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Epitaph for Ethan--a Life That Truly Had Started Anew

We are a leery and skeptical lot, we journalists. Prove it, we say. Show me.

Yeah, yeah, sure. Gangbanging kid gets out of prison and goes straight. Gives up the street life. Teaches Sunday school. Coaches children’s football. Holds down a job, goes to college. Won’t have sex before marriage. Right--tell us another fairy tale.

But this kid did show us. This kid rounded every base, cleared every hurdle. Three years out of state prison and he just spent a day last week visiting USC, figuring out how long it would take him to get admitted.

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.

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He died in an incident of the sort we journalists can expertly reduce to a crisp three-line story, the kind of story he was learning to write himself. A 22-year-old man was shot to death Wednesday by his wife as he was moving out of their apartment, according to police. He was killed by at least two shots from a handgun. The woman fled to her mother’s home, where she was arrested, and is being held without bail. Now, turning to the weather. . . .

Sometimes we dig a little deeper: “Friends said the victim was a bright, hard-working young man, a Los Angeles Times copy messenger and former intern who edited his junior college newspaper and his church newsletter, a young man who had turned his life around after a prison sentence and hoped to get a USC journalism degree.”

Now we are the “friends” who pushed and pulled and encouraged and prodded. But Ethan is the one who astonished us, with the great distance between what he had been and what he was becoming. These are not things he would have written about himself, for he gave the credit to God and his church and his mother and grandmother and his friends.

Ethan was the kind of kid we all like to have around, because his doing well makes us feel so good. But Ethan was his own achievement, and his greatest struggle. And his best story was the one he never wrote--about himself.

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The day Bill Clinton was sworn in as President, Ethan Thomas, 20 years old and out of Soledad State Prison after 15 months for his part in an armed assault, was out on La Cienega, looking for the parole office. But the parole office had moved, and a dance studio had opened up shop. The studio owner, Trena Johnson, had been answering the door to such misdirected young parolees for a long time. But this one she invited in. Talked to him. What had his dream been? she asked.

And Ethan, who had won a $150 award in 11th grade for a composition he wrote, said his dreams didn’t matter any more because he had a record, but as long as she was asking, he had wanted to be a journalist. Trena Johnson made him write a news story. And another. And a third one. She was a dance teacher, but this looked as good as what she read in the paper every day.

Johnson called the L.A. Times--a naive act, as any PR person who has ever tried to reach an editor knows. But she did reach an editor, Narda Zacchino, who did have a reporter look at Ethan’s writing. His stuff looked good; Ethan himself looked even better. He was a bit fumble-tongued, but his earnestness and his curiosity and his writing snared him a 10-week summer job here, and when that ended, a job as a copy messenger while he attended community college part time.

Even then he wrote. The student paper at Southwest College was sometimes so full of Ethan Allen Thomas Jr. bylines that his Times friends teased him about the Ethan Thomas edition. He wrote a story about teen-age fathers; he himself had married in October of last year, and brought his new wife’s two little sons or his own two brothers to work and squired them around like he was the publisher. He wrote prep sports briefs--not much more than 75 or 100 words at a time, but with his name on them. He carried his first clippings around with as much tenderness and wonder as if they were baby pictures.

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Working around him was like working around a space alien; he was constantly in a state of delighted astonishment. When he watched CNN and C-SPAN, he was rapt--and I mean even C-SPAN 2. He started work with only two outfits that he washed out every night, and when a reporter-mentor, Michael Quintanilla, brought in some dressier clothes in for him, he was speechless. When you asked the de rigueur question, “How are you?” his answer was “saved,” or “blessed.” When reporter Ed Boyer showed him the news quiz Boyer had prepared for his USC journalism class, Ethan took the test, blew it--and studied to ace the next one. When he qualified for a car loan at the credit union, you’d have thought he’d just been made president of General Motors.

He networked like a Harvard MBA, soaked up advice like a sponge. Not long after reporter-mentor Bob Sipchen told him he’d have to go to college if he wanted to stay in newspapers, he brought in a college application. He was considering which mutual funds to put $50 a month into. Only once did he sound stymied, when Sipchen suggested he write a travel story. “I can’t do a travel story,” he said. “I ain’t never been nowhere.” That, said Sipchen, is the perfect way to begin it.

Ethan was named for his father, Ethan Sr., a truck driver. He was teased about the furniture store chain of that name, but the first Ethan Allen fought a guerrilla war in Vermont during the Revolution.

Our Ethan was fighting a rear-guard action of his own, against the dire demographics of young black men, against the seductive streets, the gangbanging. On the day of the “Million Man March,” he went to Metro Editor Leo Wolinsky, troubled about it. He felt excluded because he was Christian, not Muslim, but he wanted to do something to help his fellow black Americans. You do that, Wolinsky told him, by empowering yourself first. Ethan understood. Sipchen once had told him that “Ethan was overcoming Ethan. It was the hardest obstacle of all for him.”

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There were stricken faces around this office on Thursday, stricken voices over the phone, from his pastor, his family, friends like Trena Johnson, for whom forgiveness will come later, when the anger has washed through her: “He saved his life, got off the streets, came off gangs, got married, raises someone else’s two kids, and gets killed by the woman he’s trying to help.”

Another anger may not wash away so soon, or so cleanly. Often--so often we barely write about them any more--it is men who kill women, husbands who kill wives, boyfriends who kill girlfriends. And often--so often it ceases to interest us--it is guns that do the killing.

The first Ethan Allen fought in a Revolutionary War. Ethan Allen Thomas fought multiple wars, his own and the nation’s. A gun sent him to Soledad--the gun his friend used to shoot two people at a party--and a gun ended his life.

He was done with guns, but guns were not done with him. If we had declared war on guns and their ravages as passionately as we declared war on drugs and the toll they exact, then perhaps neither the guns nor the demographics in this Ethan’s war would have won.

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