Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 2, 2014

Jay Thorwaldson

Journalist, volunteer motivated by a deep and lasting love of the area

by Sam Sciolla

In his youth, Jay Thorwaldson was once thrown to the ground by an unruly pony on the family property in Los Gatos. His mother rushed to him, but instead of the coos of consolation he expected, he remembers her chiding him: "When you get bucked off, get right back on."

That's just one of many anecdotes the gregarious Thorwaldson, now 74, drops into conversation. He has one story about a dinner in Milpitas with Black Panther activists, who suspected (rightfully, it turns out) they were being framed by the FBI; another about his first "newspaper war," which he fought from the sweaty office of the Mendota/Firebaugh News; and another still about his editorial attacking the strategy of local conservationists, which inspired the birth of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Mention one of these events and he'll launch into a tale full of vivid characters and comic detail and soon it will be an hour or two later.

It's difficult not to be captivated by Thorwaldson, the former Palo Alto Weekly editor who said he has literally "watched the valley fill up" with development since he was a child. His stories display his deep love and attachment to the area, feelings that have led him to a life of service to the community, both as a journalist and an active citizen. This body of work will be recognized at a garden party reception this month, where Thorwaldson will receive an Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award.

In his Los Gatos childhood, Thorwaldson was not exactly the model student (he sometimes skipped class), but once introduced to journalism, he took it up with gusto and soon became editor of his high school newspaper. Determined to tackle issues of substance, he addressed the suicide of a classmate in his very first editorial.

As a career journalist, he continued to find and write about burning issues in his community, whether it was through a San Jose State University editorial about a lack of support for foreign students or investigative reporting for the Palo Alto Times on a neo-Nazi terror group operating out of Palo Alto in the late '60s. During his 10-year stint as editor of the Palo Alto Weekly, the newspaper sued the City of Palo Alto twice for the release of public records, both times with success.

Thorwaldson, though, appreciated many aspects of journalism, not the least welcoming new blood into the field. During his 15 years at the Palo Alto Times (later the Peninsula Times Tribune), he remembers fondly how new interns and new reporters would shadow him for two weeks on his assignments.

"It's a wonderful profession," he said, adding that it certainly isn't lucrative. "But there's a lot of riches, experiences you'll never get anywhere else."

Starting in the early '70s, he taught newswriting and the history and trends of newspapers and journalism for about five years to communication students at Stanford University, where he encouraged them to create flawless, "stainless-steel writing." (To students' dismay, anything less would earn them a B or lower.) He has also lectured on a variety of subjects, including once for the Museum of American Heritage on the "history of the word," he said chuckling.

His service to the community extended beyond things journalistic. While working for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation for more than 18 years as director of public affairs, Thorwaldson served on many organization boards, including ones for the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Senior Coordinating Council (now Avenidas), Peninsula Conservation Center (now Acterra) and Adolescent Counseling Services (the advisory board). During his break from journalism, he also participated in a successful campaign in the early 1980s to save Redwood City's Bair Island from a development project. In 2001, he received a Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce Tall Tree award in recognition of his contributions to Palo Alto.

Now retired, he spends most of his time in Cool, California, where he perfects his lumberjack and carpentry skills in working on a house that he shares with his longtime partner, Patricia Spohn.

Yet he hasn't withdrawn entirely from Palo Alto. For the Weekly, he writes regular "Off Deadline" columns, and last month he saw his cover story "Overcoming Abuse" (March 28), about the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse, in print one of just three his wrote while at the newspaper. He often travels the about 175 miles down from the Sierras, sometimes rumbling into town on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Thinking back on his "lifetime of achievement," he noted that he has faced quite the number of failures as well. Being bucked to the ground as a youngster might have served as a symbolic first.

"It's always been a race between achievements and failures," Thorwaldson said. "But you can't be afraid of failures if you're going to achieve anything."

Editorial Assistant Sam Sciolla can be emailed at ssciolla@paweekly.com.

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