RAFU STAFF REPORT
Henry Fuhrmann, a retired Los Angeles Times editor with a national reputation as a wordsmith who advocated for fairness and accurate representation of race and gender in language, died Sept. 14. He was 65.
Fuhrmann was a leader of the Asian American Journalists Association who advocated against referring to World War II Japanese American concentration camps as “internment” camps by media outlets.
In April, when The Associated Press updated their style guideline to recommend the use of “incarceration” over “internment” to describe the forced removal and imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II, Furhmann heralded it as a “game changer.”
In a 2020 Twitter post, Fuhrmann explained: “‘Internment’ is a euphemism that trivializes the government’s actions. Officials employed such benign-sounding language to obscure that the U.S. was incarcerating Americans whose only ‘crime’ was that they looked like the enemy.
“The ubiquity of ‘internment’ won’t be easy to counter. Editors who carefully select search terms to boost traffic might be reluctant to accept ‘incarceration.’ But knowing a term is incorrect and euphemistic should matter to anyone who strives for accuracy and clarity.”
He praised journalists who used “incarceration” in their reporting, including Teresa Watanabe and Gustavo Arellano of The L.A. Times and Josie Huang of KPCC.
Furhmann encouraged the precise and accurate usage of words in news coverage, especially in his efforts to improve the coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
He convinced the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to drop the hyphen in phrases describing a person’s ethnic heritage such as “Mexican American” or “Asian American.” The hyphen is unnecessary, Fuhrmann reasoned.
The wartime incarceration was not Fuhrmann’s family story. He was born in 1957 to Ronald and Yukiko. The couple met in Yokosuka while Ronald was serving as a corpsman in the Navy. Yukiko was originally from Wakayama and had moved to Tokyo.
Both of Yukiko’s parents died young, leaving her and her infant sister, Junko, to be raised by foster families. During World War II, Yukiko supported herself by doing factory work. The sisters grew up apart and did not see each other for more than 50 years. Upon reconnecting in later life, they formed a strong bond during Yukiko’s several trips to Japan.
During a 2008 trip, Fuhrmann and his sister Irene accompanied their mom for an emotional reunion with her long-lost sister in Wakayama. Yukiko took her children to a cliff overlooking the Pacific. She recalled standing at that vista in 1945 and seeing U.S. Navy ships lined up.
“This is where we were when we knew the war was over,” Irene said, remembering her mother’s words.
One of Furhmann’s last requests was to have some of his ashes spread in Wakayama.
“I think it’s because of my mom. I think to him and to me, my mom was such an amazing person and probably the most important person in our life,” said Irene.
The Fuhrmanns grew up in Port Hueneme in Ventura County, a diverse community that included many families whose mothers were Japanese and fathers were white men who served in the military.
Yukiko worked as a seamstress at Oriental Drapery Co. and Oxnard Interiors, while Ronald would commute for work to Long Beach, San Diego and Camp Pendleton.
Fuhrmann excelled in academics and was a meticulous keeper of notes. Both siblings Dave and Irene shared memories of teachers who called Henry their best student. He attended Cal Tech with plans to become an engineer but caught the journalism bug and spent most of his time editing the school newspaper.
Fuhrmann earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Cal State L.A. and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in New York. A job fair led him to find work on the copy desk of Newsday.
He was hired by The L.A. Times in 1991 as a copy editor and was promoted to a number of positions over the years, eventually becoming assistant managing editor for copy desks and standards in 2009.
He also rewrote newspaper’s guidelines for how to refer to transgender individuals, doing away with the sorely outdated “transvestite” and allowing the use of the pronouns “they” and “them” when that is an individual’s preference.
Fuhrmann left The Times in 2015 and was hired as an adjunct journalism instructor at USC. Last year he became editorial director of Bendable, an online learning platform through the Drucker Institute.
He and his daughters lived in La Cañada Flintridge from 1997 to 2016, when he married fellow La Cañada Flintridge resident Lindi Dreibelbis. A few years ago, the couple moved to Claremont.
For decades and until his death, he stayed involved with ACES: The Society for Editing and AAJA, mentoring many students and aspiring journalists. AAJA announced shortly after Fuhrmann’s passing that they would honor him with their 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award.
The AAJA-Los Angeles chapter said in a statement: “As the years evolved, there has been one constant in our AAJA-L.A. chapter: Henry Fuhrmann. In every role, and leading with empathy, he shaped, soothed, persuaded, promoted and recruited with smarts, humor and humility. We are thankful we have flourished as we boosted generations of journalists as well as innovation funds, sparked by his work.
“In this moment, we join our AAJA family spanning the miles for a massive group hug, saluting the rare spirit that is Henry. We send gratitude to Henry’s family, especially to his daughters Elena and Angela, for sharing his time and talent with us through vigorous decades.”
L.A. Times reporter Samantha Masunaga was one of the students who benefitted from Fuhrmann’s guidance. She said the mission of AAJA was dear to his heart.
“Henry held basically every position on the board during his long involvement with AAJA-LA,” Masunaga said. “This year, he was in charge of arranging AAJA-LA’s student internships as well as Trivia Bowl. Those roles really exemplified his passions: helping and mentoring students and creating community within AAJA and other organizations.”
As news of his passing spread, many paid tribute to Fuhrmann for his passion for language, his guidance and his mentorship of generations of journalists.
Anh Do, along with fellow L.A. Times staff writers Denise L. Poon and Teresa Watanabe, were among those who visited Fuhrmann on what would be his last day.
“To spend time with Henry is to bask in his wit, wisdom, a wondrous energy and empathy,” Do wrote on her Facebook page.
In an interview for AAJA’s 40th anniversary, Fuhrmann said he was a “people person” who encouraged AAJA to be welcoming to those who wish to pursue journalism.
He said it was important to speak up during a time of increased anti-Asian hatred.
“As I’ve always said as I got to be active in AAJA as a leader, that it’s the first two words are Asian American, right? We’re Asian Americans first, who happen to be journalists. We are a human first and we are here for one another first. The more we can do to know when we can raise our voice and to be confident we can raise our voice because it’s not just me speaking or an individual, it’s tne nearly 2,000-plus members, all the folks who preceded us,” Furhmann said.
Fuhrmann is survived by Dreibelbis; two daughters, Elena Fuhrmann and Angela Fuhrmann Knowles; stepchildren Kelly and Grant; and three siblings, Irene, David and Glen.
A Celebration of Life is being planned in February. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be sent to the Richard S. Holden Diversity Fellowship (https://aceseditors.org/awards/richard-sholden-editors-fellowship) or the AAJA/LA (https://aaja-la.org/).