LifeStory

Robert Montemayor

By Marcia Smith

Sometime during my junior year at Texas Tech, my dad cut me off financially. I already had spent half the money from my summer job — working the front desk of a chain motel in Alabama — on a 1964 Mustang that, within months, was begging to be put down. The remainder of my savings covered tuition, fees, and books, meaning I had to live on the $50 a month I earned as a reporter for The University Daily. Even in 1974, that wasn’t enough.

At that point, Robert Montemayor and I had been friends for two years. We met in the UD newsroom; he swaggered in one day my freshman year wearing a bouncing Afro and a ghastly mesh athletic shirt that revealed a muscled torso. When he introduced himself, he rolled that final “r” in his name like a Spanish grandee. He had chubby cheeks and brown stains on his front teeth, the mark of someone who grew up drinking West Texas water. He was brash, cocky, opinionated, everything I hoped to find in a college newsroom in that Watergate era.

Like siblings, we went to our corners and came out fighting. I was a feminist; he was a Latino at Tech on a football scholarship. We both had a lot to prove — and a lot to learn. I tagged along to his La Raza Unida rally, and he leafed through issues of Ms. on my coffee table. He bragged about acing his classes without ever opening a book. I read Madame Bovary for fun and dragged him to incomprehensible Italian films. He taught me to like Mexican food; I occasionally cooked something from Betty Crocker for him. We became the closest of friends.

He was a lot better friend than I was. When I went into a panic about my lack of funds that junior year, he trekked across campus to the financial aid office, gathered a stack of forms, and not only brought them to my dorm, but sat with me as I filled them out. More remarkably, he arranged a meeting with the chairman of the mass communications department. When I arrived, Robert already had pleaded my case: my second-semester tuition and fees would be waived. And, sensibly, he convinced me to sell that unreliable Mustang.

I was a middle-class Army brat from El Paso, and I chose Tech, the 13th school in my educational odyssey, because the school gave me a freshman journalism scholarship that mandated a 10-hour workweek on the UD. I would have gladly worked 40. Robert had grown up near Lubbock, in Tahoka. He worked construction with his dad in the summers, which explained the muscles and maybe the flashy car he called Bevo. It was appropriately red, and maybe a Dodge? I can’t recall, but I know for sure I spent a lot of time in the right-hand bucket seat, especially after giving up the Mustang.

There was the time we drove to Juarez, for example. Spring break. We smoked pot and listened to music on the radio(!) all the way to El Paso and bunked with the family of another UD reporter who went with us that night to the greyhound racetrack in Juarez. We spent the next day browsing tourist stalls stuffed with piñatas and pottery, eating better Mexican food than our customary El Chico offered. Before re-crossing the border, I abandoned our baggie of pot behind the toilet tank in a convenience store restroom. We drove all night back to what Robert called “the Buck,” stopping to pee in chilly deserts and barren cotton fields. It wasn’t the South Padre or New Mexico ski slopes kind of spring break: for us, going to college wasn’t about getting a tan or sharing a hot tub in a Taos chalet. We were poor kids with aspirations.

Robert especially was driven — in the classroom, in the newsroom, in life. He charged through his four years at Tech, making lifelong friends not only among the student leaders who were his peers, but also with administrators and professors who saw his potential and supported him. In his senior year as editor of the UD, he created a slogan for the masthead: It’s the business of this newspaper to raise constructive hell. To make sure that happened, he wrote an editorial in every issue for a full year. Having charmed the secretaries in the administration building, he enjoyed liberal access to the suits, including president Grover Murray, who likely realized it was wise to keep Robert close. A significant measure of the school’s lasting respect came in 2012, when he was inducted into the mass communication department’s alumni Hall of Fame.

I admired my firebrand friend fighting the good fight in newsprint. But it was many years before I could appreciate one battle he fought alone, entering into it with no apology and little explanation. In an era of radical disobedience and freak flag flying, Robert decided to become a Saddle Tramp, just about the dorkiest thing I could imagine anyone wanting to be. Saddle Tramps, an all-male booster organization begun at Tech in 1936, required its red-and-black-clad members to do its boosting on the sidelines at games. I made some noise about rah-rah eunuchs not athletic enough to play the game, not pretty enough to be cheerleaders, doing my best to dissuade Robert from kissing butt to belong. But he was a man on a mission; he pruned the ’fro and broke a big barrier, becoming Tech’s first Hispanic Saddle Tramp.

He didn’t hold it against me. That summer, he wrote to me, in what he called his “homerous” way, in Alabama, where I had an internship with a local daily. It was characteristically lively:

Things are better than better than better than better here in the Hub of the Great South Plains. We are all in fine and marvelous spirits. No qualms about the 105-degree weather. No qualms about no twat at nite. No qualms about our cranky old neighbors. No qualms about summer classes. No qualms about no twat at nite…No qualms about the Texas Constitutional Convention spending over $4 million and seven months to come up with no constitution. No qualms about the Nixon impeachment escapades. No qualms about no twat at nite…He added a few more no-qualms, then offered to come to Alabama and drive back to Lubbock with me for the fall semester.

Like I said, he was the superior friend, unfailingly attentive and generous. When I outrageously boasted that I would be The New York Times’ first female editor-in-chief — if only I had a gray felt fedora — he didn’t laugh at me. Instead, he bought me a fedora. That is, he scoured Lubbock thrift shops until he located a vintage one and paid a milliner to restore it, complete with a new band into which I could slip my press credentials. No one has ever given me a more thoughtful gift.

The New York Times eluded me, but with Robert’s help, I found my way to big-city journalism. Will Jarrett, the managing editor of The Dallas Times Herald and himself a Tech graduate, hired Robert in 1975, right after graduation. It was the paper’s heady Times Mirror years, when the mother ship in Los Angeles had the means to recruit less experienced but promising editors and writers who nudged aside tired old-timers wed to the inverted pyramid and the IBM Selectric. Young, bilingual, and ambitious, Robert was just the ticket: he wrote to me back at Tech that he bought something called a Mapsco and learned to navigate Dallas highways.

After graduating and moving to Phoenix in June 1976, I continued to get long letters from Robert, still typewritten on cheap newsprint with the old-school “more” circled on the bottom of each page, but they arrived in Dallas Times Herald envelopes. The pages were full of musings about life and love and journalism. In one, he humble-bragged about all the attention he was getting for a big story about a Mexican jailbreak, orchestrated by a former pro-wrestler in Dallas whose son was serving 10 years in a Piedras Negras jail for marijuana possession.

The story had great elements: the father-son bond, the drug trade, bordertown corruption, armed Anglos storming the jail as if remembering the Alamo. Robert, then 23 and a year out of college, shared a byline with veteran Hugh Aynesworth; Jan Reid later retold the story, including Robert’s dramatic role, in Texas Monthly. Dan Rather followed up on 60 Minutes. Even the movie studios came calling. He wrote to me:

How did you like the jailbreak story? Or did you even read it? Probably not. It was big shit news here and across the country for that matter…the Herald took me off night police beat, switched me to general assignment, gave me a $1,000 a year raise and have had my story entered in a shitload of contests as an investigative piece. Can you imagine how hard I am to be around. Talk about ego tripping. Actually the attention has been anything but that. I’m rather awed by it all really…It was a good break for me and…I’m quite grateful that I was able to respond as well as I did.

By the time I moved to Dallas a year later, newly wed and needing a job, Robert’s reputation as an exceptional hire undoubtedly eased my way into the editors’ offices. He never took any credit, writing to me beforehand that the screening process was a bitch. All you can do is try and try hard babe, he counseled. And check it out closely, because if hired, it is worth the effort. In the meantime, I’ll begin whispering lies and other mindless bullshit to Will Jarrett about your talent.

I got the job. It was 1978, and “lifestyle” reporting was supplanting traditional women’s pages concerns — weddings, society luncheons, fashion shows. I found my niche in the Living section, covering everything from bariatric surgery to Tupperware parties, while Robert continued to raise constructive hell in news. Our time together as working professionals was brief, less than a year. We ate fried-chicken lunches at the Dixie House when time allowed, and I occasionally had him over to my Oak Lawn apartment for a home-cooked meal. He shared a house in East Dallas with other hard-working, hard-drinking single guys: Bryan Woolley, eventually my buddy in features, slept on his couch for some weeks after a divorce. We talked shop and, like every journalist I’ve ever known, he enjoyed newsroom gossip almost as much as seeing his byline in the paper.

Before I knew it, the mother ship called Robert home; he left Texas to cover Latino life on the California border for The Los Angeles Times. When my phone rang late at night, I knew who was calling. He never identified himself, but simply started talking, his voice in quiet, confidential mode, possibly aware that it was two hours later in Dallas. I mostly listened — my husband lay asleep next to me — as Robert recounted his war stories. His tone often was awestruck, as it had been years earlier when, as a summer intern at The New Jersey Journal, he had rented a top hat and tails to attend an opera at the Met. He still couldn’t believe the boy from Tahoka had come so far.

He kept coming. Six years after joining The Los Angeles Times, in 1984, Robert earned a Pulitzer Prize for a series called Southern California’s Latino Community, an honor he shared with a team of reporters, writers, and photographers. He called me soon after the announcement; he wanted to thank me. To thank ME? I laughed at him for being preposterous. No, he insisted, he couldn’t have done it without me. I now wonder if other old friends got that same call, others who started out with him at the UD and the Times Herald who could appreciate how overwhelmed and grateful he felt…how proud.

At 31, Robert had received journalism’s highest accolade, which may explain the sharp turn he then made, away from the newsroom, back to the classroom. In 1986, he got his master’s degree in business from UCLA and moved to Manhattan, where he wore a suit every day to work for Dow Jones and, in time, other media conglomerates. He launched a consulting business, wrote a book called Right Before Our Eyes: Latinos Past, Present & Future, and taught at Rutgers University. He lived up to all that early potential and then some.

Robert married sometime in his 30's, and he and his wife Virgie bought a home in Bloomfield, New Jersey; they also held on to her apartment in the East Village. In 1987, I flew to New York to meet with my editor at Time-Life (I had been doing correspondent work for Life and People magazines), and Robert offered up the apartment. He and Virgie met me there with recommendations for local diners and a couple of tickets to Late Night with David Letterman. It was a rare meeting, outside of Texas, the only time I met his wife.

Our long friendship had always been just for us. We both had college romances — he dated my roommate for a time — but I don’t recall our talking about it much. He knew my husbands, the one I met at Tech in 1975 and the one I met at the Times Herald in 1978. He amiably shook their hands when he saw them, and he generally closed his letters and phone calls with a derisive “Kiss (the husband) on the lips for me.” But we never socialized as halves of a couple.

The only romantic advice I have on record came to me in Phoenix when I was vacillating about that first marriage. He wrote: I get so damn vicious when you speak of marriage. I can understand your love and affection and loyalties. I really can. But I wish you would allow yourself more experience before you head to the altar in a blind tizzy. You’ve got so much potential that could be utilized in so many ways…Am I being too much of a protective daddy? Am I worrying too much…? Maybe so…you know…I’d come running in a blazing sprint if you ever called. You know that…

I did know that. I got married anyway, then divorced, then remarried. He was not a guest at either of my weddings. Life got really busy: I left the Times Herald in 1989, got a graduate degree, and in 1992, I started teaching high-school English and journalism. When he came to town, I dragged him into my classroom for show-and-tell; as usual, he didn’t resist. It was during his suit years, a far cry from the last time we had been in a classroom together, 20 years earlier at Tech.

Sadly, but inevitably, we began to lose touch. The last time I remember seeing him was in Dallas in the late 1990’s, when for old-time’s sake, we had lunch at the Dixie House. We probably talked more about our work than our shared past, but we no longer had daily journalism in common. For several years after that, I got a Christmas card from him and Virgie, postmarked New Jersey. When I last wrote to him, I asked him to send an email address, but he never did.

And then, this past month, at a gathering of former Times Herald colleagues, I learned — casually, over dinner — that he had died. I was stunned. How could he have died without my knowing? What happened to him? I went online to read the obituaries. Divorce. Diabetes. Cancer. He went back to Lubbock to die. It happened Oct. 22, 2015. What haunts me most is that I could have so easily seen him. I made a rare visit to Tech that first weekend in October to attend an event honoring another college pal. If I had known he was there, I could have said goodbye.

If only…

After the shock wore off and time allowed, I went looking for him where I knew I would find him, in the letters I’ve quoted here, stored in my attic these many decades. I re-discovered my witty, driven, tender, fearless, outrageous, sentimental, talented old friend on these pages. I’m struck by how many begin with an elaborate apology for not writing sooner, but at least once, he chastises me in some crazy faux Elizabethan language— he was 22 and undoubtedly stoned — for a long silence. Beneath the whacked-out scolding, what I hear is that he wanted to stay connected through time and space, that I was important to him. It is a comfort to read that now.

I am the Spirit of the Universe. You are the ingrate, cruel woman. And you have shunned me, for some misguided reason. For why, woman? For why, doth thoust lance me so? What ills have I wronged you? For failure of communicados lacking from mine writing machines? Is it possible that my meager crimes of negligence have spurred wrath in your heart for Me? Hope not, I do. Hope rather that it is the monster time that (h)as warped the meanings of our now lingering silence. For I dost now break that seal, for sake of feel, of being real and with humble skill I do ask though what is the deal Lucille? Right on, right on, right on. And a mighty right on!!

If I could, I would send what I’ve written here to him. I would say I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner. And thank you, Robert, for being a most excellent friend.

 

Robert Montemayor
Memorial
  • born

    Jan 31, 1953

  • died

    Oct 22, 2015

Robert Montemayor
Memorial
  • born

    Jan 31, 1953

  • died

    Oct 22, 2015