May 9, 2019
When Thomas De Alba first walked into The Oak Leaf newsroom in Fall 2012, he bypassed the seats where all the new people were huddled and sat down with the returning staff. He walked into a room full of complete strangers and settled right in. Zero hesitation. Yes, he was immediately my favorite — sorry, everyone, but let’s not pretend this was ever a secret.
When his first story came back covered in my particularly gleeful style of brutal copy edits, he wasn’t even a little offended. We went over it together, word for word, and he learned. Classmate Spencer Harris told the new reporters about the time I took one of his stories, folded it into a paper airplane and threw it at his head. Thomas demanded I do the same thing with his next story. It became our thing.
So when Thomas faced not one, not two, but three brain tumors with bravado, humor and courage, it shouldn’t have surprised me. If anyone could keep his head up while going through hell, it’d be Thomas. He fought so hard and with such incredible bravery.
In a recent farewell letter to Thomas, former Oak Leaf Editor-in-Chief William Rohrs said, “You haven’t changed to me. In my mind, I see the lanky, heel-toe swagger you do when you walk into the newsroom with the next scoop. While everyone’s nodding their heads yes, you’re the one with the balls to say ‘I don’t like that, and here’s why.’”
I see the same thing. I have so many, many memories of him just being a perfect friend, a good bro, a great man.
“Thomas was one badass, manspreading, karate-chopping, Spanish-speaking motherf*cker who knew his sports and was never afraid to ask the real hard questions of anyone,” former Oak Leaf Photo Editor Joe Barkoff said.
One time, Thomas and I spent the better part of half an hour debating who was tougher: football or hockey players? The debate remains unsettled, but we managed to have a great time being animated, passionate, loud and generally disruptive — everyone else in the office was convinced we were about to murder each other.
When he transferred to San Francisco State to finish his degree, it became harder to spend time together. I didn’t have a driver’s license at the time, and we both had other obligations. But even without hours to agonize over layout and barely manage to submit copy to the printers at 4 a.m. for the Nth newspaper production weekend in a row, we could still slip into our same routine.
Over the years, Thomas went from limping his way through journalism’s basics to becoming a great reporter with amazing instincts. He was never afraid to ask tough questions; he was never afraid to speak truth to power.
His progress from barely-a-writer to edtor-in-chief was mirrored by his rapid rise from random-guy-who-isn’t-scared-of-me to one of the best friends I ever had. You could tease him when he was being silly, and he’d laugh at himself.
Thomas was an honest, loyal, brilliant person. He didn’t allow pride to get in the way of learning. If you needed back up, a hug, a sounding board or just someone to keep you company while grinding through a long night of editing, Thomas was there. I cannot possibly express the degree to which he was MVP of every party, every editor’s meeting, every day.
We’ll all miss him. I hope I never forget how it felt to have a friend like him.