The Legacy of Tracy A. Wood

Tracy’s Story Tributes The Fellowship Her Work

By SONYA QUICK

Informed by a multitude of sources, primarily Tracy’s own writings.


Tracy A. Wood’s name is etched into history as a distinguished journalist, generous colleague, cheerful friend and nurturing mentor.

While her name was renowned amongst journalists, she was modest.

While the mere mention of her name to a government official struck fear, she was courteous.

While she has written in the midst of war, she was understanding of everyday concerns.

While she edited large-scale, months-long investigations, she was careful on the smallest stories out of council meetings.

“And It Was Fun!

Typewriters in the Voice of OC office. When Tracy Wood was young she asked for a printing set to pursue her passion for journalism. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Tracy was born in the midst of World War II on Aug. 21, 1943.

She grew up in the small town of Fanwood, New Jersey where she would play cowboys and Indians in the woods and catch fireflies barefoot at dusk.

Other children dreamt of becoming nurses or firefighters.

But not Tracy. She wanted to be a journalist.

So much so that in the third grade her parents gave her a printing set.

Her mind was still made up when she chose a college, Mizzou. She studied for three years at the University of Missouri, one of the nation’s best journalism education institutions.

Then one plane ride home from college her plans abruptly fast-forwarded. She sat next to a journalist and instantly her mind was made up. She had to get started now.

Tracy headed west. 

She started her professional journalism career at the Los Angeles City News Service in 1965. She quickly moved on to work as a general assignment reporter for United Press International in the Sacramento Capitol office.

Tracy’s arrival at UPI made her the wire service’s second female journalist, following Pat Keeble.

When Tracy was promoted to a government reporter in the Capitol, she was one of the first two women assigned to the beat, recalled then-UPI Sacramento Bureau Chief George Skelton. The other was Edie Lederer at the Associated Press.

Tracy Wood’s personal copy of the California Legislation guide in 1971. Credit: SONYA QUICK, Voice of OC

Tracy’s determination carried her far.

Governor Ronald Reagan was about to give a speech at “a swanky all-male club frequented by lobbyists and political heavyweights.”

She was turned away at the door. She refused to leave.

She instead called her editor, Skelton. He would later recall that Wood’s lockout from the meeting “irritated” him.

“I come from a real strong mother who worked all her life and who held her own in a man’s world. She didn’t regard herself as a feminist, but I was just brought up with the notion that women worked, plus I was married to a woman who was a journalist,” Skelton would later write. “I didn’t want the Sutter Club telling me who I was going to assign to cover a story.”

After Wood’s phone call, Skelton called Reagan’s press secretary and told him that UPI, which fed stories to hundreds of media outlets at the time, refused to cover the event unless Wood was allowed inside.

The club relented.

The incident, which also left Sacramento Bee Reporter Sigrid Bathen out of the club, prompted state legislation. Subsequently, government officials were prohibited from holding public meetings in private clubs.

“Tracy Wood was one tremendous reporter. She could go get information in the Capitol that nobody else could. You could say, go get out there and find out what happened, and it didn’t matter what the issue was. She could out-report any man I know,” Skelton said.

“I’ve never worked with a better reporter.”

George Skelton, Tracy’s editor at UPI

Tracy was later promoted back to the east coast at UPI’s New York office. She worked the foreign affairs desk at a time when UPI was one of the world’s largest news organizations.

She would later recall, it was “a job I loved.”

The directive in those days at UPI was clear, “Beat AP” as Tracy would later write.

Fast. Accurate. Well written. The three requirements of a top wire reporter. And it was fun!

I literally used to remind myself that all this was real. I was traveling the world, covering the most exciting — and most frightening — story of the decade. And they were paying me!

The demanding, fast-paced and detailed work was a perfect match for Tracy. She was in love with her job in a big city. In her off-time, she studied Chinese as she was promised to be one of the first reporters when Beijing opened its borders.

“When Do I Leave?”

Tracy Wood while in Vietnam as one of the first female war correspondents. Credit: ED BASSETT, Photo shared in the War Torn book.

On March 30, 1972 Tracy’s life changed.

As she would later say, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

UPI Foreign Editor Bill Landry approached Wood, who for the past seven months had been editing daily war stories out of UPI’s Saigon bureau.

“We’re sending someone to Vietnam to beef up the bureau. You’re next on the rotation.”

Tracy wrote:

I’m not violent by temperament and don’t enjoy violent or even scary books or movies. I’d never known violence in my personal life, and frankly, the idea of going to Vietnam frightened me.

But the minute the invitation left Landry’s mouth, the other part of me, the decisive part, knew I was going.

“When do I leave?”

Landry looked out over the newsroom. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

UPI’s executives had debated whether to send a woman to Vietnam. Editor Roger Tatarian and news editor H.L. Stevenson wanted me to go. Landry, my immediate boss, didn’t.

“Why not?”

Landry was a veteran foreign correspondent who’d covered the world’s major conflicts and glamour spots, from the savagery of the civil war in the Congo to the luxury of Paris. He’s a mild, fatherly personality with no children.

“I don’t believe women should cover wars,” he said, the glare from the fluorescent lights on his glasses hiding whatever was in his eyes.

Not because they weren’t good enough.

Not because they were women.

“If anything happened to you. I’d feel bad,” Landry explained.

Despite Tracy’s internal questioning of whether Landry would also feel poorly if a male colleague was killed she stayed quiet. And she stayed determined.

“Wouldn’t you feel bad if a male reporter got killed?” I wanted to argue, but I kept silent. I was going.

And that’s how Tracy found herself headed to the Vietnam War. The same war her brother Scott had narrowly avoided in the draft.

Her parents interrupted a trip, drove a thousand miles, had dinner with Tracy and took her to the airport.

“I’d known ever since I was small that I was lucky. I wanted the same for my own children. And I knew I wasn’t ready,” Tracy would write about her feelings at the time.

She wore a tailored yellow-and-white dress, panty hose and white heels. Her hair in “the most sophisticated knot” she could manage.

She was still recovering from taking every shot at once in preparation – plague, typhus, polio and more. Normally people scheduled these out over several weeks. Not Tracy.

She didn’t let on that she had a heart murmur that doctors advised she keep under careful review.

And she didn’t let on that she was afraid of flying as she secretly clutched her seat taking off from the airport.

My first preconceived idea about a war-devastated nation was pushed aside before the runway at Tan Son Nhut airport came into view. As the 727 began its descent, I pressed my nose to the window. The ground below was green, as green as Hawaii or the northeast United States in summer. Green. My favorite color. Peaceful, calm, reassuring.

But Tracy’s time in Vietnam was anything but calm.

She found herself changing into tailor-made fatigues and combat boots. She carried a 35mm Nikomat camera and a 7-pound tape recorder with a handheld mic.

Tracy would soon find herself treated differently.

She was singled out by Saigon Bureau Chief Arthur Higbee. Something Tracy would later blame on the yellow-and-white dress.

“Don’t become like the others,” he advised. “Stay feminine.”

And, he insisted with the full authority of my boss, I was not to cover the fighting. Political stories, diplomatic receptions, refugees, and hospital stories. No war.

I couldn’t let that happen. I was a full reporter, not a partial reporter. This time I didn’t have executives in New York to take the decision out of Higbee’s hands. I’d have to figure it out on my own.

Tracy was in Vietnam between May 1972 and February 1974.

She found herself drinking with cold war spies, looking into the blank eyes of American prisoners of war and staring straight at the ground through the unblocked doorway of a helicopter as pilots’ errantly flew beyond the DMZ into North Vietnam.

She was also the only woman ever elected president of the Association of Foreign Correspondents in Vietnam.

Tracy Wood covering a 1973 speech by former South Vietnamese Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu at an outdoor ceremony in Pleiku in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Credit: From the private collection of Tracy Wood

On one occasion, she realized how quickly things could shift.

It was a routine midday drive down Highway 1. A U.S. Army Major was driving Tracy to see his troops.

Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of an ambush. North Vietnamese soldiers shot AK-47s and mortars. The major pushed the Jeep’s pedal to the floor at its peak 80 mph.

I knew I should do something, but the awful pounding in my head made it impossible to think. Slowly I turned toward the driver. His left hand was on the steering wheel. His mouth was open wide in a shout lost to the racket of war. One word seemed to come faintly through the clamor. Down! I read it on his lips more than heard his voice. Down!

Suddenly, the pain raining down on my head had an explanation. His right hand balled into a fist, the major was pounding with all his strength on my helmet.

“Down! Get down!”

Jeep designers may disbelieve, but it’s possible for a five-foot-seven-inch woman to curl into a ball and scrunch into the kneehole between the seat and the dashboard. I know.

South Vietnamese gunners in the back seat opened fire.

A few weeks later ABC-TV cameraman Terry Khoo and his film crew would die barely a mile away from where Wood’s Jeep had been ambushed.

ED BASSETT, Photo shared in the War Torn book.

“Too close.”

That’s what an unidentified Army captain said to her after the attack. He was on temporary duty in the area and was asked to give her a ride from Da Nang to Hue.

Tracy fell for him.

He was a stable personality, sensuous, intelligent, gentle, and well educated, with a fine sense of humor. I can still picture the lively light in his eyes. Can you tell I was very much in love?

He meant commitment, children, giving up my career, staying around the house, and the PTA. This at a time when my own life was just opening up, the whole world was out there, and I wanted to see and learn about it all.

§

On Jan. 23, 1973 President Richard Nixon announced the war would end.

While newspaper editors wondered why people in South Vietnam were not celebrating, the reason was clear to those in the midst of it all.

“The United States is forsaking us,” Tracy remembers Vietnamese soldiers saying through translators.

The next step? The U.S. “would collect its prisoners and go home,” Tracy wrote. She started asking to cover the prisoner releases.

“No U.S. POW ever will be photographed behind bars,” Nixon was said to have flatly declared.

But Tracy doesn’t take no for an answer.

Why he opposed the coverage never was made clear. But documents amongst the Nixon papers in Washington indicated prisoners released sometime earlier through Germany said they felt harassed by the news media. I even tried contacts from an earlier UPI assignment, asking Nixon’s old friend Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch, for help. Word came back: forget it.

Me? Forget it? Not a chance. If the U.S. government wouldn’t help, maybe the North Vietnamese would.

Tracy persistently nudged translators and English-speaking people in the PRG delegation to let her cover the prisoner releases.

Beyond dozens of reporters from the Western and Asian countries who had petitioned, Tracy was the sole U.S. reporter invited to the first prisoner release planned with Representative Pete Stark, a California Republican, visiting Hanoi.

That trip ended up being canceled.

But her persistence led her to report firsthand on two prisoner releases, negotiated through the North Vietnamese. For the second trip, she was given a visa to bring along 30 other journalists.

Tracy Wood in Vietnam with Walter Cronkite in the background. Credit: Photo from Tracy Wood's personal collection

“You can come,” Tracy’s North Vietnamese contacts told her. “One day only. Hire a plane.”

When she learned the cost of $7,000 was too high, UPI invited other journalists along to share the cost. And when she learned that all the planes were booked by Walter Cronkite, who was awaiting Visa approval, she negotiated for him to travel on her Visa as long as she could travel on one of his reserved planes.

Tracy Wood, seen here behind McCain, was one of only three journalists on hand when McCain and 102 other prisoners of war were released from the Hanoi Hilton in March 1973.

In a final meeting before the trip the North Vietnamese told Tracy how they expected the press to behave.

“You must all stay together,” one official warned.” “No wandering off.”

“I can’t promise that,” I replied honestly.

“Sickened by the Pervasive Corruption”

It was in Vietnam that Tracy was exposed to the horrors of war firsthand. But it was also in Vietnam that Tracy became inextricably intertwined with a quest to uncover corruption.

She would later write that she was sickened by the pervasive corruption and greed.

Corruption can be systemic, like that of South Vietnamese government officials throughout the war.

Bribery was so commonplace at all levels of the Vietnamese government that it took routine under-the-table cash payments to get ordinary shipments through airport customs. And it ran so deep that cash could buy a man’s way out of the South Vietnamese military or get him promoted, regardless of qualifications.

Corruption badly weakened the South Vietnamese military. Men in the bottom ranks fought and died but often were led by patronage appointees at the top who frequently disappeared when things got tough.

In short, government corruption is the act of distorting how government works so those in power continue to benefit, either directly through financial gain or indirectly through their influence.

§

Tracy would go on from Saigon to be the acting bureau chief for UPI in Cambodia, a news editor in Hong Kong and Macao, and a foreign correspondent throughout Asia.

Eventually she found her way back to the U.S. at the Los Angeles Times. There she focused her tenacity on uncovering racial tensions in intercity Los Angeles and investigating suspect politicians and career bureaucrats.

She worked for 17 years as an investigative reporter for the Times. She was part of the team that earned the 1993 Pulitzer for Spot News Reporting for coverage of the Rodney King riots.

“The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting Tuesday for its coverage of the second, most devastating day of the riots that rocked the city a year ago.”

Later she went on to lead the Orange County Register’s investigations team as editor. She would direct coverage that broke news of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona’s ties to Nationwide Auction Systems founder and former Assistant Sheriff Donald G. Haidl.

Tracy Wood loved this quote by Benjamin Franklin. As such, Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears had the quote printed and framed for the newsroom. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Tracy later revisited her memories in Vietnam and how it set her on a lifelong mission of investigating and reporting out corruption.

All governments, not just those at war, suffer when corruption takes hold. The corrosive effects of government corruption can be seen wherever the symptoms appear, like political patronage, attempts to stifle a free press, government secrecy — and where complacency takes hold of the electorate.

It can even happen, and has, in a place as outwardly peaceful as Orange County.

Tracy was renowned as “an incredible investigator” according to Diane Haithman, a Times features writer who worked with Tracy on Los Angeles Arts Center exposes. “She’s a passionate advocate for investigative journalism,” said Susan Kelleher, a reporter at the Seattle Times who worked with Tracy at the Register.

In 2000, Tracy’s investigative prowess was recognized as the 2001 Print Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Few reporters could get the respect of both rival reporters and politicians, but that was Tracy,” said Gustavo Arellano, who at the time was publisher and editor of OC Weekly, now a Times staff writer.

“She was tough and fair, pioneering but always working — everything a reporter should ever want to be.”

§

Tracy continued pushing boundaries when she became editor-in-chief of Ms. Magazine.

You’d have to be nuts not to want this job.

When I found out Ms. was moving from New York to Los Angeles and the position was open, I jumped at the opportunity.

While some people at the time questioned Tracy’s lack of experience in magazines. She was specifically chosen to apply her investigative tenacity to women’s issues.

“Ms. has made a stunning hire,” said Bob Page, UPI’s former vice president for Asia at the time who knew Tracy for 30 years. “The magazine will even be better than in the past because Tracy is a pro’s pro.”

At Ms., Tracy focused on expanding coverage of global women’s issues and getting out information on how readers can take civic action. As she took the job at the women’s magazine, she started by challenging the definition of feminism.

All it means is political, economic and social equality for women. I don’t care if people want to use the word or not because it’s the underlying principles of equality and the right of women to choose that are critical.

“The Stakes are Democracy and Hope for the Future”

On June 3, 2009, Norberto Santana, Jr. established a nonprofit news organization. Voice of Orange County.

Santana launched the civic newsroom around the mission that independent, nonpartisan, investigative and nonprofit journalism in real-time could inform and engage the public in the community.

Tracy was both a perfect-fit and a huge-catch.

She joined the upstart team as senior writer. The team first published on March 31, 2010. The agency published its first article:

We use the tools our democracy gives us to get at what is really happening in every nook and cranny of the county’s mega-government agencies and it’s 34 cities from San Clemente to La Habra.

And when we uncover news, we don’t mince words. We write with the authority that comes from our hard work and expertise in politics and government.

In many respects, we are a response to the dire situation facing the news media today. Newspapers and broadcast outlets — including those that serve Orange County — have suffered tremendous staff reductions in recent years. As a result, there are far fewer journalists keeping watch on the county’s powerbrokers than there should be.

In short, the county’s residents need more boots on the ground. More reporters showing up at city halls. More questions being asked of those elected or selected to serve the public.

In one of Tracy’s first stories for Voice of OC, she wrote about how La Habra, amongst several other cities, was finally moving to recognize Vietnam veterans.

Her headline? “Better Late (Really, Really Late) Than Never.”

§

One story Tracy worked on as a reporter at Voice was a three-part series on park-poor neighborhoods in North Orange County.

Tracy was interviewed about the series by William Heisel, who shared in his column that Tracy was his first investigative editor.

His first question was what Tracy thought of doing a story on parks after her legendary work as a war reporter and investigative reporter and editor.

To me, there’s no such thing as a boring story. And before you start thinking I’m some kind of excessively optimistic pain in the neck, yes there have been stories I was less-than-enthusiastic about starting. One was a profile of an Orange County doctor who, at the time, was the state’s largest individual political contributor. I wanted to do investigations, not personality profiles.

That story ended with the doctor going to prison for embezzling millions from Medicare that he then donated to politicians in California and nationally. Two other reporters and I worked on that story and what started out as an ordinary profile wound up as a landmark political investigation. But when we began, we had no idea where it would take us. Not all stories, obviously, are like that, but I really mean it when I say there is no such thing as a boring story. You simply don’t know where any story will go or what you are going to find. Each one is an adventure.”

Tracy’s coverage of the county’s health care insurance agency for the poor and elderly, known as CalOptima, became noted for its ability to protect residents and hold officials accountable. Her journalism on complex topics such as political fundraising, officials’ expense reports, park poor cities and DNA contracts at the District Attorney’s office were all recognized by her colleagues with a string of awards.

Her Twitter profile bio still reflects her passion for helping build Voice of OC: “Nonprofit journalism is the immediate future.” As she would write:

Fighting government corruption is the responsibility of voters, a free press and honest leaders. It’s a never-ending battle but the stakes are democracy and hope for the future.

As Civic Editor, she mentored the newsroom on the fundamentals of accountability reporting and strong citizenship. Separately, she advised young reporters as a guest lecturer at Cal State Fullerton, USC and UCLA.

Tracy once reflected on what makes a good journalist: “Do everything you can to get yourself assigned to an enthusiastic editor. Nothing kills good journalism more than an indifferent or cynical editor, except maybe an editor with no, um, guts.”

When Tracy took the helm of Voice of OC’s news team she was humble and always understated about her experience. But it was evident in the small details.

  • When interviewing a new reporting intern, Tracy could often sniff out immediately who had the internal drive necessary for civic journalism and who didn’t.
  • She typed and printed out a sign that she posted in the newsroom to stress the fundamentals she learned at UPI: “GET IT FIRST, BUT FIRST, GET IT RIGHT.”
  • When Tracy edited a breaking news story she would keep track of how many minutes Voice of OC had beat competitors to publication (a throwback to her work at UPI when reporters aimed to beat the AP and measured timing in seconds).
  • Tracy was fiercely committed to uncovering corruption at all levels, and in news meetings when juicy news tips were unveiled her face would broaden into a wide smile and she would declare “Oh good!”
  • While Tracy made it clear that reporters must produce accurate journalism, the only time she ever raised her voice was to emphatically remind staff members to take breaks and rest when possible.

“Tracy was the toughest journalist I’ve ever known. She really took seriously a reporter’s job to protect our freedoms at home, and to get all sides of a story, and she saw it as an extension of what so many men and women died to protect on distant battlefields.”

Norberto Santana, Jr, Voice of OC publisher and editor-in-chief

“That’s It?”

Civic Editor Tracy Wood leading a news meeting in 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Tracy worked up until the day she left this world.

The last series she edited was at its core a reflection of who she was and of her life’s mission.

A three-part series focusing on transparency questions surrounding hundreds of millions in extra tax dollars for the Great Park in Irvine. The story, written by cub reporter Noah Biesiada just at the beginning of his internship with Voice of OC.

I still remember how Tracy would warmly smile and patiently guide Noah through running the detailed investigation. Take it step by step, record by record she would say.

The series displays Tracy’s core values of good journalism. Taking on corruption. Exposing the unseen truth. Giving voice to the voiceless. Fiercely taking on politicians. Working tirelessly for the public.

The first story starts:

Homeowners in Irvine’s Great Park neighborhoods are on the hook for over half a billion dollars in debt to build Orange County’s most iconic public works project, often compared to New York’s Central Park.

They have virtually no say in what gets approved for the project or any control over how much debt can be charged to them as the ultimate financiers of Orange County’s Great Park.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

And it wasn’t supposed to be like this for Tracy.

What her colleagues didn’t know is that Tracy was battling a fierce cancer.

She died the day after the last story in the three-part Great Park series published, on March 12, 2020.

Decades earlier, Tracy would reflect on death while reporting in Vietnam.

And then I was staring down at a young Vietnamese man who minutes before had been alive and now was a washed-out grayish parchment.

“That’s it?”

Death was supposed to be a cosmic earthquake, a churning tornado of blackness, a soul-screaming pain that broke you forever.

Now I knew. Fear disappeared, along with spirituality. Something hard inside took their place. Death was nothing huge or dramatic or frightening. It was small and absolute.

I didn’t want to die. But once the mystery was gone, I took comfort in its finality. Or at least, for years afterward, that’s what I believed.

Even though death offers finality, Tracy’s impacts in this world are far too great for her legacy to ever come to a close. Her story is still being written.

Her steady voice echoes lessons on fetching public records, investigating politicians and fierce pursuit of fast, accurate and truthful news stories. The journalists she trained will pass down her lessons for generations to come. The stories she has written and the wrongs she has exposed have made millions of reverberations into the lives of countless people.

A few days before the Great Park series was to be published, she called. It was late, 10 o’clock on a Friday.

She was almost out of breath.

She was as emphatic as ever.

She wanted to go through the details on the first story in the Great Park series set to run on Monday. She went line-by-line over the phone on the smallest details in the story.

Tracy declared: “We have to get this right.”


Sources

Tracy Wood. War Torn: Spies, Lovers, and Prisoners of War. 2002.

Tracy Wood. A War Correspondent Turned Lifelong Corruption Fighter Voice of OC. April 29, 2015.

Norberto Santana, Jr. Tracy Wood, Voice of OC’s Civic News Editor, Dies at 76 Voice of OC. March 16, 2020.

Pamela Burke. Veteran Journalist Tracy Wood Takes Helm at Ms. Sept. 19, 2002.

Sigrid Bathen. The Bureau Chiefs March 2016.

Steve Marble. Tracy Wood, reporter who helped The Times win a Pulitzer after L.A. riots, dies at 76 Los Angeles Times. March 17, 2020.

David Shaw. Times Wins a Pulitzer for Coverage of Riots. Los Angeles Times April 14, 1993.

Keith J. Kelly. Ms. Mag Gets New Chief New York Post. July 45, 2002.

Distinguished Journalists Awards Society of Professional Journalists – Los Angeles.

Voice of OC Staff. Hard News Has Found a New Home in OC Voice of OC. March 31, 2010.

Tracy Wood. Better Late (Really, Really Late) Than Never Voice of OC. March 31, 2010.

William Heisel. Q&A with the Voice of OC’s Tracy Wood: Finding a Hot Investigation in Local Park History Center for Health Journalism. July 27, 2011.Mike Flynn. Tracy Wood’s Pluck and Luck Keyed Her Success as UPI Vietnam Reporter. March 19, 2020.