By RODNEY J. JALECO
ABS-CBN North America News Bureau
WASHINGTON D.C.--He thinks himself "old" having worked as a journalist for the past 10 years. But at age 27 and one of this year’s winners of the coveted Pulitzer Prize, Antipolo-born Jose Antonio Vargas’ fervent wish is that his "Lola Leoning realize how big this is."
Vargas is a reporter for the Washington Post, which won six Pulitzer awards this year, including best breaking news reporting for its coverage of the April 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre, where South Korean student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people before committing suicide.
Vargas wrote two stories on America’s deadliest shooting incident. The Post packaged those two articles with seven others as their entry in the Pulitzer Prize. They bested the staff of the Idaho Statesman for the scandal involving Senator Larry Craig, and the New York Times staff for a deadly Bronx fire that killed nine people, eight of them children.
"I was lucky enough to get an interview with one of the eyewitnesses," Vargas recounted.
"I found this eyewitness on Facebook. I got him on the phone, we talked for 25 minutes on the phone and he was the only eyewitness we had for the story so he was a critical part of it," he explained.
His second story revolved around how Virginia Tech students used the Internet to break through the cloud of confusion and console each other in the wake of the unprecedented campus carnage.
"Most of the students were connecting online through Facebook, websites to basically connect with each other. It was part of the healing process but also to know what was going on because everything was chaotic," he told ABS-CBN’s Balitang America.
Vargas joins an elite group of Pulitzer Prize winners, including at least four Filipinos and Fil-Americans. Carlos P. Romulo won the award for international journalism in 1941.
This wasn’t followed until 1997 when two Fil-Ams won separate Pulitzers while working for the Seattle Times. Byron Acohido was selected for best beat reporting for his investigation into faulty rudders on Boeing 737 jets that prompted corrective measures that could have saved many lives.
Alex Tizon was selected for best investigative reporting for his in-depth look into the federal Indian Housing program.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer won the news photography category in 2004 for her work in Iraq for the Dallas Morning News. Meyer also covered the war in Afghanistan and delved into the counter-terror campaigns in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Although he was born in Antipolo, Vargas says he spent his early childhood in Pasig. He attended the Pasig Catholic College.
People close to him say that when his parents separated, his grandparents – Leonila and Ted Salinas of Mountain View, California - decided to take him under their wings. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was only 12 years old.
He went to Mountain View High School, which he describes as a "second home for me", where teachers and school officials immediately saw his potential. They convinced a venture capitalist, Jim Strand, to provide a scholarship for Vargas at the San Francisco State University, Vargas said.
Coming from a humble background, Vargas opted to work to earn something as he pursued his college degree, initially at the Mountain View Voice and later at the San Francisco Chronicle where colleagues helped him learn the proverbial tricks of the trade. He names Fil-Am Leslie Gueverra and Teresa Moore as the biggest influence at his stint with the Chronicle.
He interned at the Washington Post on his senior year in college, and with a little help from "Lady Luck", a vacancy opened in the Post’s lifestyle section. He started working for the Post two days after he graduated in 2004.
"This is a paper that brought down a presidency," he said of the Woodward & Bernstein era. "The paper has always been about reporting and writing, and of letting reporters be who they are. I’ve been here three years and I’ve covered video games, HIV/AIDS in Washington, now I’m a political reporter – that’s a big range of reporting to have done in less than four years."
"It speaks a lot about the paper, about them letting reporters be themselves," Vargas averred.
"The Reporting Thing"
Vargas is now covering the political campaign, running up to the November presidential elections. "I specialize in the marriage of the Internet and politics, how all the candidates are campaigning online. Barack Obama has raised a tremendous amount of money on the Internet," he said.
Through all his success, Vargas remains proud of his family and his heritage. He contributes to ABS-CBN’s The Filipino Channel, and its flagship news program, Balitang America. It’s his way of staying connected to the Filipino community in America.
It was obvious how close Vargas is to his Lola Leoning. His grandfather passed away more than a year ago.
When we were introduced at the lobby of the Washington Post office along 15th St. NW, he quipped at how much he hoped his lola would realize how important the Pulitzer Prize is for journalists.
"My lola never really understood the reporting thing. She always wanted me to become an accountant, or an engineer or a doctor or something like that," he recounts amusedly.
"This has always been a passion of mine. I’m now a political reporter so I started getting into MSNBC, CNN and I was on C-SPAN last Sunday. So now that my lola can see me on television, she thinks I’m a real reporter now," he declared happily.