Richard Ek was a journalist. That’s not all he was, of course—he was a professor, author, activist, watchdog, arts enthusiast, husband, father, mentor and friend. Yet journalist is the identity most people knew him by, particularly the thousands and thousands of readers who saw his stories and commentaries in the Chico News & Review.
He left us Tuesday night (May 12) at the age of 82. To say he was one of a kind is a descriptor he’d have rejected as clichéd … but a sentiment he wouldn’t have disputed.
Indeed, as Chico State President Paul Zingg wrote Wednesday morning in sharing his respects: “Our community has lost a powerful advocate for openness and accountability in all public matters with the passing of Richard. He taught these lessons effectively in his classes at the university because he demonstrated them so passionately in the practice of his profession. He took on challenging issues; he asked tough questions; he persisted to have them answered. He was a first-rate journalist who never lost sight of the role and responsibility of a free press in our society.”
Journalist—that was Richard Ek.
The last of his stories for the CN&R came out Feb. 12, detailing a sweeping revaluation of properties by the Butte County Assessor’s Office. He’d written a commentary on water rights, but wasn’t satisfied with his conclusions after conducting additional research, so he asked that it be purged from the system. A few weeks ago, he shared the first draft of a piece on one of his former students, then vacillated about whether he’d submit it for publication. Now, even more than then, I wish he had. It relayed a deep lesson on presuppositions and forgiveness—a fitting coda.
Fitting, too, was his final cover story. “Breaking the bank” came out March 29, 2007, and wound up netting two major first-place awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association: Best Business/Financial Story for him and (as the linchpin of our coverage of city budget issues) Public Service for the CN&R. As detailed in our Year in Review for ’07, “he found that compensation packages for city employees—particularly firefighters and police officers—are so generous that the city has to skimp on infrastructure needs like road repair and maintaining Bidwell Park. He took flak for the story, but he stuck to his guns and continued to speak his mind at city Finance Committee meetings.
“Then a funny thing happened: People found out he was right.”
Doc Ek, as he was often called, was exceedingly proud of that story and appreciated the recognition. He felt the CNPA award should have been his second—a report on the Vina monastery, predating our Web site, didn’t get nominated by a previous editor. Reputation mattered to Doc. His record of accuracy was a point of pride, and he relished the perception that he was feared in the corridors of power in City Hall and Kendall Hall.
I’m proud to have known him and to have had him as a friend. He called me Tuesday in the late afternoon, during the bustle of production, for what turned out to be a farewell (literally—he signed off with, “Take care.”). Deepest condolences to his wife, son and daughter, as well as to everyone else who loved him. There will be no replacing him as a journalist, nor as a man.