Jay Berman was 21 years old when he walked into the Daily Breeze newsroom on the Redondo Beach waterfront for the first time in August 1961.
Just weeks out of journalism school at USC, he would embark on a lifelong career path that on Friday, June 9, drew scores of accolades and memories from friends, former students and writers as news spread of his death following a long illness. He was 83.
Services are pending. He is survived by his wife, Irene Machuca, and a son, Dennis, from a previous marriage.
A true friend, mentor, writer, teacher and editor, with a dry sense of humor; someone who was genuinely kind — the praise spilled out across Berman’s social media pages and in emails on Friday.
“There was nobody on planet earth I admired more,” said Larry Welborn of Chino Hills, a former Orange County Register reporter who is a past president and chairman of the California Scholastic Press Association (CSPA), where Berman taught aspiring high school journalists for years. “As a teacher, he was unparalleled. He was the best copy editor I ever worked with.”
And, in a comment repeated often by so many, “He was an all-around good guy.”
Berman, who lived in Manhattan Beach with his wife of many years in the house he’d bought in 1974, loved the Angels, didn’t like the Dodgers so much. He also was a passionate fan of USC athletics.
He and his wife traveled extensively, visiting Europe numerous times. But their favorite place? Vancouver, Canada.
Todd Harmonson, senior editor of the Orange County Register, the flagship of the Southern California News Group, was only 16 years old when he first met Berman.
“He was one of the instructors at the summer (CSPA) journalism workshop back when I was a high school student,” Harmonson said. That was in 1985.
The two reconnected in later years at the Daily Breeze, where Harmonson was on the sports staff at the time, and became good friends.
When Harmonson had to cover USC in the Las Vegas Bowl on Christmas Day in 2001 — they lost — it was a dreary holiday.
“Then we ran into Jay and Irene and had Christmas dinner with them,” Harmonson said. “They were there to see the game and they made our Christmas that year.”
When he left journalism for a time, Berman served stints as press secretary to former Los Angeles County District Attorney Joseph P. Busch and, in 1977, as a campaign press secretary to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
But journalism was always his calling.
He returned to USC to earn a master’s degree in journalism and taught for years at Cal State Fullerton, becoming the faculty adviser to the campus newspaper, the Daily Titan. In that position and through courses he taught, Berman mentored a generation of aspiring journalists who went on to populate newsrooms throughout Southern California and beyond.
“He’s a full-on legend over there,” Welborn said.
But Berman was never far from the Daily Breeze, as he recalled in a guest column he wrote for the paper in 2021.
In his first year as a new reporter in 1961, he covered the cities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, earning $2 an hour. He rented a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan Beach for $110 a month and drove a new Volkswagen Beetle he’d bought for $1,500.
“John F. Kennedy was in his first year in the White House,” he wrote, ” ‘West Side Story’ was the top-grossing film of the year and nobody on this side of the Atlantic had heard of the Beatles.”
Speaking of the Beatles, Berman was sent out to LAX in 1964 to cover the first West Coast visit by the group that was about to take the U.S. by storm.
“Since I was photographing the (news) conference as well as covering it, I was seated near the front,” he wrote. “Ringo Starr looked at my camera and said, ‘Is that an old Nikon S?’ I told him it was. He motioned for me to come to the conference table, held out his hands and took the camera from me.”
“I’ve got one just like it,” he told Berman, smiling and handing it back.
When JFK was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Berman took a call in the Daily Breeze newsroom from Ed Ferraro, deputy city manager in Torrance, the city Berman was then covering. He asked what Berman knew about Kennedy being shot.
“I told him I’d be right back and put down the phone,” Berman wrote. “We had no computers to bring us our news back then. I walked to the front of the newsroom, where a Teletype machine nearly the size of a refrigerator was ringing a bell, indicating a story of unusual importance was taking place.”
The words, he recalled, in all capital letters were: “KENNEDY,” followed by “SHOT.”
“To avoid a newsroom panic, I walked back to my desk, told Ferraro he was right, then quietly told (Editor Ken Johnson) to look at the Teletype.”
He later was promoted to city editor at the Breeze, but left the news business briefly when, in 1966, an aerospace company offered him twice the money he was earning as a journalist.
“It was a mistake,” he said.
Turned out, writing press releases about aerospace products wasn’t much like journalism at all, he recalled.
He continued working for the Breeze during his years at Cal State Fullerton, mostly during his summer breaks. He took an early retirement in 1992 but continued working on the Breeze copy desk, sometimes full-time or as a vacation replacement, until 2008, when he retired for good.
Walt Baranger of New York, a Cal State Fullerton and Daily Titan alumnus who went on to a long career as an editor at the New York Times, praised Berman as a “great journalist.”
“He had this sense of right and wrong in journalism,” Baranger said, “and you’d see it in his face.”
“I think of him as a wordsmith,” said Rich Hammond of Thousand Oaks, a senior editor at The Athletic and a former Breeze and Register reporter who met Berman when he was a CSPA workshop student in 1994.
“He was so passionate, Jay just had a deep respect and appreciation for the English language,” he said.
Berman had health challenges through his life, Hammond said, but always loved to get out on the road for a trip to Vancouver or to attend a USC football game or see the Angels.
The recent bout with cancer, Hammond said, was challenging, but Berman kept going.
“I hope if I’m in that situation that I have a quarter of his ambition and his energy and his drive,” he said. “His mindset was, ‘If I can get out there, I’m going to get out there.’ “