Headline Club will introduce an Anne Keegan award | Bleader

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Headline Club will introduce an Anne Keegan award

Posted By on 06.30.11 at 08:30 AM

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Abdon Pallasch was learning journalism at Medill back in the 80s, and one of his professors gave him a story to read that the Tribune had carried on page one in 1975. It was an odd story for the Tribune to display so prominently, because Richie Kaczmarek, the subject of it, had been the night foreman at Schwartz's packinghouse, and there was nothing exceptional about either his life or death, except that at 44 he'd died of a heart attack unfairly young.

But reporter Anne Keegan's assignment had been to write about the death of a common man. She began with the few lines of Kaczmarek's death notice, observed that "none of the passions that filled his life" was listed in them, and for some 2,000 words filled out the picture. Pallasch recalls that his professor called it the "ultimate obit" and used it to show students that "an obit is not about who's the most powerful or influential. It's just about telling the story of a person’s life. As Anne Keegan proved with that story, you can do a compelling, captivating obituary about the night foreman at a sausage factory."

Pallasch, a political reporter for the Sun-Times, is a board member of the Chicago Headline Club. And last Saturday he and everyone else on the board voted unanimously to create an award in honor of Keegan, who died last month. The name of the award remains to be decided, but the names that have been kicked around makes its intent clear: the Anne Keegan Award for Writing on the Common Man, or Giving Voice to the Voiceless, or Covering the Little Guy. The first Keegan Award will be given at the Headline Club's annual Lisagor dinner next spring.

The award had been proposed by Keegan's husband, Leonard Aronson. His letter to outgoing Headline Club president Susan Stevens included the article on Richie Kaczmarek, and he told Stevens by way of background:

She went to the man’s funeral and introduced herself to his family, got their phone numbers and then called later and set up an appointment to meet with his wife and children and brother.

They were confused. “Why would you want to write about Richie?” his wife asked. “He wasn’t anybody special.”

“That’s why,” Anne told her. “That just why.”

This story was immediately recognized as a fascinating and unusual tribute to a common man, a little guy, the kind of guy who never made it into the newspapers, the kind, as you observed, Susan, we’d call families about every night when we were checking out “coroner’s cases” at City News to determine if any of the newly deceased were in any way “newsworthy,” and which our editors would almost always determine were not with their usual curt judgment: “Cheap it out!”...

One last thought, if I may.

Reading the preamble to your organization’s Code of Ethics, I noticed the line that stated, “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

This brought to mind an amusing encounter Anne had at the Tribune which revealed a lot about who she was and why her integrity and credibility were so admired.

Some years ago the Tribune was launching a campaign promoting its featured writers and Anne’s editor ran into her office one day and excitedly told her she’d have to go up to Lake Bluff to have her picture taken interviewing a guy wearing a beanie with a propeller on top who was going to jump off a cliff in an attempt to fly over the lake.

“You gotta be kidding!” she said. “I don’t do stories about men in beanies jumping off cliffs.”

“But you have to,” the editor said. "It’s all set up. The ad agency has an actor out there to meet you. A Tribune photographer will take the picture. The paper will put the photo on all the newspaper boxes and circulation trucks. It’s a big thing!”

“I don’t do men in beanies jumping off cliffs,” Anne repeated. “Maybe that’s what some 24 year old pothead in the Creative Department of an ad agency thinks is sexy, but it’s not. It’s stupid. I’d be embarrassed to see myself in a picture like that..

“But if you don’t do it,” the editor said, playing his trump card, “they’ll give it to somebody else.”

“Fine,” Anne said. “I’m sure they’ll have no problem finding someone who’s willing to do that to get their puss smacked onto the side of a truck. But I’m not.”

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