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Passionate reporter 'never met a stranger'

Paul de la Garza , a Times reporter known for his ability to get sources to open up, dies at age 44.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published October 30, 2006


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photo
[Times file photo (2001)]
Paul de la Garza.

Funeral services for Mr. Paul de la Garza will be held Thursday and Friday.

Visitation will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Blount Curry Funeral Home, 605 S. McDill Ave. A funeral mass will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Church, at the Corner of Twiggs St. and Florida Ave. A celebration of his life will be held after the mass, from 3:30 to dusk, at the Davis Islands Garden Club, 81 Columbia Dr.

Recent stories by Mr. de la Garza

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In search of ground truth: CentCom chief Gen. John Abizaid crisscrosses the front lines to get intel on the war on terror. And he has a message for his troops: "Tell the truth." (9/3)

TAMPA - Paul de la Garza, a hard-driving St. Petersburg Times reporter whose passion for the big story was matched by love of family, died Sunday (Oct. 29, 2006) after an apparent heart attack.

Mr. de la Garza, 44, who had survived a heart attack two years ago, collapsed at his Davis Islands home about 10 a.m. after complaining of chest pains. He was taken by ambulance to Tampa General Hospital, where he died about 1 p.m.

As a journalist, Mr. de la Garza was widely respected for mining sources and breaking big stories, most recently about VA hospitals and the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

"He was a driving investigative reporter. This is very shocking." said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a frequent source for Mr. de la Garza, sometimes dinner companion and occasional target. "He was very respected by the folks I know. They trusted him."

Young's wife, Beverly, recalled tears running down de la Garza's face, as she led him through VA wards full of wounded soldiers.

"Paul is really compassionate. He really cares," she said Sunday. "He's the most wonderful Democrat I ever knew. I can't believe this has happened to him and Georgia and the kids. This is wrong."

Texas upbringing

Mr. de la Garza was born in Port Isabel, Texas, near Brownsville, one of six children.

His father was a shrimper and his heritage was Mexican, though he sometimes pointed out that some ancestors lived in Texas before the United States annexed it. His given name was Jesus Pablo, but friends called him Jesus only when they wanted to annoy him.

By fourth grade, he was working 40 hours a week, collecting bait for fishermen, his wife, Georgia, said.

He waited tables and worked at the school newspaper to earn his way through the University of Texas. Then he worked his way up the ranks of the Associated Press, with stints in Chicago, Southern Illinois and Newark, N.J.

Mike Konrad, now Hernando Times editor, was managing editor of the Southern Illinoisan, in Carbondale, when Mr. de la Garza was posted there for the AP.

"This was a guy who could work sources like nobody I've ever seen in my life," Konrad recalled. "Within weeks of getting there, he was getting stories our reporters were missing, just because he had met so many people. And there was nobody in the world who would not talk to Paul."

Sometimes, boldness and charm was all it took. As the Chicago Tribune's Mexico City bureau chief, Mr. de la Garza interviewed Latin American presidents and rebel leaders alike. On assignment in Cuba, he ran into Milton Berle and asked him for a cigar-smoking lesson.

"I still have the cigar box that Milton Berle signed for him," said Georgia de la Garza. "They smoked Cohibas together."

Once, when Mr. de la Garza was vacationing in New Orleans, a limousine driver pointed out Fats Domino's house. Mr. de la Garza jumped out with a video camera and talked his way in, where Domino's band was practicing for a Jazz Fest performance.

Fats, himself, stayed in back of the house.

"Paul never met a stranger," recalled Times colleague Tom Scherberger, who witnessed the scene. "He introduces himself and we are hanging out with Fats Domino's band. Finally, one of the band politely says that Fats won't come out until we leave. Only later, did we discover that Paul had pushed the button wrong on the camera and we never got any video."

Mr. de la Garza first worked at the Times from 1992 through 1994, where he covered Tampa police news, wrote a column, and helped edit the Tampa section.

Then he worked for the Chicago Tribune for six years, both in Mexico City and in Chicago, where he was a reporter and assignments editor.

He returned to the Times in 2000, in part, because he and his wife wanted a more stable environment for two orphans they had adopted in Mexico City - Monica, now 12, and Carlos, 11.

"The two things he cared the most about were his family and his work," said John Dunn, longtime friend and Tampa General spokesman. "Just about every conversation we had sitting over pints were about Georgia and the kids.

"No matter how bad a day he had, that put him in good spirits."

It wasn't just the children. The de la Garza house often was opened to extended family. When Georgia's brother died, they took in her niece. When Paul's father had a stroke, they took in his parents.

During his second stint at the Times, Mr. de la Garza covered the Pentagon, the military and veterans affairs. Last summer, he wrote a detailed, insider's look at Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, as he toured Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This is a heartbreaking loss. He really went after stories because they would make a difference in the lives of good-hearted folks," said Paul Tash, Times editor, chairman and CEO. "He had so much to offer both as a father and husband and also as a reporter."

Cancer survivor

In 2001, Mr. de la Garza was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and underwent extensive cancer treatments. After two years with no recurrence, he and his wife rented a B&B in his beloved New Orleans and celebrated with about 40 friends from around the country. One photograph shows him in a colorful hat, a Jazz Fest scarf around his neck and sunglasses.

"Paul the journalist was very different than Paul, the regular guy," recalled Sandra Gadsden, the Neighborhood Times editor.

"The journalist was a stickler for detail. He would hang on every sentence. Paul the man was just a fun-loving laid-back guy."

Mr. de la Garza is survived by his wife; daughter Monica and son Carlos; mother, Jesusa de la Garza and sister Via Camacho, both of Austin, Texas; and brothers Eduardo of Houston and Alberto of Galveston, Texas.

-- Times staff writer Bill Duryea contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 30, 2006, 20:30:09]


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