Remembering John Adams, the first editor and publisher of the Downey Patriot

John Adams at a Downey Street Faire event in the mid-2000s. Photo by Eric Pierce

John Adams at a Downey Street Faire event in the mid-2000s. Photo by Eric Pierce

Ten years ago, Downey lost a loyal friend and fierce community advocate when John Adams died. The former editor and publisher of the Downey Patriot was 69 when he passed due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.

If you knew John Adams, the privilege was all yours. He was the hardest-working man in Downey, a regular fixture at City Council and board of education meetings, where he usually sat in the back of the room, scribbling notes on yellow legal pads. Nobody could read his writing, sometimes including John himself.

He carried with him a Sony digital camera, though most of his shots were rendered unusable due to his trembling hands, a symptom of Parkinson’s. When John hired me as an intern in 2002, one of my duties was to transfer John’s photos from his camera to a desktop computer. I can say with authority that one of John’s favorite subjects to photograph were cute girls.

Yes, John definitely liked women, and he had a penchant for putting pretty girls on the front page of the newspaper. I asked him about this once.

We need to sell newspapers,” he insisted.

“But John, the Patriot is free,” I replied.

He just grinned.

When John started the Patriot in 2002, the newspaper’s makeshift office was located inside an empty locker room at Columbus High School. The room was cavernous, darkly-lit and carried the faint scent of Ben-Gay, but you couldn’t beat the rent (free). Four aging Dell computers lined the wall where the writers and graphic designer worked, and on the other side of the room were a few mahogany desks for the advertising sales staff, and another table for the receptionist. In the middle of the newsroom was a couch where John sprawled his 6 ft. 4 in. frame.

The first person into the office every morning was the advertising director, Jerry Brady (a no-nonsense board member at the Downey Chamber of Commerce), then myself, and then John. John’s first order of business was always to call the Downey Police Department’s watch commander.

“Anything happen overnight?” John huffed, scribbling on his legal pad. “Thank you.” Click.

John didn’t use computers, so he typed his stories on a Brother word processor, a relic from the 1980’s with a blinking lime green screen and built-in floppy disk drive. The machine must have weighed 60 lbs. When the processor died, I ordered John another from eBay, paying about $13 for the machine and $70 for shipping.

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John’s health progressively deteriorated as Parkinson’s took its toll, making speech difficult. He spoke in short, explosive bursts, his sentences limited to no more than five syllables.

At one point, the police department mistook John as a prank caller and dispatched an officer to the Patriot’s office. After that, then Police Chief Roy Campos helped implement the weekly Crime Report that continues to run in this newspaper.

Like any good journalist, John amassed a network of sources that peppered him with news tips and story leads. These sources didn’t just come from within City Hall and school district headquarters, but from all corners of the Downey community, including non-profit organizations, Little League boards, unions, and civic groups. Everyone trusted John with privileged information and, to my knowledge, no one ever came to regret it.

“You have a right to know what is happening in your local community,” John once wrote. “The First Amendment is not only a right, it is a privilege and a challenge to inform in the best interests of the community and nation.”

John embraced being Downey’s pre-eminent journalist and understood its responsibilities, which is why he continued to report well past retirement age.

Unfortunately, at this point, Parkinson’s had fully ravaged his body and walking was nearly impossible. Refusing the help of a walker, he instead shuffled his feet, grasping at furniture, chairs, and even people to make his way across a room. When he fell, and he fell often, the crash was loud and violent.

“I’m alright,” he’d say through a toothy grin. Then he’d dust himself off and continue as if nothing happened. I’m sorry to admit the sound of John collapsing in a heap became a familiar sound around Downey.

Parkinson’s is a cruel disease. It can destroy a body physically but often leaves the mind intact. To his last days John remained incredibly sharp, consuming literature and poetry, his sharp wit intact for those able to mine it out of him. (Over lunch at Foxy’s one day, John pitched a story titled “The Top 10 Places to Fall in Downey.” He chortled as I rolled my eyes.)

John Adams in the Patriot’s second office next to the Downey YMCA. Photo by Eric Pierce

John Adams in the Patriot’s second office next to the Downey YMCA. Photo by Eric Pierce

John was a bachelor and lived alone in a small 1-bedroom apartment on Downey Avenue, a block north of the YMCA. In his final year, unable to properly care for himself, he moved into Southland Care Center in Norwalk. Now, instead of calling the police department every morning, he called the Patriot. He was briefed on the news of the day and our coverage plans.

“Good,” he would say. Click.

The phone calls continued until Jan. 20, 2009. John died the following day.

Although John is gone, his legacy continues to inspire the Downey Patriot and guides our pursuit of truth-telling and community advocacy. We’re a small staff, and far from perfect, but our resolve to produce honest journalism for the benefit of the Downey community remains as resolute as ever.

It’s what John would have liked because it’s what John taught us.

News, FeaturesEric Pierce