By John Blake and Brandon Griggs, CNN
Manuel Perez found a new hobby after moving to north Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains late in his life. He became an amateur landscaper, planting Japanese maples and other perennials in his yard while creating a moon garden where pale-hued flowers reflect moonlight.
It was a dramatic change from the frantic pace of Perez’s career in newsrooms as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Editorial Director at CNN Digital. But the slower rhythms of planting, pruning and watching things blossom seemed to calm and delight him.
“Those were extraordinary gardens he built in the last three to five years,” said Mitch Gelman, a former CNN senior vice president and executive producer who worked with Perez for much of his career. “Anything he touched flourished in that environment.”
Perez, who died at 57 on Monday after a four-month struggle with cancer, had the same impact on the people he worked with at CNN. He had an extraordinary ability to cultivate the talents of colleagues who bloomed under his leadership in ways they never expected.
“Working for Manuel meant looking forward to every day on the job. It was a demanding one, for sure, and Manuel held the bar high because he was an ambitious, talented and thoughtful journalist,” said Jan Winburn, a former CNN senior editor.
“But he also understood what it was to be human, to make mistakes, to miss deadlines, to fall short. So while he taught me to be a better journalist, by his example I also saw what it meant to be a caring and compassionate person.”
He took an unlikely path to journalism
Perez dedicated his professional life to journalism in a distinguished career that took him from Newsday to The Washington Post to CNN.
It was a long way from his roots in a fishing village in northwest Spain.
Perez was born in 1964 in Ribeira, a coastal town in the region of Galicia. His father died before he was born. His mother, wanting more opportunities for her son and only child, immigrated with him to the US when Manuel was 7.
They settled in Lakewood, New Jersey, where his mother found a job at an industrial kitchen, making blintzes and other kosher foods. Her sacrifice and work ethic were an inspiration to her son.
“He said no matter how sick or tired she was, she never missed a day of work in her entire career,” Gelman said.
Perez graduated from a local high school and earned a scholarship to NYU, where he intended to study business before a journalism class changed the course of his career. He landed an internship at New York Newsday, which soon turned into a full-time job as a reporter covering the city.
Perez was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for coverage of a late-night subway derailment in Manhattan that left five passengers dead and more than 200 injured. He was one of the first reporters on the scene and fed details of the tragedy back to the newsroom.
When New York Newsday shuttered in 1995, Perez went to work as a reporter for The Washington Post, covering the suburbs around the nation’s capital. He made the leap to digital news in 2001, when Gelman — a former Newsday colleague — hired him to run the Washington bureau for what was then known as CNN.com.
A year later, Perez moved with his family to Atlanta to help lead CNN’s digital operations.
“He brought high standards,” Gelman said. “Manuel was the backbone through at least two or three generations of leadership that enabled CNN to become as respected for its digital journalism as it was for its television news.”
He earned respect as a leader and mentor
At CNN, he was the soft-spoken, bespectacled man in the stylish turtleneck sweaters who ambled around the digital newsroom with a Starbucks coffee in his hand. “Manny,” as he was known to many staffers, always seemed to have his office door open to anyone who wanted to chat.
Newsrooms are often led by Type A personalities full of bombast. But Meredith Artley, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of CNN Digital Worldwide, said she never saw Perez lose his temper. He was always approachable, regardless of anyone’s job title, she said.
“He made everyone feel heard,” Artley said. “He did not listen to people in power more than those not in power.”
Amanda Barnett, a former CNN producer who worked under Perez, recalls an incident when, in the rush to report breaking news, she and other newsroom leaders issued an alert that contained a factual error.
Instead of scolding her, Perez calmly helped her craft a new alert with the correct information.
“There were no recriminations. No yelling, no judging me for getting it wrong,” Barnett said. “We did the best we could with the information we had at the time. Then we corrected our mistakes. That is how it should work.”
At CNN, Perez helped oversee news coverage, editorial priorities and relaunches of CNN’s desktop and mobile platforms.
Rachel Clarke, a CNN Digital senior editor, recalled that while Perez was sometimes quiet in conversations and in meetings, his words carried disproportionate weight.
“I marveled at the way the 8a meeting would sometimes have big debates and we’d all jump in with thoughts and ideas and ramble all over the place,” she said. “And then, at the end — or sometimes in the middle if he wanted to move on — Manuel would bring it all together with just one sentence or direction that was always better than everything we’d been rabbiting about.”
People who knew him the best remember his kindness and his sly, understated sense of humor. Perez had an easy smile and a big laugh that filled a room. He was a crack crossword solver and such a formidable poker player that some victims dubbed him the “silent assassin.”
Linda Rathke, a managing editor at CNN, recalls the first job interview she had with Perez in 2007. She was pumped with adrenaline, bombarding him with ideas and questions.
“A little more than halfway through our interview,” she said, “Manuel shifted in his chair, smiled, looked over the top of his glasses and asked, ‘Is it ok if I ask YOU questions now?’ “
They both laughed, and Rathke got the job.
“Whatever nervousness I felt slipped away,” Rathke said. “That’s how talking with Manuel always was — easy, direct, often funny, and always smart.”
As an immigrant, Perez understood what it was like to feel like an outsider. Many former colleagues cited his role as a mentor to staffers who feared they didn’t belong at CNN.
Valerie Streit, then a young producer, said Perez taught her how to navigate office politics.
“Manny’s support lifted me and so many others who were underrepresented in the newsroom — helping me overcome impostor syndrome and insecurities about how to claim my authority and inhabit my voice,” said Streit, who now works for Google.
While many CNN staffers mentioned Perez’s journalistic smarts, more praised him for his humane management style.
“When I talk to young aspiring journalists, I give them this advice: More important than the specific job they will do, more important than the prestige of the organization they hope to work for is the values and character of the person who will be their boss,” Winburn said.
“And when I say this, I think of Manuel.”
His final days brought an outpouring of affection
Perez left CNN in 2016. He eventually eased into an early retirement at his home in rural Tiger, Georgia, with his wife, educator Gabriela Ortiz-Perez, who runs a small Montessori school nearby.
The two had met in 1990 at a wedding of mutual friends in Mexico — “It was instant. We just fell in love,” she said — and were married a year later. They had a son, Joaquin, and spent part of each summer visiting Perez’s relatives in Spain.
Perez’s cancer was diagnosed in August of this year but spread quickly. This fall, as his health was declining, Gelman went to Perez’s home for a visit. He asked Perez whether friends and colleagues could write to him.
Perez, who by then had difficulty speaking, indicated yes.
Gelman then made a joke: Was there anybody he didn’t want to hear from?
Perez gave him a big smile and said no.
That answer reflected the type of life he lived, Gelman said.
“He didn’t have anybody who didn’t like him,” he said. “And he found something to like in everybody he knew.”
Perez died peacefully Monday morning at home, surrounded by his trees and gardens. Gabriela was by his side. Joaquin, now 24 and a graduate student in Miami, arrived later that day.
In his final weeks, as news of Perez’s illness spread, the cards, letters and emails poured in, full of appreciation and fond reminiscences.
“Story after story after story, hundreds of them,” Gabriela said. “The outpouring of love was overwhelming.”
She read many of the tributes aloud to Manuel, editing some of the longer ones as he grew weaker and it became harder for him to concentrate. But she printed all the emails and gathered them with the other messages so he could see the stacks of paper, feel them in his hands and understand how many lives he had touched.
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