Guillén Reflects on Battles and the War
Tomás Guillén (M.A., 1990) has fought for his journalism career in the harsh trenches of life. Whether in El Paso, Texas as a boy growing up hardened by uncontrollable circumstances, or the searing sun of Arizona as a college kid dutifully attending school, or as a journalist tracking down one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, hard work and grit have defined Guillén’s career.
When journalism started to present more questions than answers, Guillén turned to the Department of Communication at the University of Washington to attain a master’s degree and in doing so, zoomed out from the battles so he could see the war. Now he teaches young journalists at Seattle University to work hard and prepare them for the trenches of journalism.
The story of Tomás Guillén begins in El Paso during the great Texas droughts of the 1950s. It is a tough southern town that is as dusty as it is windy. Guillén grew up without his biological parents in the household. He was raised by his maternal grandmother.
“My Grandmother took me in and she was tough. A taskmaster.” He said. “She raised me without many resources. We were poor, that’s the bottom line. She did the best she could.”
Guillén went on to speak about needing to grow up very fast in El Paso surrounded by vacated homes, gangs, and people looking to fight around every corner. He would earn money by demolishing items in decrepit buildings and forging relationships with various characters around town who bought the goods. He also spoke about the racism he faced.
“In elementary school, I was part of a spelling bee. They asked me to spell ‘coffee’ and I didn’t know how to spell it. My teacher made fun of me in front of the entire class. Spanish was my first language and I didn’t know enough English.”
After years of struggling, things began to click for Guillén. He had the chance to skip a grade before high school and also started to embrace his curios nature. This led to more reading and writing. Things got easier in high school and that was when his biological mother called and invited him to live in Arizona with her. He jumped at the opportunity to leave El Paso and started attending a small school outside of Tucson. He worked in the fields and started to excel academically, discovering for the first time the idea that he might attend college.
“Bowie, Arizona was a small town and everyone talked about going to college. Some people don’t understand how poverty is a trap. It’s a trap, psychologically. I didn’t know about college. After growing up poor, no money, no etiquette, it had never occurred to me.” He continued to talk about how things began to shift in Bowie. ”Then, I remember reading a line in a book that talked about how writing a book could be a way out of poverty. That was it. I was tired of being held back and decided to harness my motivation and work very, very hard. Fight for my life.”
Overcoming the odds, Guillén was accepted to the University of Arizona. He started studying horticulture after working twelve hour days in the fields of Bowie as a teenager, joining the Future Farmers of America. Everything was moving along until the introduction of math. That was the end of his horticulture career. Needing a new direction, he heard friends talking about journalism and attended a class. He was fascinated and has been in the business of stories ever since.
Former University of Arizona professor Donald Carson remembers Guillén this way.
“I met Tommy for the first time with a fellow professor. We invited ourselves to go sit next to him in the lunch hall, you see, he was shy at that time. I got to know him when he was working for The Daily Wildcat newspaper. He was always wanting to do it right. He always worked very, very hard. He never quit a difficult task. Listened extremely well. Took great notes. And he was great at building relationships. Just a great guy and a hell of a reporter.”
Guillén graduated in 1974 from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism and worked at the Tucson Citizen as a reporter for several years. He kept in touch with Carson over the years as his career unfolded.
Carson said, “Tommy was never afraid to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and that is the heart of a great reporter. You challenge when you don’t understand. You ask for details when you need them. All too often, reporters leave questions unanswered. Tommy never did that. He asked why and that’s the essence of who he is.”
After a stint working with the Omaha World-Herald, he moved to the Pacific Northwest to work for The Seattle Times. He wrote general assignment and investigative stories for fifteen years until a string of murders altered the course of his career.
Guillén and his colleague at The Seattle Times Carlton Smith investigated the Green River killings and also the King County Sherriff’s Office, searching for clues and uncovering the truth around substandard detective work. After covering a police beat in Arizona, he had now learned how to work a story and read men and women in uniform. In the 1980s, when young women went missing and turned up dead in Seattle, Guillén started asking questions, waging intellectual battle after intellectual battle.
Guillén and Smith were 1988 Pulitzer Prize finalists for their investigative reporting on the Green River murder investigation. Then in 1990, Guillén and Smith wrote the New York Times best-selling book, The Search for the Green River Killer. This propelled Guillén into a new spotlight. Interviews with The Today Show, CNN, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Evening Magazine, and various other outlets now became commonplace for the boy who once struggled to spell ‘coffee.’
“It changed a lot. It changed from being a reporter to suddenly being on all these news shows. I really had to step it up. You know? It was the highest level, being interviewed live on national television.”
The next step for Guillén after fighting in the trenches of investigative journalism for years was attending the University of Washington Department of Communication to earn his master’s degree. He was drawn to the Department because he had reached a point where he wanted to take a wider view of journalism. To view the war, not just the battle.
“Reporters are fighting battles every day. But there is a bigger picture. I had done stories. I had done investigations. I wanted a more intellectual challenge. There is so much more going on than just the battle on the streets.” He added, “The University of Arizona prepared me for battle. The University of Washington helped me to see the war.”
He remembers a favorite professor at the UW being Don Pember.
“I was very interested in privacy in journalism. So, I was very curious about what I could write, what I couldn’t write, what the laws around this kind of journalism were. I had covered a lot of murders and talked to a lot of families. So, Pember’s class was interesting to me.”
In 1994, after earning his M.A. from the UW Department of Communication, Guillén became a tenured professor for the Seattle University Department of Communication. He became co-director for Seattle University’s Urban Newspaper Workshop in 1997, helping run the two-week writing program for ethnic high school students interested in journalism and teaching several of the classes. He served as acting chair for the Department from 2006 to 2007 and was also the director of the Journalism Summer Workshop from 2000 to 2009.
As a global presence, Guillén has traveled both as a scholar and a volunteer. He was also a Fulbright Scholar at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, in Cali, Colombia in 2008 and at Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom in 2011. Guillén volunteers as an interpreter for medical and dental mission trips to Nicaragua.
Today, Guillén continues to work with students at Seattle University. He spoke about his impending induction at the UW.
“This Hall of Fame recognition is a true honor. It’s special. But, I tell my students to never write anything for awards. It’s not a contest. Write a good story. Write for you. Everything else will come if you do a good job. That’s the bottom line.”
Join us as we celebrate the hard work and improbable career of Tomás Guillén as he is inducted on October 4 into the UW Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.
To RSVP or learn more about the event, click here. That’s the bottom line.