Follow by Email

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Anne Keegan: An Original Lost to the Ages

Today I learned that Anne Keegan, a friend and colleague from my days with the Chicago Tribune, passed away. What a loss to Chicago journalism.

How can I describe Anne Keegan? She was a walking, talking paradox. She could be tough, with an ability to display, at a moment's notice, the vocabulary of an angry truck driver or Marine drill sergeant. But she could also be sensitive and pliable, almost nun-like in the deep felt emotions she (occasionally) wore on her sleeve.

She was what some people call a jelly bean. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

It was those qualities that made Anne Keegan a first rate reporter and a great writer. In fact, she was one of the greatest writers I ever had the pleasure of working with at the Chicago Tribune--which once upon a time, was a truly great newspaper.

The 1970s and 1980s were Anne Keegan's prime years at the Tribune--though they could have stretched on into the 1990s and even 2000s had the paper's editors made an effort to understand her and find a way to use her enormous and unique talent. As it was, Anne left the paper the same year I did (1997) when it became clear that the Tribune had long ceased to be a writers' paper in favor of one that encouraged predictable and formulaic journalism that made the bean counters and stockholders happy at the expense of originality.

During the 1970s and 1980s Anne was given a front page column at the Tribune--testimony to her talent at storytelling, which at its heart is what great journalism is all about. I first learned of Anne's wonderful talents when I was working as the paper's weekend city editor under managing editor Bill Jones.

Jones had an eye for talent and he knew how to encourage it and nurture it. Later editors at the Tribune seemed mystified by anybody who was the least bit iconoclastic, which is what Anne definitely was. Jones was not afraid of iconoclasts.

On Saturdays and Sundays when the paper was essentially in my hands I was blessed to have a group of reporters on the City Desk who were some of the best to ever wield a notebook and pen in Chicago. There was Mike Sneed, now a successful columnist at the Sun-Times. There was Jack Fuller, who went on to become the Tribune's editor and then president and CEO of the Chicago Tribune. There was Bill Gaines, who would go to win two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting. And there was Anne Keegan.

My job was easy. I would come in on Saturday morning and announce that we needed a good local story for the front page of the Sunday paper. After everyone had finished their coffee and read through the Sun-Times, Chicago Daily News and Chicago Today (in those days there were four competing dailies in Chicago--not to mention City News Bureau and the Chicago Defender), I would simply say: "Go find me a good reader for the front page."

Keegan and Sneed would be out the door in flash. And invariably, one of them would return with just what was needed.

I recall once when Keegan was on assignment to do a story on truckers who were angry about something--it may have been the 55 mph speed limit imposed during the first oil crisis in 1973. She called the office from a pay phone at a truck stop to dictate a story. After she had finished one of the truckers she was writing about grabbed the phone and asked:

"What kind of girl reporters does the Tribune have? This one can out-swear all us!"

Then, I heard Keegan's unmistakable voice in the background: "Don't call me a girl, you asshole!"

I laughed out loud. That was Anne Keegan, alright. She could hold her own with any potty mouthed truck driver.

The story she wrote belied her skills with Anglo-Saxon expletives. It was fair, provided context and was even, by Keegan's tough standards, a little sympathetic.

In the mid-1970s I was posted to Tokyo as the Tribune's Far East Correspondent and Anne and I never really worked together again.

However, I followed her career and she followed mine. A few times Anne came to Asia to write stories about a range of topics such as S.E. Asian refugees.

Invariably, as she did in Chicago, Anne would unearth characters who found their nirvana in places like Bangkok.

Her stories about some of these people were wonderful studies of the human condition and spirit--people such as A. J. "Tiger" Rydberg, a gruff, rough and tumble construction worker who built airstrips all over South Vietnam during the war.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Rydberg operated a watering hole in Bangkok called the "Tiger's Den" for former CIA Air America pilots, off shore oil riggers, itinerant hacks and various and sundry soldiers of fortune. Anne discovered "Tiger" and told me about him.
"Look him up, Yatsie," she said. (She always called me Yatsie, never Ron). "You'll like him."

I did look him up and she was right, I did like him.

"You work with Anne Keegan?" Rydberg asked me when I introduced myself to him in his Tiger's Den. "What a broad! She can out-cuss me and I thought I knew every swearword in the English language."

She also did a wonderful story on a Chicago priest, Father Raymond Brennan, who operated an orphanage for Thai children in the Thai coastal city of Pattaya, some 120 miles southeast of Bangkok. Her powerful story, along with Tribune photographer Val Mazzenga's riveting photographs, resulted in an avalanche of donations for the orphanage that housed about 150 homeless children.

After Anne left the Tribune she continued to write. In 2007 she published "On the Street Doing Life," a book about former Chicago cop Mike Cronin who spent years working on Chicago's rough, gang-infested West Side. It is a gritty story about a cop walking a fine line between toughness and fairness. Eventually Cronin rose through the ranks to head two of the Chicago Police Department's top units: Narcotics and Gangs. Cronin did all of this despite the fact that he lost a leg in Vietnam and had to convince the Chicago Police Department to hire him despite his disability.

Anne also wrote a children's book called "A Cat for Claire" that, at first glance seems like a significant departure from the kinds of stories she was famous for. In fact, however, that book displays Anne's "soft" side--a side of her character that she was very careful about sharing. In this case the book was written for her granddaughter.

Another side of Anne Keegan's disposition was her almost total lack of ego--a rarity in newsrooms then and now. She never boasted about her work or sought celebrity from her ground-breaking stories; never blew her own horn; never allowed herself to become the story, the way so many journalists do today in this self-absorbed era of tweeting and ubiquitous social media.

As she once told the Chicago Reader: "I may have led a very interesting life, but there are people whose stories are far more fascinating than mine."

And nobody told them better than Anne Keegan did.

10 comments:

Lilia Chacon said...

I remember her well, and loved her ability to spin a rippin' good yarn. She was tough. She was not an easy person to get to know, especially since I was a 'girl reporter'. Our mutual friend Val Mazzenga loved her too and put in a good word on my behalf. We will not see her like again, for so many reasons.

Anonymous said...

Great story. You have met some real characters in your life.

Bruce Buursma said...

A well-told tribute to a truly unforgettable colleague. Thanks, Ron. I'll miss her, too.

Anonymous said...

ANNE KEEGAN was my dear friend for the past 25 years and 7 months. I had the distinct pleasure to share my hopes, concerns, laughter, and tears with this incredible woman.

The first time I hear Anne’s beautiful voice, was on the telephone. My fifteen year old son had been murdered in a local schoolyard at 3:00 in the afternoon by a gang member. My family and I were in the middle of the murder trial, and I had called a press conference to urge Mothers to come together and no longer allow gangs to hold communities hostage.

I have to say, Anne was rather intimidating at the time. She said, “I’d like to write a story about the work you’re doing in your community, but, I don’t do press conferences.” Wow. Now there was someone who spoke her mind! I said, “Okay, meet me on Saturday morning at the schoolyard. Along with my family , a few mothers and myself – we’re going to paint over the huge gang emblem painted on the school wall.” Without hesitation or concern for herself, Anne said, “I’ll be there.”

And she was. Even while gangmembers watched from a few yards away, that we didn’t back down from painting over their emblem, and Anne wrote the story for the Tribune.

When she was getting ready to leave that morning, I thanked her for coming. I expected a handshake. Instead, Anne wrapped her arms around me, and with tears in her eyes, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am so sorry for your loss. I have a fifteen year old son, too. His name is Patrick.” It was then that I felt that wonderful Anne Keegan connectiveness to others. I was strengthen by her words and felt empowered that my mission had touched the heart of this other mother.

Anne Keegan was a renowned reporter and journalist. She had a universal wish that we all be connected to others in the best way possible. She was trusting of people. She understood their feelings. She engaged them in dialogue and engaged herself in their emotions and thoughts. She gave many families hope about their future and their community. She brought darkness into the light. And most important, Anne made the invisible, visible. She championed for all our tomorrows.

Madam Keegan is our universal ambassador of love and hope.

Her husband Lenny knows that God blessed us when he sent this sweet Anne to our Universe. She will remain my friend throughout eternity.

I love you, Anne Keegan. I love you, Lenny. I love you, Patrick.

Your friend, su amiga,


FRANCES SANDOVAL MELENDEZ

Anonymous said...

ANNE KEEGAN was my dear friend for the past 25 years and 7 months. I had the distinct pleasure to share my hopes, concerns, laughter, and tears with this incredible woman.

The first time I hear Anne’s beautiful voice, was on the telephone. My fifteen year old son had been murdered in a local schoolyard at 3:00 in the afternoon by a gang member. My family and I were in the middle of the murder trial, and I had called a press conference to urge Mothers to come together and no longer allow gangs to hold communities hostage.

I have to say, Anne was rather intimidating at the time. She said, “I’d like to write a story about the work you’re doing in your community, but, I don’t do press conferences.” Wow. Now there was someone who spoke her mind! I said, “Okay, meet me on Saturday morning at the schoolyard. Along with my family , a few mothers and myself – we’re going to paint over the huge gang emblem painted on the school wall.” Without hesitation or concern for herself, Anne said, “I’ll be there.”

And she was. Even while gangmembers watched from a few yards away, that we didn’t back down from painting over their emblem, and Anne wrote the story for the Tribune.

When she was getting ready to leave that morning, I thanked her for coming. I expected a handshake. Instead, Anne wrapped her arms around me, and with tears in her eyes, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am so sorry for your loss. I have a fifteen year old son, too. His name is Patrick.” It was then that I felt that wonderful Anne Keegan connectiveness to others. I was strengthen by her words and felt empowered that my mission had touched the heart of this other mother.

Anne Keegan was a renowned reporter and journalist. She had a universal wish that we all be connected to others in the best way possible. She was trusting of people. She understood their feelings. She engaged them in dialogue and engaged herself in their emotions and thoughts. She gave many families hope about their future and their community. She brought darkness into the light. And most important, Anne made the invisible, visible. She championed for all our tomorrows.

Madam Keegan is our universal ambassador of love and hope.

Her husband Lenny knows that God blessed us when he sent this sweet Anne to our Universe. She will remain my friend throughout eternity.

I love you, Anne Keegan. I love you, Lenny. I love you, Patrick.

Your friend, su amiga,


FRANCES SANDOVAL MELENDEZ

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks for this nice tribute to Anne. I discovered it while looking up information on Anne for my own little obit on my blog: http://johnnyyen.blogspot.com/2012/01/rip-anne-keegan-chicago-original.html. I got to know Anne as a regular while I worked as a server at a restaurant I worked my way through nursing school at. I always ended up being her server for the simple reason that I was the only one who wasn't afraid of her! I had grown up reading her writing in the Tribune, and had no idea it was her I was waiting on until a few years ago. I enjoyed talking to her about her writing, and she was fascinated by my choices-- I had been a teacher in Austin and in Cicero, and had left teaching to become a nurse (I graduated Truman College's nursing program in May and now work as a dialysis nurse). You captured Anne to a tee-- outwardly, she was intimidating and hard, but once she decided she liked and trusted you, she was warm, charming and fascinating. I remember her telling me about her children's book as she was preparing it, and how it was for her granddaughter. I left the restaurant when I got a nursing job and only just found out she passed away. I will definitely miss her.

Vina Janny said...

A splendid blog post, I just given this onto a colleague who was doing a little analysis on this. And he in fact purchased me lunch because I discovered it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnkx for the treat! But yeah Thnkx for spending the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and enjoy reading more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more info? It is highly helpful for me. Two thumb up for this basin tap!

mytapworld said...

There are several abundant designs and appearance of curtains that you can accept from for your kitchen.Bathroom accessories set Our tap designers specialize in creating tap pieces that clothing the needs and requirements of all kinds of kitchen.Taps online You can baddest a acceptable Shower taps with batten ascendancy or you can opt for a added avant-garde blazon tap with artist acceptable looks forth with stability.

Kirsten Jones said...

robinetterie-baignoire sont des nécessités de base dans nos maisons, surtout dans les salles de bains. Il avait, pendant des siècles, atteint son but et est extrêmement nécessaire douche-robinetterie-douche pour nos besoins quotidiens. Essentiellement, un douche est une soupape qui est utilisé pour libérer l'eau.

finestglasses said...

l Recalling my brothers’ experience before, he was too shy to wear his thick glasses. But now because of FG mens glasses, he is no longer shy and yet it helps him to have a good self-esteem.