Students huddle around to talk with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, as Bob Rucker, interim director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, takes a photo with his phone. Photo by Michelle Terris.

Return of Alumnus, L.A. Times Columnist Steve Lopez Brings Inspiration to SJSU

Steve Lopez, ’75 Journalism, addresses San Jose State
University students at the 2011 Honors Convocation.

By Sarah Kyo and Teresa Ruiz, Public Affairs

During the early 1970s, a Diablo Valley College counselor advised Steve Lopez to combine his interests in writing and sports into a sports writing career. Then she talked to him about San Jose State University’s journalism program.

“I got such great tools in the journalism school,” said Lopez during a compelling keynote address at Honors Convocation on April 29. “I loved it. I had great, great teachers. And the tools I picked up here, I carried with me.”

Lopez said he recalled the advice of his journalism professor Dwight Bentel, “keep your eyes and ears open, don’t miss the obvious,” six years ago while wandering downtown Los Angeles looking for an idea for his column when he heard music.

He encountered the source, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr., playing a two-string violin at the foot of the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square. Through researching and spending time with Ayers, Lopez wrote a series of columns featuring the musician, a homeless man who has paranoid schizophrenia. Ayers would later become the subject of The Soloist. The 2009 film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx is based on Lopez’s non-fiction book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.

Lopez, a 1975 SJSU alumnus, also spoke about the funding challenges San Jose State and the California State University system face.

“This system and this school have launched so many scholars, so many doctors, so many educators. This is one of the great institutions in the state of California — and it’s being dismantled,” he said. “This system was a national model and made us proud. It gave people like me, who might not have gotten into more expensive schools, a shot,” he said.

“People say ‘How can we afford to keep paying all those professors and keep doing all this?’ What we have to ask ourselves, our neighbors and Sacramento is, ‘How can California afford not to support great institutions like San Jose State?’” Lopez said to a cheering crowd at the SJSU Event Center.

Lopez was also invited to a screening of The Soloist at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications in Dwight Bentel Hall the evening before Honors Convocation.  Lopez spoke to a group of journalism students and recalled his time as a student reporter for the Spartan Daily.

“We had a swagger. We thought we were much better than we really were,” Lopez said. Back then, the Spartan Daily was published five times per week, and Lopez said the staff saw the San Jose Mercury News as its main competitor.

“When Steve was here, we had an extraordinary group of writers on the Daily,” said Associate Professor Richard Craig. For example, Lopez’s executive editor at the Daily during the spring 1975 semester was Phil Trounstine, who went on to work for 20 years for the San Jose Mercury News and founded the SJSU Survey and Policy Research Institute.

Lopez credited advice from Bentel, founder of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and then-Spartan Daily advisers Roger Budrow and Larry Snipes for helping him discover the subject of his best known stories.

Lopez also thanked his counselor at Diablo Valley College for recommending he transfer to SJSU, and said he is glad to be back at the university.

“I had a fantastic time at San Jose State University,” Lopez said.

See Lopez’s full keynote address at Honors Convocation 2011.