Tom Plate: a great journalist and my good friend. Life will not be the same without him


WE CONNECT WITH MANY people in our journey through life, but the few we truly cherish are the ones who, as the famous quotation noted, understand our past, believe in our future, and accept us just the way we are.

There have been a few people like that in my life, but I don’t think anyone had more impact on my career than my dear friend Tom Plate.

Tom hired me right-out-of-college at the late, great Los Angeles Herald Examiner back in March of 1978. He was the Editor of the Editorial Pages and he hired me to be the editor of the Opinion section — a HUGE leap of faith in a young journalism grad.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that job launched both my career and a close friendship that lasted the rest of his life and most of mine — an all-too-short 45 years.

It ended on May 23, 2023, when Tom passed away after a brief illness, in Laguna Niguel, California. He was 79-years-old, and his sudden loss has left a hole that can never be filled.

There is a wonderful obituary of Tom that President Timothy Law Snyder of Loyola Marymount University posted on LMU’s Asia Media’s website. He chronicles Tom’s incredible career with a specific focus on Asia Media International, noting it is “America’s only website run by college students devoted entirely to Asia and the U.S., of which Tom was founder and editor in chief.”

It was something Tom was terribly proud of.

He always saw potential in people

Snyder’s obit also says this:

Professor Plate joined LMU in August 2010 teaching part-time as a Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies after a long, eminent career in journalism and an equally impactful tenure in academia. He transitioned to a full-time teaching role in 2017 and joined the faculty in the newly created Asia and Asian American Studies Department in 2019. … 

Professor Plate mentored the young journalists who joined his crew (at Asia Media International), many of whom went on to work in media organizations or in diplomatic settings. He frequently leveraged his connections and contacts to the benefit of his students, hosting encounters with renowned scholars, diplomats, policy makers, and world leaders. Beloved by his students, ‘Prof. Tom,’ as they called him, was also featured in LMU Magazine’s Off-Press podcast series.”

That alone would be a huge accomplishment for most people, but it was just the final chapter in the illustrious career of Thomas Gordon Plate.

I met Tom in March 1978 when I was hired at the LA Herald Examiner. I was 22 and Tom was a seasoned pro at 34. Although I had been Editor of the Cal State Long Beach Daily 49er newspaper, as well as a reporting intern on the Metro Desk of the Los Angeles Times, I floundered at first in a large daily newspaper like the HerEx. It was like going from college football to the NFL — everything was moving a lot faster than I had ever experienced before.

Yes, I was struggling to adjust.

Years later, Tom told me that HerEx Managing Editor Ted Warmbold had come to him after my first few weeks and suggested it might make sense to move me to some other job. The consensus was that I might not be cut out for a big daily newspaper.

Tom, to his everlasting credit, told the Managing Editor that perhaps I just needed a little more time to adjust, and that he wasn’t ready to give up on me yet.

It was a life-changing decision, because something clicked for me around Week 5. I got my sea legs, what seemed to be moving so fast slowed down, and I finally started showing what I could do. My career was off and running.

That was classic Tom Plate. He always saw the potential in people, and he was patient enough to let them show their stuff. It is one of the marks of a great manager, an early lesson I never forgot.

A career full of incredible accomplishments

Tom had a wonderfully varied career, and far too many jobs and projects for me to remember. I thought his LinkedIn profile could fill in the gaps, but in classic Tom Plate fashion, his page lists only two jobs — one for Asia Media International at LMU (starting in November 2011), and another that simply says “Career Journalist, Los Angeles Times, Nov 1989 – May 1999”– and nothing else. There are no other jobs listed before that, and little about the many books he authored or his teaching years at UCLA.

One of Tom’s early admonitions to me seems to cover this — when writing or editing, “less is more.”

There’s another thing in his sparse LinkedIn page that my mentor taught me — remember and treasure your past, but make sure your focus today is on what you’ll do tomorrow.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other highlights of Tom’s career:

  • He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA from Amherst College before heading to Princeton, where earned a Masters in Public and International Affairs.
  • He worked for a lot of great editors. At Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, he worked for Editor Dave Laventhol, and at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner for Editor Jim Bellows. He had a stint as Editor in Residence at London’s Daily Mail for Sir David English; and at New York Newsday he was reunited with his old friend Don Forst. Tom did magazines too, and he was at New York magazine where he worked for founding Editor (and magazine legend) Clay Felker, and at Time magazine for Editor Ray Cave. Add in his time at the LA Times as Editor of the Editorial Pages under (now publisher) Dave Laventhol again, and it adds up to a Who’s Who of great editors — Tom Plate included.
  • Tom was also Editor of Family Weekly, the magazine that was inserted into 362 Sunday newspapers at it’s peak and had a circulation of 12.8 million. Tom was Family Weekly’s last Editor under CBS ownership before it was sold to Gannett and turned into USA Weekend.
  • He wrote a LOT of books but I found it hard to get a handle on just how many. Amazon lists nine, including his Giants of Asia series where he interviewed Asian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, but it doesn’t include his first book, Understanding Doomsday: A Guide to the Nuclear Arms Race for Hawks, Doves and People from 1970, or later ones like Secret Police that was co-authored with his wife Andrea Darvi in 1981. Andrea came to my rescue and was able to give me the exact count, and she tells me that he wrote 13 books overall.
  • Tom also taught for 15 years at UCLA, including undergraduate courses in media ethics, Asian politics, and media. He founded the campus-based nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Center, a precursor to what he did at LMU.
  • His final stop was when he moved over to Loyola Marymount University in 2010, as LMU President Snyder mentioned in his remembrance of Tom I quoted above. There’s a bit of irony in him ending up at LMU, a Jesuit and Marymount research university, because Tom attended a Franciscan Preparatory Seminary for a short time when he was 15.

Tom zigged when everyone else zagged

Tom’s journalistic style was to cut against the conventional wisdom that so many others in the media like to grab hold of.

He liked to zig when everyone else zagged.

Here are two good examples of that:

  1. Tom was the only major newspaper editor in the state who was in favor of California’s famous Proposition 13. It was, and still is, a controversial ballot initiative that has saved many millions of dollars for California homeowners. According to the State Legislative Analyst’s Office, “it was a landmark decision by California’s voters in June 1978 to limit property taxes,” and the LA Herald Examiner was the only big newspaper to back the measure and the famed “tax revolt” led by Prop. 13 author Howard Jarvis. Its passage, helped in large part by HerEx support, made the LA Times and it’s stance against the measure  — one that continues to this day — look “dumb,” to use one of Tom’s favorite descriptions. The Wikipedia webpage on the measure says that “Proposition 13 is often considered the ‘third rail’ of California politics, which means that politicians avoid discussions of changing it.” Tom always smiled when I mentioned that to him, because the measure might not have passed without the passionate backing of Tom Plate and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
  2. Tom was writing about Asia, particularly the rise of China, long before most anyone else in America. Tom wrote opinion articles for the South China Morning Post, the English language Hong Kong daily, for many years. While column-writing for the LA Times in July 1997, he was the first American commentator to warn that the implosion of Thailand’s Baht currency could trigger a larger crisis in East Asia. And then the Asian Financial Crisis happened — just as he predicted. Yes, Tom was focused on Asia long before other Americans took note. In the foreword to his 2014 book In the Middle of China’s Future: Tom Plate on Asia, Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations, wrote: “Tom Plate is one of the few Western journalists who have gotten the world’s biggest story [the rise of China] right.”

It was always a challenge to keep up with Tom and where he was working or traveling, but we managed to stay connected over the years as really good friends always do.

I visited him in New York when he was working there, and he visited me in Hawaii when I was executive editor of The Honolulu Advertiser. He always had a keen interest in me, my family, and my career. His advice and journalistic philosophy is burned into my brain.

Some of the best times with Tom were when we could get together for a meal, or a drink, or a book signing party, and just chat about our lives and careers.

I always felt that just talking and listening to him was like a master class in writing, editing, ethics, and the politics of the Far East. He loved it all and never lost his zeal along the way.

Vaya con dios, Tom Plate

Despite all the emails I shared with him, the contributions from Tom’s end were usually brief and to the point. You never got to experience his full writing style reading them, but instead, you were treated to bits of his humor and fabulous wit. Looking back now, I’m sad I didn’t save more.

Here’s a bit from a December 2016 email exchange when we were planning our end of the year drink at the yacht club where he had a membership. He advised me that, “Club dress code is almost non-existent. Shoes of any kind required. By 6 half the members will be pickled, especially those who live on their yachts berthed nearby. Food available.”

THAT is the Tom Plate I remember.

I pray that Tom’s family — his wife Andrea, daughter Ashley Keys, son-in-law Sam Keys, grandson Maximus Keys, and granddaughter Milana Keys — will be able to move from grief to where they can focus on the wonderful things shared with the cherished loved one they lost.

I’m grieving too, but I went back today and looked at what he had written in some of his books he autographed for me.

In one he wrote, “To John Hollon, my good friend and my best hire!” In another he wrote, “John, I am very proud of you, so keep going and never stop.” 

The best one was written Dec. 27, 2017 in his book Yo-Yo Diplomacy — Tom Plate on AsiaHe wrote to both to me and my wife, saying:

“Jill & John — 

Our sentimental journey that began four decades ago (!), proceeds with affection, respect, and love.”  

Reading those personal notes from my good friend and mentor made me feel a little less sad and a little bit better.

So Vaya con dios, Tom Plate. We can all use another man like you.

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