By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
After nearly 37 years working at The Seattle Times, the city’s “voice of reason,” Jerry Large, has retired. Friends and family celebrated his illustrious journalism career on Friday, Apr. 6, at the Northwest African American Museum.
Born in Clovis, N.M. in 1954, Large and his two brothers were raised by a single mother. Growing up poor with a small number of Black and Asian folks in a largely Native American and Mexican community, Large observed those groups as occupying different niches, and he wondered why different racial groups occupied different spaces.
He wanted to write about those topics to help others understand why that happens and why it’s possible for everyone to have better outcomes in their lives.
Large has a B.A. in Journalism from New Mexico State University. Prior to The Times, he worked for the Clovis News-Journal, the Farmington, New Mexico Daily Times, the El Paso Times, and the Oakland Tribune. He joined The Seattle Times as an editor in 1981 and has been a columnist since 1993. He has written about 1,000 columns for The Seattle Times.
“My first career goal was to get a job,” Large joked.
Like many folks, Large accidentally got into journalism when he got attention for his writing in the high school newspaper. He enjoyed writing stories that got a lot of reaction.
Before Large’s first column at the Times, he sent a few samples to the editor, but his wife gave him some valuable feedback before he did that.
“Be present,” she advised. “People have to know they’re listening to Jerry Large and not just a random journalist. That was really great advice and helped me rethink how I want to approach the column. The consequence was that I decided to write about what I would like,” he said.
Large’s first column introduced himself to the world by talking about his son’s birth, and how that affected him and changed his perception of the world. The column set the tone for his future columns — Large was going to write about serious, but also human issues and personal things.
His most memorable pieces were often the human-focused stories.
Large once wrote about an older woman who made neck pillows for the homeless because she saw them sleeping uncomfortably on the streets. He said it was incredible to hear how the woman had the ability to show such empathy, even after the personal struggles she experienced.
Loud and proud
Large’s proudest accomplishment has been to create the columns and figure out how to do that in a way that accomplishes the goals he set — invite people to think about things differently, and to offer context to help understand issues that people are wrestling with.
“Like Black women and hair, it turns out that everybody in every group has hair issues, political issues and about appearances. It was a conversation starter that I really enjoyed,” he said.
Both Large and his wife Carey Quan Gelernter, who is half Jewish and half Chinese American, were journalists and had a desire to make a difference in the world, especially around issues of race and class. They met in 1977 while working at El Paso Times. Growing up in a multicultural household helped the family connect to their roots. They have one son, Tao, who is a Ph.D. student studying chemistry at Stanford University.
Large’s retirement priority is to take it easy and to let his brain rest for awhile, and let the next steps develop naturally. He plans to do a lot of reading, learning, traveling, volunteering, and more writing, eventually.
Gelernter is still working part-time as the editor of Lakeside School’s alumni magazine. “Eventually, she’ll join me on the senior train,” Large joked.
Though the couple have done a fair bit of traveling, Large said they have an extremely long list of places to visit, like New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, and South America.
Years ago, Large took a three-month fiction writing program, and that reenergized his writing. It persuaded him to think that maybe he could try writing fiction.
Large has been inspired by many writers, including Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Molly Ivins, and Mike Royko.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t get out of your system entirely,” he said.
The community celebrates Large’s career
At Large’s retirement party, held at the Northwest African American Museum, friends and family got to share their favorite memories.
People described Large as intelligent, well-read, quiet, patient, a lover of learning and history, and a wonderful father and husband.
The Seattle Times’ Sharon Pian Chan started working with Large in 1999 as an intern. Chan described Large as a cross between Atticus Finch and Morgan Freeman, except shorter. Large is gentle like Finch and wise like the characters that Freeman plays, she said.
“Jerry reflects the conscience of the city. He’s so caring and he takes care of the underrepresented communities and reminds us when we’re drifting where our conscience points us to,” she said.
Chan said Large was an example and role model for journalists of color. He had his own column and was incredibly generous with his time with young journalists like Chan.
“I don’t think there are that many African American male columnists in the country who still are saying what needs to be said. Jerry really blazed that trail for other African American writers in the country,” she said.
“That’s a loss for the community. I believe that when old warriors die, new warriors step up to fill their place. I’m excited to see who that will be at The Seattle Times,” she said.
A rising warrior is South Seattle Emerald editor-in-chief Marcus Harrison Green, who recalled the challenges of growing up in the public school system in Rainier Beach. People told Green, who’s Black, that he was dumb and that he wasn’t going to amount to anything, but Large was an inspiration to Green. They met in person several years ago and Large told Green that he was a good writer and that the sky was the limit.
Green thanked Large for everything that he has done for him to blaze the trail for the next generation of Black journalists in the city.
“[Large] is probably the only journalist left at the Times that brings race and class analysis to his column,” said Cindy Domingo, a community activist who has known Large for over 20 years.
“He is very connected with those populations that are disenfranchised and have had historical struggles and barriers with discrimination, and that’s why we’ll miss him very much.”
Large’s impact on the Black community was significant, said former assistant managing editor at The Seattle Times, Carole Carmichael.
“He celebrated and acknowledged that community. He taught non-African Americans about the community when it was invisible in many ways. His column had a huge impact because he paved the way and said, ‘Here’s what you need to know and why it’s important you embrace this community.’”
Carmichael described Large’s writing as warm and welcoming.
“He speaks directly to you and he pulls you in. He doesn’t try to talk down to you and he tries to help you to join forces with him. You also learn to look from someone else’s perspective. In writing, that’s different to achieve and he does it with such grace.”
Former Seattle mayor Norm Rice echoed Carmichael’s thoughts and described Large as a clarion and a clear voice.
“He brings reason to the table. He calls you to justice and when Jerry opines or gets involved in something, you know he’s pointing us in the right direction,” Rice said.
The Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen called Large’s column his “morning coffee companion.” “I’m really going to miss not hearing Jerry in the mornings, that voice in my ear.”
Some of Large’s best work in the last decade was about the terrible fault lines related to race, gender, and economic issues in the country. Blethen praised Large for his strong voice, deep research, and authoritative reporting.
Over the years, Large has received some prestigious journalism awards, including the Dr. Samuel E. Kelly Award for contributions to diversity, RESULTS International Cameron Duncan Media Award for reporting on poverty, Faith Action Network Justice Leadership Award, and more.
Overcoming odds and staying resilient
With the highs of his careers, there were also some hardships.
“There has been progress, but it’s still the same. When I started, it was rare to see a Black person in the newsroom. Mainstream newspapers began to hire more people who weren’t white, but the numbers never really got that high. They climbed a bit when there was money to spend, but when newspapers cut back, newsrooms changed again because people had different priorities,” Large said.
Having a thick skin is a necessity in a public facing role. There had been a number of times when Large wrote about race related to police shootings that have pushed people’s buttons.
“The negative tends to be vitriolic, that’s just part of my job knowing that I’ll attract that kind of negative attention. It’s not pleasant to know that I struck a nerve. I’m much happier when I hear that they hadn’t considered a perspective,” he said.
Large used to respond to all of the emails he received, but the feedback has gotten worse with the political climate. The negativity detracted from everything else he’s trying to accomplish, so he focuses his time on responding to those with real questions and concerns, to achieve his goals and for the sake of his mental health.
Leaving a Large legacy
What will Large miss the most about working? His journalistic superpowers.
“Because I’m a journalist, people will sit and patiently share things with me. They willingly share aspects of their lives and I try to be careful when I write about people sharing their lives,” Large said.
He’ll also miss being in a room full of journalists who are inquisitive and interested in the world, and the opportunity to share with everyone about something excited he read.
What he won’t miss? The pressure.
“In journalism, you have to let things go after a while. If I try to achieve perfection, I’d still be working on my first column, but I want to feel really good about it. I don’t want errors or my thinking to be faulty. I want to say something that is worth people’s time reading, that’s something I take very seriously and it’s very difficult, so I have to retire after awhile,” he said.
Large hopes that his legacy was that he made it OK for people to think about things that might’ve been uncomfortable to them.
“That I tried hard to acknowledge our common humanity and to talk about our differences as products of history, social constructs, and of behaviors that we can all change if we want to. We don’t have to put each other in boxes, and we can acknowledge who we all are and not apply judgments that are detrimental to people based on appearances or other features that we think really matter. But in the end, it doesn’t and shouldn’t,” he said.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.