Whittier’s LA Man, Joe Donnelly: Professor by day, journalist by night

Whittier’s LA Man, Joe Donnelly: Professor by day, journalist by night

Alessandra Roggero


Originally published on Medium

Joe Donnelly’s maybe too-big wedding band wiggles its way up and then down his ring finger as he strums his mini acoustic Martin in front of a classroom only half-full. He addresses two late students who come into the classroom, cowering, as they make their way  to their self-assigned black chairs without missing a beat. Then he continues on, head down. Joe Donnelly is the professor, the authority, the know-it-all. He repeats himself a lot, laughs (most of the time, awkwardly) at his own jokes, and often breaks into song and dance. But whether or not he tries to, Donnelly wins, not only with his attempt at the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” but also with his plain and practiced charm, which he built and mastered over time as a journalist for the past 20 years. I’m sure if you asked him, Donnelly would agree, too.

Some of us 2018 liberal arts college kids scoff at the thought of professors and their said craft or respective job. With an obvious and natural distaste for authority, inspired by our new president and coupled with time moving too slow, students can put professors in a tight spot, especially if they happen to be “old, expensive white guys,” as Donnelly calls himself. The attitudes of these young adults have grown layers in the past year since Trump’s inauguration and often have a tendency to speak volumes (though sometimes irrationally or at the wrong time). For his now almost-full classroom, Donnelly’s students just listen.

Alessandra Roggero/Quaker Campus

Alessandra Roggero/Quaker Campus

On the screen of his shiny Macbook is Donnelly’s most recent body of work, LA Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World, a collection of his best profiles. Donnelly completed these profiles over the span of his career as a writer in Los Angeles for some of the biggest news publications, such as the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Weekly, the Surfer’s Journal, and Orion Magazine. The profiles feature intimate experiences and conversations with Hollywood actors and actresses, artists, surfers, and misfits alike. L.A. Man was released on April 17. Just a few days after on April 12, Skylight Books in Los Angeles and the book’s publisher Rare Bird Books hosted an event for Donnelly. which included excerpt readings of  L.A. Man and a book signing at the end. Next week, Chevalier’s Books (126 N Larchmont Blvd, Los Angeles) will be hosting another book signing event in celebration of L.A. Man on Thurs., April 26. 

It is a Wednesday when Donnelly plays his guitar for his class, but, somehow, the clock turns faster than his foot taps against the linoleum floor in Hoover 205, and now it is Friday. Third-year Sheila Samson, who sits among the many wide-eyed students, is one of the first to ask Donnelly a question, after he presents this opportunity to the class.

“Writing is very lonely,” said Donnelly. “I’m kind of in the twilight of my hireability with major organizations; major magazines. I’ve worked for several. I’ve done my own thing. I’ve worked for magazines. I’ve worked inside; I’ve worked outside. I’ve been at the LA Times. I’ve been at the LA Weekly, at the Washington Post. I’ve been all over the place. I’ve started up an investigative project in Santa Barbara. I started up a publication in Los Angeles called Slake that was really popular and critically well-received for a little while. All this kind of stuff, but the fact is, I’m a fifty  — ” he pauses for a moment, “. . . three year-old white male, and no newsrooms are looking to hire that right now. My time is over.”

A first-year student repeats his “nobody’s going to hire an expensive old white guy” statement back to him, now ending in a question mark, and Donnelly clarifies himself: “Yeah . . . or very few places.” 

Donnelly never pictured himself being a teacher, but over time he found a new passion and went with it. “I also have found that I like this; I like teaching. I like you guys,” he tells the class.

In accomplishing so much, Donnelly has also learned many lessons along the way.

“I think, having had 20-some years of [being sober] under my belt and working on it and working on myself as well, has made me better prepared for the gifts that Olivia (his daughter) had to present to me,” said Donnelly. “Being open and receptive to the gifts that life has to present to you is, I think, the key to having a good life . . . I’ve blown a lot of them up in my past. You know when you’re turning yourself inside out? I wasted a lot of time and energy, as well, doing that. It’s always work, you know? I’ll always have things that I’ll have to keep an eye on. I’ll have a tendency to want to detach, to want to go away. I’ll have impulse control issues . . . I’ll always have to sort of maintain. There’s always room for improvement. Part of it is learning to not beat yourself up so much as well.”

He looks up at the class, focusing. “You guys are all perfect, by the way. You are, you are. You’re all perfect. A lot of it is coming to embrace that and live in it, rather than fight against it,” said Donnelly. 

While Donnelly attempts to teach his students how to write profiles on other people  —  important people, relevant people, big people  —  he understands, too, that his students are also trying to work on the profile of themselves, as he still is, some fifty years later. In this endeavor, Donnelly is open and receptive, now more than ever, it seems.

“You guys help me care about the world,” said Donnelly. “You guys help me care about the future . . . ‘cause I care about you. I mean, now that I have a daughter, I care much more about it than I did three years ago, you know?”