“Keep it tight.” That’s what Al Antczak told me and other staff writers a thousand times before we sat down to write up our stories for The Tidings.
It didn’t matter if it was a piece on a homeless guy living out of a cardboard refrigerator box on Skid Row or Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Los Angeles in 1987.
“Keep it tight” was Al’s journalistic mantra during his 16 years as editor of The Tidings, from 1973 to 1989. “Keep it tight.”
As a former feature writer on a national magazine and award-winning alternative newspaper, trained to always use a tape recorder, keeping it tight was a tough task for the nearly four years Al was my editor in the late ‘80s.
The old-school journalist also believed there was only one way to write a story — the venerable inverted pyramid. (This journalistic formula, developed by eastern newspaper correspondents during the Civil War, gives the most important fact first, followed by the second, down to the least important item.) Al clung to the style like it came straight from evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Al also had a thing about computers. He hated them.
While other secular and religious papers had been using computer technology for years, Al never even bothered to switch to an electric typewriter. He banged out his stories with two fingers on a heavy black Underwood typewriter until the day he retired.
Whenever he was asked about getting computers, he would simply hold up a short golf pencil with no eraser and quip, “This is my computer.”
When he ran The Tidings all those years — second only to his predecessor, Msgr. Patrick Roche, in longevity — the paper, of course, reflected Al’s humble, non-effacing personality. The broadsheet had eight columns, long after most papers had gone to six, photos were usually kept small and headline fonts were rarely bolder than a No. 2 pencil.
He covered local church happenings from a discrete distance, semi-hidden along the sidelines. And he only moved closer to an altar or podium to snap a couple of precise photos with his trusty manual Nikon camera. He was so inconspicuous, in fact, pastors, principals and program administrators would ask, “Is Al here?” or, after the fact, “Was Al here?”
Most of the time he was.
Besides working long hours Monday through Friday, on weekends he often covered two or three events. They might be parish anniversaries, religious education workshops, a parochial school’s graduation or a priest’s first Mass at some far-flung church. Assignments ranged from San Pedro to Santa Maria, Oxnard to Claremont, Malibu to Monrovia and Long Beach to Whittier. On one steadfast sedan alone, he logged 296,000 miles, mostly for The Tidings.
Staffers wouldn’t even know where his weekend work took him until we proofed galley pages at the printers early Wednesday mornings. Even then, most of his stories had no byline, only a photo credit.
From cub reporter to editor
The Tidings was the only place Alphonse “Al” Antczak ever worked. After graduating from Loyola High School, he continued being educated by the Jesuits at then-Loyola University of Los Angeles (today Loyola Marymount University), where he was an English major.
But World War II interrupted his college days. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, becoming a radio operator. He learned LORAN, a secret navigational system, and served in India and China. After the war, he returned to California and Loyola, writing for the Loyolan, including penning stories about his wartime experiences.
The editor of The Tidings, Msgr. Thomas McCarthy, was impressed by the collegian’s work. And on the Monday after his graduation in 1947, Al got his first desk at the Catholic paper. The cub reporter worked his way up the editorial ladder to become the 16th editor in 1973. By the time he retired in 1989, Al had covered the last year of Archbishop John J. Cantwell, the entire tenures of Cardinals James Frances McIntyre and Timothy Manning, and the first four years of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s term.
He reported on the tremendous growth of the Church in the Southland, which took in the building of 92 parishes, 200 schools, a dozen hospitals and three seminaries. There was also the drive to free parochial schools from taxation, the formation of the Lay Mission Helpers and Mission Doctors, the expansion of religious education for public school students, social justice efforts by Catholic Charities and Christian Service programs in parishes across the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Southern California’s great waves of migration were chronicled by Al and his Underwood: “Displaced Persons” after World War II, Cubans fleeing Castro’s revolution in 1959, Vietnamese or other southeast Asians in the mid-‘70s as well as the steady flow of refugees from war-torn Central America and Mexicans seeking a better life for their families.
“They are here, on our doorstep. There is a Gospel obligation to respond to them,” he wrote in 1993, reflecting on his years at The Tidings.
As both reporter and editor, Al interviewed hundreds of so-called “ordinary folks,” along with John F. Kennedy, Dr. Thomas Dooley, Itzakh Rabin, King Hussein and Cardinal Karol Wojtyle, who would become Pope John Paul II and now St. John Paul II.
‘Terribly talented’ man
Recalling The Tidings editor’s “magnetic” personality, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, the archdiocese’s archivist for more than 50 years, says there wasn’t any way you could get mad at Al Antczak. “Al had the background and he knew the people,” pointed out the archivist emeritus. “He had all the qualifications. He was well liked. And that’s why I say, if there was an election for editor back then after Msgr. Roche retired, he would have won it.”
But there was no election in 1973. Al was simply appointed the paper’s editor by Cardinal Timothy Manning.
And Msgr. Weber acknowledges the fact that, at the time, it was the one position in the local Church that he really wanted to occupy. So he admits to being a “little irritated” — especially because he thought the cardinal had led him to believe he was next in line for the coveted position.
When he went to see Cardinal Manning, the prelate “hemmed and hawed” about why he picked Al. He said there was a shortage of priests and how this was the era of the laity. Moreover, Msgr. Roche’s recommendation was that he be followed in the editor’s chair by his hard-working associate.
Then, in what Msgr. Weber says was one of his most brazen moments, he reminded the cardinal about the half-century tradition of having a man wearing a Roman collar as the editor.
After some more stalling, the cardinal asked, “Well, now, do you really want to know the truth?”
Nodding, Msgr. Weber said, “Sure I want to know the truth.”
And this time there was no hemming and hawing: “Well, he’ll do a much better job than you would.”
For a moment, the monsignor’s psyche was badly bruised. But he also appreciated the cardinal’s honestly. And on the way home, he came to the conclusion that Cardinal Manning was absolutely correct.
“And he has been proven to be right,” Msgr. Weber told The Tidings. “Al did a far better job than I could have ever done. I know that because much later I did become interim editor for a short time.”
He says Al was just naturally smart and a terribly talented man, who kept the weekly in the black with a circulation of more than 100,000 for years. He points out how the editor was writing stories supporting immigrants and farm workers before anyone else on the West Coast because of his own background.
Al’s father was a native of Poland, who came to America via Ellis Island. His mother was displaced from central Mexico by revolutionary turmoil. With her parents and siblings, she waded across the Rio Grande. The parents of his wife, the former Helen Fitzpatrick, were from Ireland.
Al and Helen raised eight children, four boys and four girls.
Al died on Oct. 5, 2006. He was 84.
Msgr. Weber, author of more than 50 books and a Tidings’ columnist for years, had one last thing to say about his long-time friend.
“I’ll tell you this,” he said. “If the world was full of Al Antczaks, we wouldn’t have any problems. I mean that, really. Because he was a totally sincere man. He was totally authentic.”