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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.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Pakistan: Friendly Foe; Angry Ally

In the wake of Osama Bin Laden's killing in Abbottabad, Pakistan there has been much discussion about the Pakistanis and just how much their military and security forces knew about where the terrorist leader was hiding.

Questions have been raised about how much the Pakistani's can be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to Muslim terrorists who without doubt populate their country.

Most recently the U.S. has asked Pakistan for access to Bin Laden's three widows and any intelligence materials that the Navy SEALS may have left behind in the house where the leader of Al Qaeda terrorist was hiding.

Don't hold your breath. The women along with several children were picked up by Pakistani authorities and are now in custody somewhere in Pakistan. If U.S. authorities ever get to interview the three widows and any other occupants of the house where Bin Laden was hiding it will be a miracle. In the meantime Pakistan is depriving American officials of potentially valuable intelligence--intelligence that could forestall another terrorist attack somewhere in the world.

It is patently obvious that someone somewhere in the Pakistani military hierarchy not only knew of Bin Laden's whereabouts but was probably aiding him in his efforts to remain hidden from CIA operatives in Pakistan.

The fact is Pakistan is a nation ruled less by political expediency than by religious zeal. The biggest challenge facing Pakistan's national security establishment is to recognize how continuing links to extremist groups mortgage Pakistan's future. Don't expect a change in Pakistan's ties to the Afghan Taliban, but this would be a good time for Pakistan's military leaders to re-think any ties they may still have to the remnants of al-Qaeda within their country.

Once again, don't hold your breath. The Taliban and al-Qaeda resonate strongly with fundamental Islamists in Pakistan, of which there are millions. These are the same people who are out in the streets of Islamabad shouting "Death to America" and "Death to the Infidel Invaders" in the wake of Bin Laden's demise.

The fact is fundamental Muslims such as the Taliban and their Pakistani followers who oppose any form of democratic government and who support the continued suppression of women are not in agreement with Western ideas of free speech, freedom of religion, or other forms of free expression.

In that respect not much has changed since I first traveled on Pakistan on assignment for the Chicago Tribune. That was in 1987 and I was in Pakistan to work on a series of stories about the Mujahedeen guerillas who were engaged in a long and bloody struggle with Russian invaders. After spending some time in Islamabad getting briefed by various diplomatic missions I set off on the Grand Trunk Road for Peshawar, the ancient city at the mouth of the Khyber Pass.

I hired a car and driver and during the 90 mile drive along a road that has been in use since the British Raj I was able to get some idea of what the Pakistanis think of the West in general and the United States in particular. My driver was a fellow named Haaroon Kakar--an excellent English speaker who had worked for many visiting journalists.

Haaroon had been instrumental in helping me meet up with some local Mujahedeen and was taking me to Peshawar so I could link up with a guerilla unit that moved at will between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the intervening years nothing has changed--only the names. Today, it is no longer the Mujahedeen that moves with relative impunity across the Pakistani-Afghani border, it is the Taliban.

As we drove along the Grand Trunk Road, which now has been replaced in part by the new six-lane M-1, I marveled at how well Haaroon was able to elude the scrum of camels and cattle that meandered along the highway at will--not to mention the ancient trucks and cars that grunted along spewing thick clouds of black and blue smoke.

"Did you know that Alexander the Great came along this road in 326 BC?" Haaroon asked as he deftly avoided a cart powered by a struggling donkey and a multi-colored bus whose roof was populated by some dozen riders unable to find a seat inside.

At this point nothing along the Grand Trunk Road surprised me any longer--not even the fact that in Peshawar there was actually a Sultan of Swat. And here I always thought that appellation was only Babe Ruth's.

As we made our way west away from Islamabad, I asked Haaroon what he thought of Americans. That was a mistake.

"They are OK, I guess--for unbelievers."

"Unbelievers?" I responded.

"Yes, you are not Muslim are you?"

"No, I am not," I answered.

"Then you are an unbeliever. Only Muslims know the true God."

"I see," I said, not wanting to enter into a discussion about religion or politics--two topics that could get your skull decorated with a scimitar in this part of the world.

Haaroon was not finished with this theme, however.

"Why do America and Europe allow their women to behave like prostitutes?" he asked.

I wasn't quite sure how to answer that question, so I responded with another question.

"How do you mean?"

"Look at how you allow your women to dress--like tarts," he countered.

"Believe me, there is no question of men telling women how to dress in America," I said. "They dress the way they want to."

"Well, that's the problem isn't it?" Haaroon said. "Do you see Pakistani women going about in such disgraceful attire?"

I responded that not only did I not see any Pakistani women wandering around in risqué attire; I didn't even see many Pakistani women at all on the streets.

"That is because we don't let them out of our houses unless they are accompanied by a male family member," he said.

"Why?"

"Why must you ask...if we let them out by themselves other men would, how do you say...screw them," Haaroon insisted.

"Are we talking about religion here or slavery?" I asked. "Don't you think Pakistani women can be trusted to venture outside their homes?" I wondered if Haaroon had a mini scimitar in the front seat that I couldn't see.

Haaroon paused before answering. "Our women are not slaves...we are protecting them against temptation and vice. You Americans no longer protect your women. And that is why they are all being raped."

"What?" I was getting irritated. "Where do you get such rubbish?"

"We see it in the movies and on television every night," he said. He then rattled off a few cops and robbers shows and films that he assumed were accurate portrayals of American life.

"You are talking about fiction, entertainment..."

Haaroon jumped in before I could finish my response.

"Are these films and shows untrue then?" he asked.

"There is some truth to them, but they are mostly gross exaggerations of what happens in America," I said. "I am sure you have crime in Pakistan, but it is not constant and omnipresent is it?"

After I explained what omnipresent meant, he seemed to agree. Then he insisted that if American women at least were compelled to wear burkas they would be safer on American streets.

Somehow I was not convinced.

Nor am I convinced today that Pakistan will behave rationally in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid and allow Washington access to critical intelligence left behind in Bin Laden's lair. Some of the information the Seals acquired in Abbottabad is likely to show that under Pakistani protection Bin Laden continued to plot and scheme against the United States, Europe and perhaps even Saudi Arabia.

I wonder what Haaroon would make of that?