How Writing Saved the Life of Rafael R. Jimenez

Story and Photos by Diane Andrews

Santa Clara resident Rafael Jimenez discovered his literary voice at 86, after his wife of 60 years, Dolores, passed away on March 11, 2009, leaving him bereft.

“Why don’t you write a letter to your wife?” suggested a doctor.

And so he did. But Jimenez didn’t stop writing at just one letter to the love of his life and mother of their two children, Raquel Gunion and David Jimenez. He wrote 12 letters and found that he was just getting warmed up.

So in November of 2009, he joined a creative writing class at Santa Clara Adult Education and hasn’t stopped writing—or attending classes—ever since, despite a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease that slowed him down about four years ago.

He is a prolific writer with impressive recall of the details of his life, at his peak writing three or four two-page essays a week. He has written, indexed and organized into fat binders more than 340 essays and other writings, such as occasional obituaries he is asked to write.

“But I have trouble now. I don’t know what to write about anymore,” said Jimenez, who presently spends about two days a week, a couple hours a day, writing.

“Writing saved me. It saved my life. It got me out of a deep hole of depression,” said Jimenez. “At least, it gave me the backbone to deal with it.”

Jimenez retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a decorated gunnery sergeant on Dec. 31, 1966, and some of his essays are about his military years. Others cover his early life and subsequent careers working for the city of San Jose at city hall (as human relations director at one point) and then running his own income tax business.

“There was no separateness in the Marines Corps,” said Jimenez, who was born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrant parents. “‘There goes a sergeant,’ they said, not ‘There goes a Mexican.'”

His jobs in the Marines, sometimes as a recruiter, usually required typing, which he learned in high school in his hometown of Santa Paula, CA. His postings included Midway Island in WWII, Fresno during the Korean War, San Francisco, Twentynine Palms and El Toro, Guam, Japan and Vietnam.

“[Before my wife died], the only other things I had written were letters to the next of kin of Marines who got killed,” he said.

He spoke of recruiting a young Marine in Fresno in 1950 and then having to notify his family the next year that he had been killed in the Korean War.

“I did that. I recruited him,” said Jimenez. “It still hurts.”

Jimenez speaks and is literate in Spanish but says that he writes better in English, which he passed with “Cs” in high school. He got an A.A. Degree in accounting at Ventura Community College.

He’s tried unsuccessfully using a computer and instead writes his first essay drafts by pen on a lined, yellow pad of paper. Then he types the draft on an old Brother electric typewriter and makes copies on his home printer. He mails copies to friends and takes them to his creative writing class for feedback.

“It’s bad to hold onto bad memories. Concentrate on the good stories of your life by putting them on paper instead of dealing with the devils that affect you,” he said. “When you’re depressed, you’re vulnerable. Start writing, getting your emotions on paper. People will understand you better, and you’ll have a better life.”

“I would like other people to turn to writing, too, because it records, it chronicles, your emotional being. It’s good therapy,” said Jimenez, who has four grandchildren and turned 95 on March 1. “My granddaughter is going to put a book of my writings together someday.”

“Rafael is a national treasure, and he’s a lot of fun and has a great sense of humor,” said Jill Pipkin, his Santa Clara Adult Education Creative Writing Workshop instructor. “His writing is pithy, informative, often humorous, and truly unique. His history is also poignant and unique and pertinent to the political situation for the Dreamers.”

“Our class is very talented and diverse. Our members write what interests them; they write at home, make copies for class members, and read their pieces to the class. Class members write comments and also ask questions of the writer,” said Pipkin.

“People don’t believe that all this could come out of an old gunnery sergeant named Jimenez,”

said the Marine whose life was saved through writing.

Pipkin’s four-week writing workshops are offered year round, Mondays, 10 a.m. to noon. Check class starting dates and register online at, by phone at (408) 423-3500, or in person at the Adult Education Center, 1840 Benton St.