Union-Tribune biotech writer Bradley J. Fikes, beloved by colleagues, dies at 61
The SDSU graduate was known for his love of science and his extraordinary ability to explain
Bradley J. Fikes, an ever-on-the move ball of energy who roamed the labs of San Diego as the Union-Tribune’s biotech writer, chronicling scientists’ efforts to find ways to alleviate human suffering, died on Wednesday. He was 61.
His family said he passed away of natural causes at his home in Grantville. He had been dividing his time between poring through medical journals and exploring his two other great loves, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park in Escondido.
Fikes — who was part Dr. Dolittle, part Inspector Gadget —was especially excited earlier this week as he pulled together a story about two extremely rare platypuses that are being introduced at the zoo.
“He talked about it almost non-stop as we drove back and forth between the zoo,” said Michelle Guerrero, a Union-Tribune illustrator and graphics reporter. “He knew how animals evolve, their relationship with humans, and how they ended up at zoos.
“He had the wonderment of a child, the complexity of a scientist and an artful way of coming up with the words to explain it all.”
Fikes was forever in the middle of things, in a literal and figurative sense.
Every Friday, he staked out a table at Bella Vista, a heavily-trafficked cafe between the Salk Institute and UC San Diego. In science, anybody who’s anybody — and everybody who wants to become somebody — hangs out at “Bella” and networks.
Fikes listened in, took notes, then speed-wrote stories that were devoured by the biotech brigade. Fikes could talk non-stop for 30 minutes about the nature of pluripotent stem cells, then do another half-hour on telomeres and wrap up with some thoughts on chimeras.
He also hung at Bella because of the food. He loved the comfort fare. He loved it so much that Bella’s owner, Amanda Caniglia, named a spaghetti dish after him. She called it Il Journalista.
Fikes was impossible to miss. By his own admission, he was a walking fashion disaster. He wore odd-colored business shirts that clashed with his suspenders, and slacks that never made contact with an iron. At times, cellphone cables hung out of his pockets like limp licorice. He feared not having enough power to use his cellphone to watch Black Sabbath and Van Halen videos on YouTube.
People lovingly teased him, hoping for a retort. He often snapped his own suspenders, smiled, and asked, “Are you jealous?”
News of his death elicited a wave of sorrow and praise Thursday from the county’s science industry, whose denizens knew Fikes as a deliciously quirky figure who understood the arcane language of science and the people who are drawn to it.
“I always prepped scientists who were meeting him for the first time not to be fooled by the red suspenders and taped glasses,” said Chris Emery, communications director at Scripps Research in La Jolla. “Bradley is the most legit science reporter you’ll encounter.”
Fikes also was lauded for highlighting the needs and interests of patients, particularly Theresa Blanda and Nancy Davidson, a pair of Orange County women who suffered from debilitating blood cancers.
He followed their cases closely as they sought experimental drugs that might keep them alive. Blanda also supported the biotech companies who were willing to pursue fresh alternatives, even though the outlook was grim.
Blanda later died. But UC San Diego cancer specialist Catriona Jamieson, who helped with the women’s treatment, said Fikes was invaluable in telling their stories.
“Bradley championed their cause by telling their stories clearly,” said Jamieson. “He was a serious advocate for patients. He persevered and got difficult stories right. I’ve always been a big fan of Bradley.”
He was “also very keen on gender diversity in life science,” said Dawn Barry, president and co-founder of LunaDNA. “We lost such a warm, engaged, important San Diego citizen.”
Bradley Joseph Fikes was born in San Diego on Jan. 30, 1958, the son of Garland Fikes, a blueprinter, and Trudy Fikes, a nurse who worked at Mercy Hospital.
He learned to read and comprehend difficult information early, which led to a life-shaping moment when he was roughly 6 years old.
Fikes discovered a medical encyclopedia that captivated his attention. One afternoon, he shared the book with neighborhood children, which alarmed their parents because it showed explicit images of the human body.
“It was just anatomy; there was nothing wrong with it,” said Vanessa Dimalanta, one of Fikes’ three sisters. “That was Brad. Always reading, always sharing with others.”
His obsession with science deepened while he was attending San Diego High School and it grew at San Diego State University, where he found his calling — journalism.
Like hundreds before him, Fikes joined the Daily Aztec, the campus newspaper, which operated in a raucous newsroom that had male mannequin legs hanging from the ceiling.
“This is where he found his tribe,” said Karla Peterson, a Union-Tribune columnist who also was part of the Aztec staff.
“He loved the work and was at it all of the time. He had so much energy. When we threw parties, Bradley was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. He was happy. He knew how to enjoy life.”
Union-Tribune theater critic James Hebert said, “He struck me as a total original from the moment I met him — like our own slightly mellower answer to Hunter S. Thompson. And it was always resoundingly clear just from being around him that he loved what he did.”
After graduating from San Diego State in 1984, Fikes worked as a freelance writer and then spent three years as a staff writer for the Chula Vista Star-News. In 1990, he joined the staff of the San Diego Business Journal, where he worked for six years. Then he spent another year covering business for the San Diego Daily Transcript.
Because of the deep connections he had built in the local business community, Fikes took a brief career detour into corporate communications for a high-tech firm in 1997. He quickly realized his mistake. Despite the higher salary, Fikes missed working as a newspaper journalist. In 1997, he contacted then-North County Times business editor Pam Kragen looking for a staff-writing job. He was hired immediately.
“Brad had a bit of the nutty professor about him when it came to style, but his brain worked like a computer,” Kragen said.
“He was able to store vast amounts of information and call on it to write knowledgeably, accurately, quickly and prolifically. After returning to the newspaper business, I remember Brad telling me that all he ever really wanted to do was to be a journalist because he loved the process of discovering something new and then sharing it with readers. He was very proud to work at the Union-Tribune.
“He loved the job and the newsroom was his home.”
Union-Tribune Publisher and Editor Jeff Light said, “Bradley had a rare combination of intellect, curiosity and character. It made him a wonderful journalist.
“By character, I mean the strength to be true to himself. But he also had a vulnerability that made you feel protective of him. He was a beloved figure. Our newsroom will miss him terribly.”
Fikes is survived by three sisters, Sue Tate of San Diego; Vanessa Dimalanta of San Diego, and Kimberley Cross of San Diego.
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