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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Anne Keegan

Posted By on 05.19.11 at 05:59 PM

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Anne Keegan, a distinguished Chicago newspaper reporter, has died at home after a long wasting illness of several years that she chose not to acknowledge. Even last December, when she cracked some ribs earlier in the day and her pain was undisguisable, her illness was not allowed to cause Anne and her husband, Leonard Aronson, to cancel their annual Christmas party, a party at which carols were sung, the piano was played, the hired kitchen help sang songs from the old country before departing for the night, and smoking was not restricted to the front porch. Large dogs roamed freely and threatened the roast beef.

Among the generation of Chicago journalists who came of age in the 1970s, Anne was the purest. The world to her was a feast she had no intention of starving at, but her ethic was simple: the story enters you but you do not enter the story. That principle was sacred: whatever you went through can be told over a scotch at Riccardo's.

In her years as a Tribune news columnist in the 80s Anne no doubt exasperated her editors because she had no intention of creating a persona — or as we'd say these days, monetizing herself. Modesty forbade. Besides, a persona is a facsimile of a personality, both false and a nuisance, and about Anne there was never anything the slightest bit inauthentic. Eventually the column ended and she wrote long, fine feature stories on people she believed deserved the attention. To her Tribune friends she embodied the paper's soul; but those friends didn't run the paper, and in 1997, feeling shunted aside, she resigned. She'd gone all over the world for the Tribune and risked her life for it, and when it turned on her I'm not sure she ever entirely recovered from the pain and anger.

Four years ago Anne and Leonard self-published a book she'd written about one of her best friends, Mike Cronin, a cop. Anne went on night patrols with Cronin in some of the toughest parts of the city, but her text never acknowledges this. Writing about her book, On the Street Doing Life, in the Reader, I asked her the reason for her modesty. She explained:

"I made no judgments on anyone. None. Zero. Nor did I say, 'I stood there, and gee whiz, I'm so scared.' And 'Gee whiz, I felt so sorry for that lady, and I cried when she said, "I don't want to be arrested."' I'm not a Gen Xer boring everybody with what I think. I wasn't part of the show."

She remembered her column-writing days. "I never wrote about myself. They [her Tribune editors] may have decided I didn't write enough silly stuff about my kids' diapers. Or about my twins. Or my psychiatrist. Or how I found a coyote in my yard. I may have led a very interesting life, but there are people whose stories are far more fascinating than mine. When I went to Thailand and wrote about the Cambodian refugees did I write, 'I stood there and watched them crawl across the border'? Oh, please! I wrote about the nurses who picked them up. You don't say, 'Oh, I stood there.' You write about Lisa the nurse from Skokie holding a little boy laden with malaria. My point is, I don't want to bore people with me. Cronin's much more interesting."

It is unimaginable to think of Anne tweeting the world to let it know about the wonderful story she just wrote. It is less the technology of social media that divides generations than it is the values the technology inculcates. Anne embodied values that on a gloomy day like this one I fear could die with her. Or with her generation.

I wrote about Keegan one other time, back in 1975, when Len and I co-edited the Chicago Journalism Review. It was a parody of a Tribune piece she'd written on Korczak Ziółkowski. the mad dreamer carving the Crazy Horse Memorial out of a mountain in South Dakota. She was a sucker for mad dreamers if they were actually out there chasing the dream.

By Anne Heman

SITTING BULL, Wyo.—The wind blows hard across the high west face of Ignatz Pakalowski's mountain.

It catches the mournful sigh of Ignatz Pakalowski, standing tall on his mountain, and flings it down below the tree line to the dingy town that is Sitting Bull. Ignatz Pakalowski is not actually standing tall at the moment. He has just been kneed in the balls.

"You must be one of them liberated women from the big city," says Ignatz Pakalowski, trying to straighten up.

And then Ignatz Pakalowski bellows. The cry of this huge man bounces off white distant peaks and echoes back to Pakalowski's mountain. Ignatz Pakalowski takes off his big black boot and rubs snow against his swelling shin.

"Don't be an asshole," says Ignatz Pakalowski's visitor. "Tell me about your goddamned mountain."

And on it went.

Anne told me once that a lot of the men she knew in Chicago newspaper circles were wounded ducks, me included. She was probably right. Actually, the evidence was overwhelming. Yet she thought us worthwhile anyway, and for that among other reasons we were nuts about her. Her book on Cronin was followed by a children's book, A Cat for Claire, and her last project was to put together a book for her grandchildren of wonderful writing she'd been lucky enough to read but they might miss out on if she didn't step in. Some of it was inspirational. Some of it was tragic. Some of it had me grinning and bursting into oratory:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold...

Anne was like a wide-eyed, strutting Robert Service poem. A tonic.

UPDATE: A reader called my attention to this Tribune story Anne wrote, "the exception that proves the rule" that she kept herself out of her stories. Here she had no choice. And she was very proud of her mother.

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