November 2013

The novelist Louise Erdrich has written a glowing review of Alan Weisman’s Countdown for her blog, Birchbark. She calls the book “urgent, eloquent, harrowing yet hopeful.”

Please read this book. Take your time. You will weep and yet be cheered.

The founder and owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, Erdrich is a reader’s reader (she’s a writer’s reader, too!), and a passionate advocate for independent bookstores. Her latest novel, The Round House, won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction.


Raul Ramirez, longtime director of news and public affairs at KQED in San Francisco, died on November 15. A moving tribute can be found on the KQED website. Raul was also a dear friend of Homelands Productions and a member of our board.

I’ve never encountered a single person with such powerful currents flowing inside, in such abundance: humor, intelligence, kindness, awareness, curiosity, playfulness, personal bravery, professional courage, generosity, grace, decency, consideration, passion, panache, good will, a commitment to justice, an unending humanity, and a profound capacity for loving life. I’m sure I’ve missed something.

Seeing Raul always made me happy. I loved my occasional stays with him and his husband Tony on my jaunts north from LA. With those visits I understood the tremendous range of his intellectual and artistic curiosity, which sank in deeper each time, in part by my perusing his eclectic and fascinating bookshelves. His generosity on those visits was intrinsic to Raul – like when he went so far as to encourage my roars for my beloved Green Bay Packers from his couch. (“Oh, my, Mr. Tolan,” Raul declared one evening after I leapt off said couch upon the completion of a short pass in the first quarter. “I had no idea.”) Of course, that was vintage Raul, and I’ve seen it so many other times: his gift, in friendship, in professional settings too, for making people feel so comfortable.

Sandy Tolan

In January 1992, I was in Washington for interviews with government officials and scientists at the nearby Goddard Space Center for a story that would be the finale of our original Homelands namesake series, “Vanishing Homelands.” It was a program about the ozone hole, set in southern Chile and Antarctica. I had reported it with our colleague Cecilia Vaisman, but I would be handling these last interviews alone, because she had been recruited that month to produce a special public radio series set in south Florida’s Cuban community with a renowned journalist who’d grown up there, Raul Ramirez. Raul was a veteran print reporter, but this would be his first foray into documentary broadcast. Cecilia, an NPR producer before joining Homelands, would be his co-reporter and radio mentor – as, for the previous year-and-a-half, she had been mine.

When I arrived, Raul and Cecilia were also in Washington, where their reporting would be edited, mixed, and produced. Among the many things that struck me upon hearing of their experiences was how Raul had managed to apply the discipline of journalism to a story that impacted him so personally and profoundly. His allegiance to his community was matched by his obligation to his audience. He became an inspiring example to me of how a great journalist blends uncompromising professional rigor with compassion for his subjects to produce the unforgettable kind of reporting we all hope to achieve.

In the years that followed, when I’d be invited to KQED to appear on public affairs programs about my books, Raul and I would have long lunches to talk shop and life. At times when I was struggling with subjects I was trying to cover, I was hugely grateful for Raul’s encouragement, judgment, and perspective. When he joined the board of Homelands Productions, not only did we all benefit from his concern and wisdom, but we were honored to be able to call Raul Ramirez our colleague. He always will be. I hear him still, urging me on. Mil gracias, hermano.

Alan Weisman

We at Homelands are mourning the loss, on the morning of November 15, of our dear friend, colleague, fellow Homelands board member, and trailblazing journalist, Raul Ramirez.

Raul Ramirez, 1946-2013

Raul Ramirez, 1946-2013. Photo: Ian Hill/KQED.

Accolades about Raul have been coming in for weeks, ever since his countless friends learned that he was suffering from esophageal cancer, and that he probably wouldn’t make it.

KQED’s obituary, and the comments that follow it, hint not only at the outpouring of love for this remarkable man, but at his inspirational reach, through his teaching, mentoring, leadership, and the standard of unsurpassed integrity that he established.

Here’s one example, from the obituary by David Weir and Patricia Yollin:

In May 1976, after months of investigation, Ramirez and freelance journalist Lowell Bergman broke a story for the Examiner about a Chinatown gang murder case titled “How Lies Sent Youth to Prison for Murder.” The article detailed how an assistant district attorney and two police inspectors had pressured witnesses into lying, resulting in the conviction of Richard Lee. The three law enforcement officers sued the Examiner, Bergman and Ramirez for libel, seeking $30 million in damages.

When the Examiner, then owned by the Hearst Corp., refused to provide counsel for the freelancer Bergman, leaving him without representation, Ramirez as a matter of principle and conscience refused to be represented by the Examiner’s lawyer and joined with Bergman to seek outside counsel. A group of journalists and lawyers rallied around the two reporters and raised enough money to hire a lawyer and fight the case. Though they initially lost in Superior Court and were ordered to pay $4.56 million in damages, Bergman and Ramirez spent the next decade fighting the verdict. Ultimately, the libel ruling was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1986. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision, ending the matter once and for all.

Raul Ramirez was a magnificent human being. His way of living in the world remains an inspiration. We will miss you terribly, dear Raul, but we will go on living with you within us. That will always be a gift, and a comfort, and a way of grounding us in the direction of the kind, the humane, the brave, the curious, the decent, and the fun.


Raul’s family has asked that donations in his memory be made to The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund at San Francisco State University.

Checks should be made out to The San Francisco State University Foundation with a notation that the donation is for “The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund.” Please mail to: Office of University Development, ATTN: Andrea Rouah, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Ave., ADM 153, San Francisco, CA 94132.

 To donate online, go to Select “Other” from the drop-down menu of “I Would Like to Support” and, in the text box “If Other, Enter Designation,” type “The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund.”