The news about Sen. Robert C. Byrd's death early Monday morning quickly spread out of West Virginia and into the main stream media. But it was another proud West Virginian who died Monday that meant more to me personally than losing the longest serving senator in United States history.
Bob Kelly, the managing editor of the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail, died yesterday while rehabilitating from a brief illness in his hometown of Parkersburg, W.Va.
BK -- as most of us in the Daily Mail newsroom called him -- was more than just a boss with an ornery personality; he was a mentor who made me a better reporter and writer. That doesn't mean it was ever easy with Bob. He would poke and prod and force you to ask the next tough question and/or rewrite your copy to adequately immerse readers in the story. I used to hate when my phone rang on deadline because I always knew it was him sitting in his office and spying on my story moments after I tapped it onto the computer screen.
"Heeeeeey, Miiiiiike," he would say in his slow West Virginia drawl. "Did you ask (insert random name here) about (insert random question here)?"
"Well, no, Bob," I usually stuttered in response. "I was gonna..."
"Well, why don't you do that, OK?" he demanded.
"But, Bob..." I started again.
And that was that. If I still didn't do the job right, he would scold me that I could do better. "Details, Mike," he would often say. "Details." But damn if he wasn't right every time. In the end, the story would be better because of the followup calls he would push me to make and the revisions I would begrudgingly insert. Those journalistic virtues have stuck with me ever since.
That was the way it went with the entire Daily Mail crew. From the editor-in-chief who hired me (Nanya Friend) to my immediate editor who offered both a carrot and a stick with his supervision (Brad McElhinny) I would gladly have run through a brick wall for every one of them.
But BK just pestered us to do better. Although his ornery personality drove us nuts, he also made us laugh with his sometimes bizarre rituals. After suffering from leg problems in 2005, he walked around the newsroom with a fish slipper on one foot to soothe the pain. Other times, he offered me encouragement when I faced difficult problems.
Less than a year on the job, I wrote a story about a local motorcycle builder who killed his wife and himself in front of their two children. I felt sick after receiving several nasty e-mails and phone calls about my story. But there was Bob Kelly to crack a lighthearted joke to pick up me and my coworkers from a sad situation. He added perspective to the ordeal that helped me return to work the next day.
He was a great newsman.
In the end, the media will pay more attention to Sen. Byrd's death than to the passing of BK. But the most influential West Virginian I have ever known is Bob Kelly. My thoughts are with Bob's family and the Daily Mail staff.
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