern was getting stories in the paper.
When the internship ended, Times staffers lobbied to get Thomas a new job as a copy messenger. By that time, he was enrolled in a two-year community college and was seeking admission to the University of Southern California to major in journalism.
And being a messenger did not stop Thomas from writing. He freelanced for various editorial departments, turning out high school sports stories and others, including a Sunday Magazine piece about the aftermath of a Baptist church fire in which the contractor, hired to repair the damage, skipped off with more than $45,000 of the insurance money.
He also wrote for his college paper, eventually becoming its managing editor.
Thomas’ dream ended Nov. 15 when his wife, with whom he apparently had been quarreling, shot him to death while he was moving his belongings out of the apartment they shared. She is being held without bail on a murder charge.
In writing about the killing and Thomas’ link to the paper, Times columnist Patt Morrison recounted: “There were stricken faces around the office on Thursday, stricken voices over the phone from his pastor, his family, friends like Trena Johnson . . . . In 10 years time, maybe less, you would have known about Ethan Allen Thomas Jr. because he would have been telling you himself, through his writing. But now we have to tell you about him, because he is dead.”
But he will be remembered. Zacchino said staffers have pitched in with donations to establish a scholarship in his name at his school, Southwest College. The Times, she added, will add to the amount.
There was another posthumous tribute to Thomas. The Nov. 30 issue of the Times carried a story he had written for a church magazine during his internship. Part of it read: “Because of God, good things are happening in my life. The Los Angeles Times is one of them . . . . For the first time in my life, strangers ? who later became my good friends ? gave me a chance when the rest of the world had given up on me . . . . I now see myself as a role model, not a gangbanger.”
?( Ethan Allen Thomas Jr.) [Photo & Caption]