Steve Lopez, A Destiny Followed, Winner of Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon Award

By Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media

For Steve Lopez writing about societal issues like homelessness, elder care, social inequity and things of that sort were not his thing as a young journalist. It was something he just stumbled into. He loved sports writing and nothing else.

Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times columnist since 2001. Prior to Time Inc., Lopez was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, and The Oakland Tribune. His work has won numerous national awards for column writing and magazine reporting. Photo by Latin Life Denver Media.

Lopez, who has been a Los Angeles Times columnist since 2001 once told one of his editors who asked about his interest in writing about other subjects, “I only read the sports section of the papers, the rest I toss away.” Little did he know back then that he would go on to receive numerous awards for his insightful work on social issues, including four Pulitzer Prize nominations in 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020.

Among his other accomplishments, Lopez, has also written three novels including “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music”. You may have seen the movie staring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downy Jr.

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 20: Screenwriter Steve Lopez arrives at the premiere of Dreamworks Pictures’ “The Soloist” held at the Paramount Studios Theater on April 20, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Speaking to a crowd gathered at Hilton Garden Inn Hotel in Downtown Denver April 14th for the Denver Press Club’s prestigious Damon Runyon Award, Lopez told the story of how it all came to be. “Well, the editor told him there is a situation down in lower Los Angeles we need you to check out”, he told him.

The situation was the growing homeless problem happening in that area. “So, I went down there to see what was going on not knowing what to expect nor what I was going to write about.” It was there that he befriended Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician living on the streets.

Nathaniel Anthony Ayers is a musical prodigy who was on the verge of becoming one of the best in the US when his world was turned upside down in the early 1970s after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia (pictured above in Long Beach in 2016) 

“This guy was sitting on the curb playing a violin with only two strings on it,” Lopez told the crowd. “It turned out the guy had been a promising musician with the Juilliard School but also had schizophrenia. I decided to help the guy out, bought him a meal and soon after we became good friends.”

Ayers was music prodigy, he first started playing the double bass at age 13 before he was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the distinguished Juilliard School where he turned his hand to several instruments. But it was while living out his dream in New York City, he suffered a mental breakdown during his junior year and was institutionalized in the early 1970s.

Lopez’s columns about Ayers back in 2005 resulted with readers sending instruments to Lopez for him to pass on to Ayers. Through their friendship and Lopez’s columns about Ayers, mental illness and homelessness Ayers was able to overcome his mental illness and get off the street. Today, Ayers is still a member of the LAMP Community – a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that seeks to help people living with severe mental illness

In the movie version of this story Robert Downey Jr. plays the part of Lopez and Jamie Foxx plays Ayers.

Lopez told NPR radio in 2009 that his friendship with Ayers has “always been a two-way street, it’s not just me doing for him.” The writer explains that the musician re-ignited his passion for journalism and gave him a sense of well-being: “You know, there’s this humility, there’s this good feeling I have from giving something,” Lopez says.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez makes fun about Steve Lopez Day in Denver April 14, 2023. Video by Latin Life Denver Media

Steve Lopez is the first Hispanic journalist to receive the Damon Runyon Award presented by the Denver Press Club at this years 28th annual event. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock proclaimed April 14th Steve Lopez day in Denver. Lopez joins other distinguished journalists who have received the award including Tom Brokaw, Ed Bradley, Jimmy Breslin, Ted Turner, George Will, Judy Woodruff, Bob Woodward and a few others.

Writing about societal issues may have not been what Steve Lopez’s envisioned for his life’s work early on in his career but it is where life’s path took him and he was wise enough to follow that destiny.

Steve Lopez right & Joe Contreras.
It truly was a pleasure and an honor to meet and talk with fellow journalist Steve Lopez. Photo by Latin Life Denver Media

The Damon Runyon Award is given to a national journalist who best embodies the narrative storytelling spirit of Damon Runyon.

The award is named after Damon Runyon, a legendary journalist who grew up in Colorado, worked at The Denver Post and Pueblo Chieftain, and became a member of the Press Club in 1907.

Runyon later went on to fame and glory in New York City as a columnist for Hearst newspapers. He is best-known for a collection of stories called “Guys and Dolls,” which later turned into a Broadway musical and a movie.

The Runyon Award banquet is the major fundraiser of the historic club, which is the oldest in the nation. Proceeds go toward the club’s historic preservation and five scholarships for $1500 and one — the John C. Ensslin Memorial Scholarship — for $3,000. The scholarships are reserved for college journalists from universities in Colorado.