Alex Tizon: The First Intellectual I Ever Met

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author, and journalism professor Alex Tizon died in his sleep a couple of nights ago at 58, no apparent precursors anyone was aware of. You know how that happens, young and by surprise. Chief candidates are aneurysm, stroke, myocardial infarction—the surprise killers. He was 58, showing zero signs; lean and vibrant health.

I wrote this on Facebook this morning:

So this was the crappy news I got about this time yesterday.

Alex Tizon was the older bother of my close friend Ling Tizon Quillen during my time at Oregon State U, now my old friend, thanks to what’s good about Facebook—reconnecting with cool people after decades.

It’s a shame that it takes sudden and unexpected events like this to reflect on what impact a person had on your life.

While I was not a close friend of Alex, I did see him quite often when I visited the family home in Salem, OR, with Ling. As a lily white boy who grew up in Reno, NV, the Tizon’s were the first “ethnic” family I had an exchange with and it was a kick. Alex was a complete clown with his sisters, his mom, and his ‘aunt-mom-Lola’ who had immigrated with them from the Philippines in the mid 60’s and took care of the whole family, including the wonderful, fresh, homemade filipino food on offer every single visit.

Often, he and his sisters would do a bit of “Taglish’—Tagalog words interspersed with English, accent and all. And they all mimicked Lola with love and levity, because Lola had her permanent accent.

But Alex also had his very serious side. I recall one time, Ling and I went down to visit him in Eugene where he’d done his bachelor degree and I believe was undertaking graduate work. He was moving into a room and I noticed the relative austerity of it. He was serious and while I can’t recall specifics of the conversation, he listened intently to me and offered thoughts and questions back. And I saw him unpacking his books and while I recall no titles, it was evident that he had an intellectual and deeply curious side to him and so, it’s the first time I recall realizing that it can be cool to be intellectual.

It’s now particularly fortunate that I was able to see and chat with him in person a few years back, after 30 years. He was in the area on his book tour for “Big Little Man,” and I went to his reading and signing. It’s a cool and unique book. What he inscribed is private, but I’ll certainly treasure that signed copy.

…Perhaps it was this overall experience that eventually led to me marrying into an extended, loving Hispanic family. I was telling Beatrice last night that over the years, it was always amusing and touching both, how Ling’s family group photos posted to FB looked a lot like the ones Bea and her family post.

“Are you saying we all look alike?”

“No, but the love does.”

My heart is with my old friend Ling and her sister Maria, for their grave, sudden loss, and their loving family.

Update: A very good read in The Seattle Times, where Alex spent 17 years.

“Mr. Tizon was known for deeply reported, philosopher-type pieces that are becoming rarer in today’s fast-paced media cycle.”

I think it resonates well with what I identified about his unique character, above, when he was a young man.


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  1. BabyGirl on March 25, 2017 at 14:23

    Beautiful tribute.

  2. thhq on March 27, 2017 at 11:48

    Sorry. It hurts. So long ago and it seems like yesterday.

  3. Ron on March 31, 2017 at 19:31

    What happened to the post about the feud with your neighbor? It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened on your blog in awhile, then you delete ?

    • Richard Nikoley on March 31, 2017 at 19:41

      I thought it would be wise to avoid making a public deal until after the hearing April 13.

      We’ll see about a more detailed treatment then.

  4. elle on May 16, 2017 at 05:00

    Did you know about Lola, the woman his parents enslaved? Check the cover story of the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic… What do you think of them now? Maybe his death was some sad kind of karma. You know, the sons pay for the sins of the father (and mother and grandfather…)

    • Richard Nikoley on May 16, 2017 at 10:15

      Did I know about her? I saw it first hand over about a year and a half in the ’82 -’84 timeframe.

      Stood next to the stove once where she showed me how to make good pancit.

      There will be three takes on this:

      1. The outsider, like you.
      2. The insider, like me.
      3. The intimates, like the family.

      Alex used “slave,” I think, for journalistic effect, presicely because people draw zero distinction. There is no nuance or context whatsoever, and he just showed that there is. Had he wrote something like “endentured servant” or “perpetual dependent” it would not have the punch, even though probably more accurate. Lola was a dependant. The wrong against her was that the dependency was encouraged rather than discouraged.

      Everyone gets to judge however they wish, of course, but at least this is an offering that I believe is journalism of the highest form. It’s an epic story and thereby, people might get some insight into how complex life can be.

      Imagine if a child of actual slave holders in America’s south early 1800s wrote of how he or she was torn between the parents, and the slave who raised and cared for them

  5. Mori Na Joven on May 17, 2017 at 00:06

    Lola just called Alex home. She missed him terribly. And Lola and her “owner,” Alex’s mom have made peace in heaven and waited for him lovingly.

  6. Richard Nikoley on May 19, 2017 at 18:27

    A new post, my perspective on his cover story, The Atlantic, June.

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