Frank del Olmo, an associate editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a major voice for Latinos in California, died Thursday of an apparent heart attack after collapsing in his office at The Times. He was 55.
Del Olmo was pronounced dead shortly after noon at Good Samaritan Hospital near downtown.
In announcing Del Olmo's death to the newspaper's staff, Managing Editor Dean Baquet said Del Olmo was "one of the most beloved and valued members of the Los Angeles Times family."
"I don't have to say how much of a blow this is to all of us, and how painful the past few hours have been," Baquet said. "As much as anyone at the paper, Frank has been an important part of the life of the city, as well as The Times. We'll all miss him a great deal."
Times Editor John Carroll praised Del Olmo as someone who was "known nationally as an accomplished journalist who always had time to help a colleague get a foot on the ladder."
"The number of Latino journalists who hold good jobs today because of Frank is beyond calculation," Carroll said. "Here at the paper he will be remembered with respect and affection. For the staff, this has been a shattering day."
Del Olmo shared a 1984 Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service for the series "Southern California's Latino Community."
During his nearly 34 years at The Times, he was an intern, a staff writer specializing in Latino issues and Latin American affairs, an editorial writer, deputy editor of the editorial page, a Times-Mirror Foundation director and an assistant to the editor of The Times. The last position put him on the masthead — the first Latino to be listed among the paper's top editors.
"It was important that his name was on the masthead not just as a symbol but because of what he was doing," said Felix Gutierrez, a visiting professor of journalism at USC and longtime Del Olmo friend. "He was always representing those who couldn't get in the room."
Del Olmo was named associate editor of the newspaper in 1998, continuing his efforts to advocate for Latinos and Latino journalists.
"He fought quiet but effective battles inside the paper and out when he felt the Latino community was being wronged or ignored," said Hector Tobar, a Times correspondent in Buenos Aires who had known Del Olmo 16 years. "There are few Latino reporters who have worked at The Times over the past 20 years who are not indebted to him in one way or another."
Another colleague, Oscar Garza, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, said that when he was studying journalism at the University of Texas in the mid-1970s, an organization of Chicano communications students held a conference, "and it was a big deal, even then, that Frank came out to speak to us."
"We knew how rare it was for a Chicano journalist to be working at a place like the L.A. Times," Garza said.
In 1998, Del Olmo was selected to lead the Latino Initiative, a newspaperwide effort to increase and improve coverage of Southern California's largest minority group.
Frank Sotomayor, a Times colleague who was co-editor of the Pulitzer-winning Latino series and had planned to have lunch Thursday with Del Olmo to talk about Latino news coverage, said, "Until the very end, he was dedicated to covering the Latino community better."
Del Olmo was born in Los Angeles on May 18, 1948. He graduated magna cum laude from Cal State Northridge in 1970 with a journalism degree. He went to work for The Times that same year.
State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) said Del Olmo "was more than an editor or columnist; he was a powerful pioneering voice for Latinos, for immigrants and the less fortunate."
Del Olmo was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 1987-88 and was inducted into the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists' Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1972, he was a founding member of the California Chicano News Media Assn. He also won an Emmy Award for writing "The Unwanted," a 1975 documentary on illegal immigration.
As a columnist since 1980, Del Olmo wrote on a wide range of topics, from immigration to baseball. A private and kind man who was courtly in his manner, Del Olmo was known especially for his principled stands on issues affecting Latinos.
"Frank was the Latino conscience at that paper," said Julio Moran, executive director of the California Chicano News Media Assn. and a former Times reporter.
In 1994, when the newspaper endorsed Gov. Pete Wilson for a second term in office, Del Olmo threatened to resign, citing Wilson's support for Proposition 187, which was aimed at illegal immigrants. According to a Times spokesperson at the time, then-Editor Shelby Coffey III persuaded Del Olmo to take two weeks off and "think about it."
Del Olmo did, and instead of quitting he wrote a strongly worded op-ed piece in dissent, excoriating Wilson and calling Proposition 187 "the mean-spirited and unconstitutional ballot initiative that would deprive 'apparent illegal aliens' of public health services and immigrant children of public education."
"Wilson's pro-187 campaign will stick in our craws for generations," he wrote.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles said he had many discussions about Proposition 187 with Del Olmo.
"He assisted me in helping our Catholic community understand how pernicious this measure really was," Mahony said. "He helped me in drafting my own opposition to this clearly discriminatory initiative."
More recently, in the city of Maywood last year, Del Olmo's commentaries had a strong impact when he aired activists' concerns about a city policy to impound cars of people with suspended licenses. Many of those who lost their cars were poor immigrants. Leaders eventually discontinued the practice, which activists believed benefited the city's official tow company at the expense of vulnerable people.
"He turned the whole thing around," Felipe Aguirre, legal coordinator of Comite Pro-Uno, a local nonprofit group, said of Del Olmo. "He says it was us, but I say it was him."
Del Olmo, a Mexican American, also decried the use of "Hispanics" to describe U.S. residents of Latin American extraction. "Ugly and imprecise," he proclaimed, calling the word "bureaucratese."
"In all my years of living and working in Latino communities," he wrote in 1981, "I have never heard a Latino refer to himself as a Hispanic."
Jay T. Harris, a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, said Del Olmo "was a tireless and effective advocate — nationally as well as locally — for the proposition that journalism is best that covers its entire community fully and fairly: people of color as well as Anglos, the poor as well as the rich."
Del Olmo's last column for The Times on Feb. 8 asked the question, "So who is more likely to get Latino voter support in November: a former National Guard flyboy from Texas or a former Navy officer from Massachusetts?"
Among his most notable columns were the 10 he wrote about his son, Frankie, who is autistic. In 1995, when Frankie was 3, Del Olmo began an annual accounting during the Christmas season of his and his wife Magdalena's attempts to understand autism and help their son.
In the first of these, Del Olmo wrote that their "disciplined teamwork" would sometimes waver. "That's when the sorrow rises to the surface," he wrote. "Then all we can do is dwell on our hopes and fears for a little boy with a soft, sweet smile and big brown eyes that normally sparkle with joy but sometimes glaze over in a distant stare as he is momentarily lost to us."
Father Gregory Boyle, the Eastside priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a job-training program for former gang members, said Thursday that Del Olmo's Frankie columns "communicated a palpable sense of hope."
"There was an ex-gang member who worked here who has a son who is autistic, and I would share Frank's pieces with him," Boyle said. "They gave him access to a world that was very confusing and difficult for him to understand."
Del Olmo's last column about Frankie, on Dec. 21, reported that his son was doing well: Early help had aided Frankie in becoming more verbal than most who suffer from autism. But Del Olmo and his wife had been warned that puberty could be particularly difficult for autistic children, especially as they began to realize they were different.
"I have dreaded Frankie's adolescence," Del Olmo wrote. "But there is no postponing it." He said the two great gifts he could give his son "are my presence and his privacy."
"And he shall have them both," Del Olmo wrote.
Besides his wife and son, Del Olmo is survived by a daughter, Valentina Marisol del Olmo; three sisters, Elisa Garcia, Teri Previtire and Margaret Maldonado; a brother, Gabriel Garcia; three nephews; and a niece. All reside in the Los Angeles area.
Contributions in his name can be made to the Frank del Olmo Memorial Scholarship Fund at the California Chicano News Media Assn., 3800 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90037; or the Cure Autism Now Foundation, 5455 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Funeral services are pending.
Times staff writers Steve Padilla, Greg Krikorian and Richard Marosi contributed to this report. To read previous Del Olmo articles and see a video profile of him, go to latimes.com/delolmo.