Truth Teller

Terry Rosales didn’t look or feel right sitting on a bus bench at First and Hope streets on July 5, in the shadow of the John Ferraro Building, the home of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

“Are you feeling okay?” asked a woman sitting next to him. “No,” Terry replied, as he dropped his briefcase, fell off the bench and, at age 59, died.

It was fitting that Terry’s last conscious moments occurred just outside an institution he served for 30 years — more than 20 of those after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The Risen Christ Chapel in Culver City was packed last Saturday when Terry’s family members walked his casket to the altar. Filipino uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces sat next to judges, lawyers, DWP employees and retirees. A few of the latter had engaged in fierce battles with Terry, the longtime head of the city attorney’s employee-relations unit at the DWP. All were there to honor a quiet man of integrity and faith — one with a mischievous streak, and hidden talents.

Behind the altar, on an easel, was a dated portrait of Terry sporting most of his hair, a Vandyke and a devilish grin. He looked quick and ready, as if he were about to annihilate an opponent in court.

In recent weeks the Parkinson’s had been gaining ground, but there was no hint of collapse the day before his death, on the Fourth of July, when Terry and his brother David stacked fireworks on a platform atop an eight-foot ladder.

After lighting the last fuse, David told the congregation, Terry yelled, “Now run like hell!” — and he did. Barefoot and as playful as a kid, Terry then pulled up a lawn chair — real close, his brother said — to enjoy the display.

Father Joe, a Nigerian priest, asked those gathered to describe Terry. “Kind,” “forgiving,” “generous,” “humble,” came the responses. “A genius,” one man blurted out.

“It was never about him,” the priest noted, describing the man who, though himself struggling with a debilitating disease, was eager to tend to Becky, his wife of 37 years, who was paralyzed on one side from a stroke in 1981.

Terry was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years later. The doctor gave him 10 years to work. He put in the 10 and tacked on 13 more, earning a reputation as an exceptional lawyer and a truth teller, one who would not fudge or capitulate to improper demands.

“He ran a good race,” said Father Joe, “right to the last day. Ask yourselves, what kind of race have you run?”

I met Terry in the summer of 2004. The DWP dispatched him to answer my questions about employee discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and a spate of secret settlements aimed at keeping a lid on an abusive workplace.

Terry was not the only one responsible for those settlements, which I argued should be open to the public. But rather than obfuscate, he accepted responsibility, and spent hours arguing with me over issues of public policy and morality.

The conversations upset him. Reputations were on the line: his, the DWP’s, the City Attorney’s Office. One day, he needed medication because he was shaking so much — the stress had exacerbated the Parkinson’s. Yet he challenged me to probe deeper. I discovered that a powerful labor union had run amok. I wrote about it for the next two years.

Terry’s candor was not appreciated in City Hall. After that first article, the City Attorney’s Office removed him as the head of employee relations at the DWP. Typical of his resolve, and well past the time he was expected to retire, he continued to serve the DWP in a lesser role.

This came as no surprise to anyone who knew him.

At the end of his memorial service, Terry’s three sisters joined David in singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Terry, who mastered classical piano as a child, accompanied them with an arrangement and vocals he had recorded before his death. His voice, a booming tenor, soared. As Father Joe had said, Terry ran a good race — right to the end.

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