The Citizen was Tucson: Oct. 15, 1870 – May 16, 2009

Ten years ago today, Tucson lost a big chunk of its soul and I lost the companionship and camaraderie of roughly 70 of the finest newspaper people I could ever imagine working with as the Tucson Citizen closed.

It still hurts.

Being a music writer for a daily newspaper was long my dream job, but it was much better than I could have imagined. The music stayed worth writing about, day after day, year after year. I learned so much, as a listener to music, an observer of cultural currents, and as a composer. It was on the job training for close to 23 years, with a side trip into creating the multimedia division for the Citizen’s online operation.

I expected I’d gain a deeper understanding of music. What I never could have guessed was how it would reveal the community I’d lived in for 16 years before starting at the paper. It gave me a front-row seat to Tucson’s humanity and heart, its celebration of its multicultural makeup, its strong avocation of social justice and education, and its sense that this is a place where the arts, sciences, history, and humanities create a groundswell for a better future.

“The Citizen Is Tucson” was more than a slogan. We all felt it. In our pages every day there were stories of the powerful and powerless, strong and weak, talented and ordinary, rich and poor, healthy and infirm, old and young. But they were more than a few blocks of type on newsprint and maybe a photo. These were things people clipped out and hung on their refrigerators or put in scrapbooks. More than that, these were memorable meetings that created lifelong friendships.

The Citizen was started in 1870 — 16 years after the Gadsden Purchase made Tucson a part of the United States, and a decade before the arrival of the railroad that in a single year would dramatically alter the ethnic mix of Tucson forever. In the Citizen’s pages were recorded the Shootout at the OK Corral, and nearly every significant event to take place in Tucson and Southern Arizona. Captured in its pages as well were the chapters of various owners and their visions for our city.

When our centennial came, and in the years of big anniversaries thereafter, writers pored through microfiche and old stacks to see some of the highlights. And like every newspaper with such a long history there was as much eye-opening in the headlines for articles as there was in the long list of historical markers it reported as news. “N***ers lynched,” one headline announced, without the asterisks. “Bus Full of Wetbacks Overturns,” read another. It showed you in no uncertain terms how common the language of racism was and the role newspapers played in perpetuating racial stereotypes and slurs. But it also showed you how we as a city, and the Citizen itself, evolved beyond that over time.

As a writer those kinds of things gave you pause, knowing that the words we use go on long after we have passed. Future generations would judge who we were by the words we chose to put in print each day.

What will future historians think of my generation of Citizen writers, editors and publishers? I think they’ll see a team of people who knew their stuff and were dedicated to giving Tucson readers the broadest, most inclusive snapshot of history in the making that they possibly could.

Looking back I feel that I was good at what I did. I haven’t felt that way of every job I’ve had in life but I will never look back on my time with the Citizen with anything less than pride in what I contributed. It was a good body of work.

But this wasn’t a “me” thing. Mine was a very minor part of what that newspaper put out every day. Everyone felt the same way. We knew this was our best work, even as we understood that some days we’d be better than on others. There was a spirit in that newsroom. We were number two in sales but we were putting footprints in the pants of the competition every day.

We had a secret weapon. The Tucson Citizen had the best library staff one could ever imagine. Through the early 1990s, every single article was clipped daily and put into small manila folders for each person of importance in the article. These were all in alphabetical order on metal shelves in the library. You could walk in at 2 in the morning and find every clip on anyone who’d ever had an article referencing them. In half an hour a writer could be up to speed on almost anyone.

And the top-secret weapon was librarian Jeannie Jett. Jeannie had worked at the Citizen library from the time she was 18 and retired at age 65. She had a photographic memory. A few seconds chatting with her would result in a pile of clips about things you had no idea about, let alone knew they were related to what you were writing about.

I owe one of my best articles and a profoundly important friendship to those clips. Around the time that Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre” came out I snagged the clips on Linda’s dad, Gilbert Ronstadt. Rifling through them I discovered, among many other things, that Gilbert had created Tucson’s first sewer system shortly after WWII.

Prepared as I was on his background, the man himself proved difficult at first to get to talk. I was off to a flying stop trying to ask questions about Linda. Mostly I was getting short, uncomfortable responses. But then I asked about Gilbert’s sewer design and a wry smile came over his face. “OK, kid, you’ve done your homework,” he said. “My kids used to call me “Mon Sewer.”

What was supposed to be a short interview ended up becoming a summer-long every-Wednesday meet-up. I’d spool tape from one to four p.m., after which he’d break out a beer for me (he was drinking non-alcoholic stuff by this point due to diabetes) and he’d tell me some of the stories he dared not mention on tape. He shared with me his record collection, from which came almost every non-rock thing Linda ever did. Pirates of Penzance, Nelson Riddle, jazz standards, and his mariachi and ranchera collection, especially Lola Beltran. Beltran’s voice was the inspiration for Linda’s sound from the time she was a kid.

We talked politics, culture, art and science. Gilbert showed me his own paintings and miniature sculptures of animals and such he’d carved from gravel in the road to the house. He shared stories of trading paintings from tenant Maynard Dixon when Dixon couldn’t make the rent. But what he valued even more was trading painting lessons with Dixon.

He shared stories of his lifelong pal Lalo Guerrero, the father of Chicano Music, and dozens of other musicians and artists of Tucson’s past, as well as tales of how the city evolved. He was a remarkable man and that was a summer I will treasure.

Through Gilbert I met and got to know all of his children, Suzy and Pete, Michael and Linda, along with Gilbert’s brother Edward and a fair number of Ed’s kids. Oddly enough nearly all of the Ronstadts are musical (shocking!), and I was invited over the decades to numerous family parties and gatherings where they pulled out guitars after dinner and reveled in sibling/cousin harmonies on songs their grandfather – Federico Ronstadt – brought from Mexico.

That’s just one example of so many rich and unexpected experience I had in my time at the Citizen. Everyone that worked there had such treasured moments.

The closing of the Tucson Citizen has been our city’s loss. The Star is a terrific paper fighting like hell to survive tough times and tell the stories of our city that we need to know. But anyone who reads it now and goes back and reads it from when we were around will tell you that it was better when it had competition nipping at its heels every day.

As for the folks laid off 10 years back, most have found other passions, but nearly all have found ways to continue to serve Tucson and the cities they have migrated to for work. Some stayed in the newspaper business, others found different ways to keep a roof over their heads. But I’d be willing to wager that every one of them would be back in that newsroom in a heartbeat if they could work side by side with the team that was laid off that day.

Favorite Citizen memories

  • Lifelong friendships with former Tucson Symphony Orchestra music directors Bob Bernhardt and Bill McGlaughlin
  • Traveling to Boston to report on Mariachi Cobre’s debut with the Boston Pops
  • Two decades of getting to hang out with the father of Chicano music, Lalo Guerrero
  • Chatting with Jim Griffith about all things of this region, and hearing him sing and play the banjo like no other
  • Working on the Tucson’s Tapestry of Cultures series
  • Having Don Hatfield as my first “real” publisher
  • The editorial board meeting with candidate Joe Sweeney in which he blamed prostitution in Nogales on homosexuals
  • Hearing Cele Peterson share stories with me of her first 100 years
  • Barnstorming the country in a car with no air conditioning in summer doing stories – pre-internet – on music in America.
  • Pete Pegnam’s stylish exit from the Citizen staff
  • Friday night football videos with the sports staff
  • Phone calls with my team of Mexican music advisors – Raul Aguirre, Julie Gallego, Ralph Gonzales, Richard Carranza and Elva Flores
  • Interviewing Tohono O’odham waila music pioneers The Joaquin Brothers after their premiere at a polka festival in Carnegie Hall