Senior Recruiter Sonali Kohli here. I want to talk to you this week about the joy of having and being a mentor, and the grief of losing a mentor. I want to talk to you in particular about Henry Fuhrmann, who was my first journalism mentor. Henry died earlier this month at the age of 65, a few years after entering semi-retirement. He had so much left.
Henry and I met when I was an extremely eager (perhaps too eager) student at the University of California - Los Angeles [UCLA]. As an undergraduate, I went to the Los Angeles Times building downtown every chance I could — for everything from tours to events and panels. At one such panel, I met Henry, who was an assistant managing editor overseeing the copy desk. At our college newspaper, the Daily Bruin, we were grappling with a decision (remember that this was circa 2011): my editor and I wanted to honor a source's request to use they/them pronouns in a story, which we'd never done. Neither had the Los Angeles Times, yet. But Henry believed in respecting a person's identity and using language as a tool to do that. He told me that journalists must strive for accuracy, and it is reasonable to deduce that the name or pronouns a person uses for themselves are the most accurate. He supported our decision to respect the source's identity and then used the Bruin as an example when the LA Times had that conversation about pronouns not long after.
He also began to encourage me to apply for Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) scholarships, and to become involved in our local chapter. He had these mugs that I really wanted, and he promised me that one day we would work together, and on that day he’d give me a mug. We did, and getting that mug was the best part of starting my job at the LA Times.
My former colleague Frank Shyong explained their significance best, in a recent LA Times column: “a mug from Henry was a lifeline. He didn’t force us to win his approval, giving it unconditionally. He called us 'rising stars' and 'management material' long before we had any real achievements under our belt. And in trying to live up to the labels, some of us made them true.”
Henry showed me that Asian Americans can be newsroom leaders and that newsroom leaders can be patient, kind, and generous with their time and their teachings. He taught me, a perennially stressed-out person, that you can lead with grace.
In the last year, Henry and I were in a few spaces together where we got to talk about our mentor-mentee relationship. The first was to a class of journalism students at Cal State LA, his alma mater. "Find mentors like Henry," I told them. "Now Sonali and I can both be your mentors," Henry told them.
Recently, the AAJA national organization and AAJA-LA board of directors shared one of my favorite quotes from Henry, one I can hear him saying:
“It’s the idea of being there for one another, right? That’s the thing, having one another’s backs. It’s the continuation of the ladder, leaving the ladder and bringing people up the ladder — not pulling the ladder behind you, but keeping people coming through the pipeline.”
Henry didn’t just leave the ladder down. He saw me, called down, put out a hand, and pulled me and so many others up. At each rung, he offered encouragement and incentives, and connection. Apply for the scholarship. Keep asking questions. Of course, you’re qualified for that job. Yes, you belong.
URL Media, co-founded by one of my other long-time mentors Mitra Kalita, honored Henry by sponsoring a table at AAJA-LA’s annual trivia bowl, an event I’ve worked, played, and won, and that funds scholarships I've benefited from. Henry’s family asked that well-wishers donate to the org here.