Steve Lopez, award-winning Los Angeles Times columnist and author of The Soloist, spoke on the Occidental campus as part of the First Tuesday speakers series Nov. 3.
Lopez discussed his relationship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the formerly homeless, paranoid schizophrenic musician who inspired dozens of newspaper columns, his 2008 book and a recent feature film (also called The Soloist) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.
Lopez, who held his audience in thrall for nearly two hours, recalled first encountering Ayers in January 2005 playing a two-string violin near the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square. The columnist slowly befriended Ayers, eventually discovering that the homeless man was once a bass violin student of great promise at Juilliard in New York City before succumbing to mental illness at age 20.
Meeting the "poetic and profound" Ayers, Lopez said, "made me redefine my role as a journalist and as a citizen of the world....I've never been more inspired by anyone I've written about."
"Mr. Ayers' greatest gift to me was letting me know him well enough to tell his story," Lopez said. "He put a human face on all of these public policy issues" that otherwise would not have gotten attention, he said. Since meeting Ayers, Lopez has testified about such issues as homelessness, mental illness and the health-care system on Capitol Hill, appeared on 60 Minutes and spoken on many college campuses.
Lopez joined the staff of the Los Angeles Times in May 2001 after four years at Time Inc., where he wrote for Time, Sports Illustrated, Life and Entertainment Weekly.
Prior to Time Inc., he was a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune. His work has won numerous national journalism awards for column writing and magazine reporting.
A California native, Lopez is the author of three novels in addition to The Soloist. His talk was sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and by the Remsen Bird Fund and the Values and Vocations Project funded by the Lilly Endowment.