Alumnus and former State Hornet reporter wins Pulitzer Prize

Russ Buettner ’90 (Journalism), along with fellow New York Times investigative reporters David Barstow and Susanne Craig, spent 18 months digging into the complex finances of the family of President Donald Trump.

Russ Buettner“We didn’t do anything else during that period of time,” he said. “There were at least two times when we thought we might be finished and we were going to make one more round of contacts, and each of those times when we thought we were finished those additional reporting contacts we made yielded more results that required more process and analysis and then circling back to what we had done before.”

That hard work paid off last week when Buettner and his colleagues were awarded journalism’s most prestigious honor: the Pulitzer Prize. The award, given in the Explanatory Journalism category, was one of two for the Times this year and a first for Buettner. It also marks the second year in a row a Sacramento State alum has received a Pulitzer: Hornet graduates Derek Moore, Jim Sweeney and Martin Espinoza earned the award last year for their coverage of the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

While a student at Sacramento State, Buettner spent two semesters as a reporter for the State Hornet student newspaper. He joined the Times in 2006 after working on investigations teams at the New York Daily News and New York Newsday, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles highlighting abuse, neglect and deadly mistakes in New York’s system of caring for developmentally disabled people.

Below, Buettner discusses his Pulitzer-winning work and his time at Sacramento State (interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity).

What was your reaction upon learning you had received the Pulitzer Prize?

It’s a very exciting moment. I’ve been doing this a long time and have gotten close before. But it’s kind of a pure excitement that you share with your colleagues. You feel good about what you’ve accomplished. You feel very good about the work that you did, that kind of reinforcement and recognition from that particular body. This means a lot in journalism.

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Russ Buettner addresses the New York Times newsroom following the announcement that he and his colleagues had received a Pulitzer Prize. (Photo courtesy Russ Buettner).

Why did you feel this story was important to report?

When somebody is president of the United States, getting to the truth of their lives and what they’ve done that led them there is always going to be important. Some of the ways that Donald Trump is very different than other presidents is that most often in modern times, by the time they get to the point when they’re running for president, most of their life has been thoroughly vetted before. People have gone through it, looked at all the relationships they’ve had, connected the dots that need to be connected, and there’s kind of an extensive public record on all that. Donald Trump had been a public figure for decades, obviously, but never had been taken seriously in that kind of way before. So it was worthwhile to go through that and test, basically, his origin story that he’s always told about himself, that he told during the campaign as to why his ideas should matter and why he was the best person to be president.

How do you feel Sacramento State prepared you for a career in journalism?

I owe almost everything to Sac State. It was a place I could afford to go and a place that welcomed me, so those were two things that I’ll be forever grateful for. It was place that taught me both new ways to think critically, which is everything in my work, and to believe in myself that I was capable of doing that at a fairly high level. I learned to write when I was there. There was a professor there named Jeanne Abbott who worked closely with the Hornet, and when I wrote something, a longer thing to try and get it in the paper, Jeanne would spend hours with me giving me feedback, helping me to massage it into something that was publishable at what seemed like a professional level. Writing is a particular kind of skill. There are some people I’m sure who can just get it and nail it first time they try. I wasn’t like that. I had ideas and talent but I needed to do a lot of work to perfect it for a large audience. All the journalism staff and the English Department at Sac State really moved me along in that direction.

What lessons from Sacramento State do you use most today?

No matter where you’re from, and I don’t mean Sacramento, I just mean from no matter what the economics or cultural background is of your family, you can find a path to get to a place that is mentally satisfying and will challenge you throughout your life. You can feel like when you see your friends going off to huge prestigious universities, that it must be true that your fate is determined when you’re 17 years old and you’re as good as you’re ever going to be when your 17 years old. Sac State shows you that that’s not true. It’s just all a big journey and you just keep learning and keep digging, and you’ll find the life for you that is the best use of your skills and talents and the most rewarding. The lesson for me about Sac State is that it’s a big door opener to the world.

What advice do you have for current Sacramento State journalism students?

Dream big and never quit learning. Realize you got there and you had some skills and some talent and you learned about things you wanted to do. You made a lot of progress. But you are literally not going to stop making progress if you keep working hard on that same pace for your entire life. I know that’s true in journalism. That’s one of the best things about it, you’re just constantly learning and being exposed and being challenged in new ways. And I think that’s true in most fields today. The world is constantly changing underneath our feet and that’s a wonderful thing and wonderful process, and just embrace it and go forth.

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Derek Parker completes his degree and starts a new program at Sac State

Derek Parker ’10 (Career and Technical Studies) had two problems. Sacramento State helped solve both.

First, he was running an adult education paramedic program at the Sacramento school district’s Old Marshall School, a program he had built up from a single EMT class, and the program couldn’t be accredited unless its director had a bachelor’s degree. So Parker, who had left Sonoma State years earlier before graduating, enrolled in Sacramento State’s Bachelor of Science in Career and Technical Studies (BSCTS) program, one of several degree completion programs run through the College of Continuing Education (CCE).

Then funding for the program suddenly dried up.

“I had put all this work into creating this paramedic program that I believed in,” said Parker, who is also the battalion chief for the Sacramento Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division. “I’ve got students who are in the program. I’ve got a whole slew of students who want to get into the program. I can’t just let this thing go.”

He contacted Jill Matsueda, director of academic programs with CCE, to see what could be done. The college was receptive, the school district signed off on a transfer, and, in 2009, the CSU’s first and still only paramedic program was born.

“We went to Sac State first, and they jumped on it,” Parker said.

Today, the paramedic program has made a tremendous impact on the fire department where Parker works: He estimates around 20 percent of the department’s employees have gone through it.

Parker’s path to a degree, and a job as a battalion chief, has been a little circuitous. After graduating from Merced High School in 1994, he enrolled at Sonoma State and played football there until the university cut the program in 1996. When he left school and prepared to enter the workforce, his grandmother suggested firefighting.

The entry level position in the industry was as a firefighter/paramedic, so Parker went to paramedic school and got a job with a local ambulance company.

“It’s the closest thing I could find to sport competition. When you’re addressing a sick patient, you have a limited amount of time, so there’s a little bit of pressure,” he said. “Can I complete all these tasks in a short period of time for the betterment of the patient? That’s what drives me. Pushing myself. I’m competing against myself.”

As a battalion chief for the EMS division, Parker is responsible for all of the division’s day-to-day operations. That means overseeing the individuals who work on ambulances, handling EMT and paramedic certification, ensuring that ambulances and other vehicles are in good working condition, and managing the budget. He also still responds to fires, and spends much of his time during the summer on incident management teams working to contain the state’s now-prevalent wildfires.

In addition to the project management skills he uses regularly in his current job, the BSCTS program included students from a wide variety of career backgrounds, something Parker says gave him a broader perspective he continues to find useful. For example, meeting people in the culinary industry provided insight that can come in handy when responding to a grease fire or other emergency at a restaurant. Interacting with students from a law enforcement background allowed him to better understand their perspective on emergency situations.

“You always think your kingdom is the most important kingdom, and I realized that it’s a neighborhood, not a kingdom,” he said.

A photo of Derek Parker, in uniform, at a Sacramento fire station
Derek Parker earned his bachelor’s degree from Sacramento State while at the same time starting the University’s paramedic program. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

With the paramedic program, Parker has taught close to 500 paramedic students who since have found jobs at fire departments, ambulance companies, hospitals and other employers throughout California and beyond. Students in the program receive hands-on learning experiences in a variety of areas, including advanced training in life support and terrorism preparedness, and leave with 30 units of academic credit.

Students in the paramedic program consistently rank higher than the national average when taking the National Registry Exam, a cognitive test required for paramedic certification.

The University runs two cohorts of paramedic program students each academic year, with 40 students admitted to the fall 2018 cohort and another 40 admitted to the spring 2019 cohort. According to the latest data from CCE, 90 percent of paramedic students became licensed after completing the program, and nearly the same number were employed within six months of graduation.

“Derek saw the untapped potential for Sacramento State to offer a paramedic program,” Matsueda said. “Traditionally, these programs are offered at the community colleges and from private providers, but Derek saw the potential for a level of quality and professionalism that would come with the academic oversight of University faculty.”

Henry Garcia embraces change and lands at Pixar

Why would Pixar hire a guy on track to become a physics professor to work on animated films? Let Sacramento State’s William DeGraffenreid explain.

“Henry and I decided to get together and watch a football game,” recalls DeGraffenreid, referring to his former student and current Pixar Animation Studios technical director Henry Garcia ’05 (Computer Science and Physics). “During commercials, he was telling me what he could about his work. I remember him asking me if I had seen Wall-E, and I said, ‘Yeah, it was a good movie,’ though it had come out before Henry had joined Pixar.”

Garcia mentioned a scene featuring a pile of garbage in which papers were fluttering randomly. In the real world, he pointed out, they would move in patterns. In Wall-E, they didn’t.

“He said, ‘But they do now,’ and he gave me a smile,” DeGraffenreid said. “He had already made a contribution to Pixar and contributed his knowledge.”

Garcia’s first project with Pixar, creating that realistic paper fluttering effect for Toy Story 3, was ultimately cut from the film. But since then, he has made his mark at the animation studio – and on some of the most beloved films of the past decade.

The rain in The Good Dinosaur? Garcia’s work. He helped a red hooded sweatshirt come to life in the short film Lou. He’s also worked on Up, Inside Out, Coco, and currently is the simulation supervisor for the highly anticipated Toy Story 4. And, in what he considers his favorite achievement, he helped create Merida’s iconic, curly red hair in Brave.

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Henry Garcia gives notes during a Toy Story 4 simulation review on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

“That was 18 months of my life dedicated to building that simulator, with the rest of my team,” Garcia said. “When I look back at that film and I look at her hair and how much it brought that character to life, there’s a lot of pride.”

It’s hardly what the Citrus Heights native envisioned when he transferred to Sacramento State in 2001 after a couple of years at Indiana University. He had followed his girlfriend halfway across the country, run low on money, and was unenthusiastic about having to return home and enroll at the local university.

“In hindsight, it was a huge blessing,” said Garcia, a first-generation college student. “What Sac State did for me was amazing, and I can’t say I would be at Pixar if it wasn’t for that.”

Having been fascinated by computers and graphics since playing video games in middle and high school, he enrolled at Sacramento State as a computer science major. Then, while taking the calculus-based physics courses required for that degree, he fell in love with physics and decided to double major, with the ultimate goal of obtaining his doctorate.

Two internships helped him get into the physics doctoral program at UC Berkeley – located less than four miles from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters. The studio recruited at Berkeley, and Garcia was fortunate enough to land an interview.

There was just one issue: Despite his computer science background, he hadn’t touched a computer in almost three years.

“After the interview, the room kind of split in half a little bit,” he said. “Half were thinking, ‘What are we doing? We can’t hire this guy. He doesn’t know anything about computer graphics.’ And the other half was saying, ‘Yeah, but he’s so passionate, he’ll figure it out. Let’s give him a shot.’ And luckily, one of the people on the positive side was the head of Toy Story 3 at the time.”

Garcia landed a one-year residency, left Berkeley, and hasn’t looked back. As a technical director, he uses computer software to animate effects like fire and smoke as well as “simulations,” such as hair or clothing, generally handling between two to 10 shots per week (a full film has around 1,600 shots total). Once the work is ready, he takes it to his supervisor for feedback, and then ultimately the director for final approval.

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Henry Garcia works on Toy Story 4 on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

On Toy Story 4, Garcia has assumed a supervisory role, working with a team of about 13 to make sure the film comes in on time and on budget – and is up to Pixar’s high standards.

The work is relentlessly collaborative. For example, the Toy Story character Bo Peep wears a cloak. Technical directors like Garcia have to work with the animators to ensure that, when Bo Peep moves her arms, the cloak moves with them realistically.

That’s where Garcia draws upon his experience at Sacramento State, where he found small class sizes, engaged professors who put students first, and a highly supportive and collaborative environment he didn’t have at other schools he attended.

“That’s something I’ve taken with me,” he said. “I think part of my success at Pixar is because I have the skills to bring a team together and be a positive voice in the room, while also having good ideas. I attribute that to Sac State.”

DeGraffenreid, now a special assistant to Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, remembers Garcia as incredibly talented academically while also bringing a sense of humor and caring to the Department of Physics. Garcia was heavily involved in the student physics club and spearheaded the group’s efforts to provide after-school science programming to local homeless K-12 students. And he has returned to campus several times to speak with Sacramento State students and share his knowledge and experience.

“Anytime I’ve asked, ‘Hey, we’ve got this opportunity, would you like to come to speak to our students and tell them your story,’ he’s ready to do it,” DeGraffenreid said. “As a Latino, he understands that he can serve as an example of what’s possible, and that by being present and showing himself as an example, he can inspire other Latinos as well, because unfortunately it remains a marginalized group in physics.”

Garcia – whose path has taken him from Sacramento to Indiana and back, from computer science to physics, from graduate school to a dream job at one of the world’s most famous movie studios – hopes current students will see him as an example of someone who wasn’t afraid to alter course when necessary.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get tripped up on being so focused on their plan that they’re not open to changes in that plan,” he said. “So as you’re progressing through your major, as you’re applying to internships, as you’re setting up and planning the rest of your life, recognize that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, and be open and embrace them whenever they seem like a positive step.”