Time Reporter Named Daily Cal Alumnus of YearContact Josh Keller at [email protected]
Monday, October 18, 2004
Jim Willwerth had just uncovered that notorious gangster Joey Gallo had been shot down at a bar owned by a Mafia member when the mobster threatened his life.
"You print anything that I told you," the bar owner said to Willwerth, "and I'll come after you."
But instead of taking the easy road and keeping the story under wraps, Willwerth put his life on the line and published the owner's name.
"I'm not a wise person. I basically went back to the office and made sure his name got in the story," says Willwerth, who was honored on Saturday as the Daily Californian Alumni Association Alumnus of the Year.
This run-in was just one in a handful of personally life-threatening stories Willwerth covered during his 40-year journalism career, which includes running through tear gas in Central America and being held at gunpoint in Mexico City.
He finds these stories by reporting on people who don't usually make it into the mainstream media.
As a reporter for Time magazine, Willwerth helped free four people from death row and did in-depth reporting on the mentally ill.
He has reported from seven wars overseas and was in El Salvador in 1980 when Salvadoran guardsmen murdered three American nuns.
Willwerth says he owes his career to his days at UC Berkeley covering the Free Speech Movement in 1964 for The Daily Californian and as a campus stringer for Time.
"I owe so much to the FSM, and not just for my career," he says. "I got in the middle of the FSM, and I saw what happens when people make a political protest that really annoys whoever is in power."
Willwerth's first story for The Daily Californian demonstrated early on his drive to find a unique angle on a story.
When he was sent out to report on a civil rights protest against local supermarkets' hiring practices in Berkeley, he noticed that the protesters were "vandalizing the hell out of the supermarket."
His story about how the pickets were keeping people out of the stores and vandalizing the shelves was not the angle most newspapers would have taken, he says.
Time liked Willwerth's reporting in Berkeley so much that the magazine hired him on the spot. Willwerth stayed there for 34 years, finding stories most reporters would skip over.
In the 1990s, Willwerth uncovered a story about a mentally ill death row inmate who was going to be executed.
The state psychiatrist who evaluated the inmate mistakenly said he was fit for trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court later recognized the mistake. The court, however, said it was too late for a new trial.
Willwerth started gathering information abut the story and reported the case for Time, leading then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to exonerate the inmate soon afterward.
"The truth embarrassed Mel Carnahan sufficiently to let this guy live," he says. "It was thrilling. This is what I'm in journalism for."
Willwerth did the same thing for three more death row inmates, including one he learned about less than a week before the execution date.
Willwerth retired from Time in 2000 to write books and is now spending part of every week teaching journalism courses at Pomona College.
He says he looks back on some of his Mafia-avoiding days at Time with more than a bit of disbelief.
"It always has seemed to be possible that you could do any adventure that comes around in a sort of sensible way," he says.
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