RIP Larry Hatfield: dedicated union leader, forthright newspaperman, legendary tippler

By Lynn Ludlow

Irascible, amiable and enormously talented, the young newsman from cornbread Iowa loved living in hot-tub Marin. As the 1960s played out, Larry D. Hatfield had been a cub reporter in the news cauldron of Washington, D.C. Moving to California, he got a job in San Rafael at the Marin Independent Journal. He rented a bachelor place on outer Lincoln Avenue.

Larry headshot
By Fran Ortiz, date unknown

He liked to drink. Larry soon became an after-work regular at San Rafael Joe’s. Its mahogany bar and meatball sandwiches were five minutes away from the I-J’s plant on B Street. Life was cakes and ale, but with a crucial difference.

At the Washington Star and United Press, the Newspaper Guild represented reporters, editors, photographers and white-collar workers. The Independent Journal’s local owners defiantly opposed unions. On a cool morning in 1970 the International Typographical Union flung a noisy picket line outside the newspaper’s entrance.

Larry refused to cross it. He joined it.

He was fired.

Larry would join many a picket line in years to come.

A dedicated union leader, a forthright newspaperman and legendary tippler, he died March 3 in Iowa from a lethal combination of strokes, heart trouble, and kidney failure. He was 80.

After covering the news for more than 30 years in San Francisco, the progressively liberal world traveler had returned to his roots in Iowa. It mystified friends and delighted his kin.

“He did amazing things in his lifetime,” said his niece, Kate Hatfield.

The amazing things began on Aug. 11, 1941, when Larry Dale Hatfield was born to Rex and Evelyn Mitchell Hatfield. With his three brothers, the family then lived in rural Bedford (pop. 1,500), a county seat fenced in by field corn and soy farms in the wrinkled topography of south central Iowa. Graduating from Bedford High School (Home of the Bulldogs), Larry drove two hours north and enrolled at the University of Iowa (Home of the Hawkeyes). A journalism degree came after his stint as managing editor of the Daily Iowan. He enlisted in the Army, worked at UPI, earned a master’s from American University, left the Washington Star, headed West and landed at San Rafael Joe’s.

Back in 1936: Overworked, underpaid and liable to be sacked at any time, reporters and editors at San Francisco Examiner braved the outrage of its powerful owner. Although the grotesque William Randolph Hearst commanded a media empire, it started with the Examiner. In the Depression, the depressed Hearstlings were among the nation’s first newspaper journalists to win a union contract. (The San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild, still kicking, is now cumbersomely renamed as Pacific Media Workers Guild of the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America).

Back in 1970: Examiner city editor Gale Cook, who valued forceful writing and competitive zeal, scoffed at the I-J’s fear of unions. (The Newspaper Guild then included him and other mid-level managers. They lost their union cards a few contracts later).

Cook quickly hired the fired union advocate as a cityside general assignment reporter. Then he dealt with Larry’s occasional rants, his critical attitude toward authority figures and the surprise of cleaners who found him peacefully sleeping overnight on the couch in the women’s lavatory. With reporter Jim Wood, he installed the lobby’s Christmas tree in the elevator. It became a holiday tradition.

It was a trade-off. For the next 30 years of news that was always breaking, Larry covered earthquakes, scandals, politics and complex issues by the score. He is also remembered by his peers for his deadline brilliance later as a rewrite men. (See:

The University of Michigan named him a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities with funds for Latin American study and travel in 1977-78.

Hatfield eventually had no room for his shelf of journalism awards.

Among his prize winners: A series exploring problems for veterans of the Vietnam War, coverage of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Wounded Knee, People’s Temple, Dan White and many more.

Goodbye kiss from photographer Katy Raddatz
Goodbye kiss from photographer Katy Raddatz, photographer unknown, 2013

“Larry was also a fabulous reporter,” said veteran photographer Katy Raddatz. “I worked with him on nights; I have never seen such a keen bullshit detector. And man was he charming when needed!”

Charm was not always associated with Larry’s confrontations with management during his three-decade career as an unpaid union officer, activist and shit disturber.

He was several times elected president of Guild Local 39521, representing men and women at the Examiner, Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and other employers. He served often as the Guild’s regional vice president.

“He was hired on special assignment by the international for various campaigns including the long effort for a contract at the Sacramento Bee, and a strike at the Seattle dailies,” said Doug Cuthbertson, retired executive officer. “He joined me at the table over the years through several rounds of bargaining, including near-strikes and the 10-day one in 1994.”

Larry served as a member of the Guild-CWA’s Committee on the Future of Journalism.

In 1980 he married another union stalwart, Carol Ness, a city desk editor. It lasted two years. They remained friends.

“I loved Larry,” she said. “I just didn’t love being married to him.”

Larry was an international vice president when, closer to home, he became a leader in resolving a strike at the Examiner and the Chronicle.

“That one, in 1994, was characterized by vicious union-busting, anti-worker tactics that still sour newspaper owner-worker relations today — and, some would argue, served as a template for how to help kill an industry,” Larry wrote in a post mortem.

Cuthbertson was a fan of the bearded, amply padded apostle for union rights.

“As a negotiator and co-strategist, he had great patience, a quick mind and most importantly for me, a great sense of humor.”

He could be referring to Larry’s analysis of W.R. Hearst in “Citizen Kane”: “All we know for certain is that Rosebud was a sled.”

Or his examination for prostate cancer: “This is not particularly welcome news to someone who always figured the perineum – the region between anus and scrotum – was a flower.”

Phil Garlington, a former reporter for the Examiner and other publications, remembers when Larry visited him in San Diego.

“He was performing a creditable impression of W.C. Fields for my infant son when little Mike bit him on the hand. Larry calmly studied the bloody wound. ‘I’ll need a tetanus shot, but if you don’t have one, make it a scotch.’ ”

A shot of scotch was unfailingly the curative elixir that dominated Larry’s life outside the cityroom. San Rafael Joe’s gave way to the M&M, a friendly Irish American bar favored by pressmen, printers and news people. There he traded quips with Harry Jupiter, John Todd, Bill O’Brien, Jim Wood, Fran Ortiz, Jerry Belcher, Bill Boquist, Dorothy Kantor,  Bill Boldenweck, Walt Lynott and other regulars.

Cartoon: Mary, get me Hatfield
Cartoon by Stewart Huntington. Mary was the longtime switchboard operator.

Mary (McGrath) Blyskal: “But for those of us just old enough to have shared a barstool next to Larry, we can only thank our stars for the privilege.”

Al Saracevic: “He taught me a lot. In the newsroom. And down at the corner.”

Stewart Huntington: “He was the real deal.”

It wasn’t a direct line from the city desk, as some would say, but the M&M phone number was well known to Mary Sanchez and the other Examiner switchboard operators.

Bartender Len Wiggins would answer, look directly at his familiar customer’s circular figure and yell, “Larry? Are you here?”

Everything changed in the millennial year.

The M&M was sold and morphed into the Chieftain, now a trendy, pseudo-Irish pub. It quenches the need for refreshments by hotel guests and convention delegates on remodeled Howard Street. (In living memory it was known as Skid Row, or, more precisely, Skid Road.)

Worse, the Hearst Corp. bought the Chronicle and gave away the Chief’s original flagship, no longer the Monarch of the Dailies. Forced by the Guild, other unions and anti-trust concerns, the Hearst Chronicle swallowed the Examiner’s ex-Hearstlings and put them to work. They had been rivals the day before. Larry lasted for two years in the merged newsroom, probably because he wanted to attend the national Guild convention one last time. (He chided a speaker for criticizing “the news media” without distinguishing between corporate owners and their workers.

“We,” he said, “are the news media.”

No longer an angry young man, Larry was increasingly beset by serious health issues, significant money problems and swooshing disgust at the merger. He enjoyed excursions, frequently with retired Examiner travel editor Georgia Hesse. But life in Marin was too expensive, he told Georgia. He announced he would go back to Iowa and the family he left behind.

Larry emptied his old apartment. He probably dropped in at San Rafael Joe’s. (The I-J, still fighting off unions, had long since abandoned its home base for Novato, then Terra Linda.)

He drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to a farewell bash in the Guild building’s resident bar. As if it were a wake, the mourners said goodbye. Gerry Adams left. Too emotional, he said. Bob Hollis said Larry had been “a keeper of the flame of unionism.”

Gray-haired and unbearded, the rewrite man absquatulated for Iowa. (He was fond of antique slang.)

A warm welcome awaited.

Back in Des Moines, nephew-in-law Josh Faber put to rest any notion that the prodigal returnee endured years of lonely seclusion. “He missed his friends and colleagues, regaled us with stories and never lost his sometimes biting, but always loving wit.”

Health problems eventually sent Larry to a series of long-term care facilities. He was in hospice care when he died March 3 at Accura Health Care in Knoxville. No services, at Larry’s request. He was preceded in death by his brothers Hal, Ken, and Alan Rex Hatfield. He leaves his brother Dick and his wife, Cheryl, in Knoxville, and numerous nieces, nephews and in-laws.

Postscript: “If you knew LDH, consider yourself lucky,” said his niece, Kate Hatfield. “He had stories and adventures to tell that would either leave you crying or laughing your ass off.”

Lynn Ludlow, who worked for years next to Larry Hatfield, often joined him at the M&M for a sneak that old-time reporters called a “shirtsleever.”(Coats were left behind to fool anyone looking for them). A shirtsleeved veteran of the Examiner, Chronicle, San Jose Mercury and San Rafael Independent Journal, Ludlow joined the Newspaper Guild in 1963.

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Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.