Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Remembering Joe Kennedy, the Very Human Columnist

Joe Kennedy
My former colleague Joe Kennedy died Monday at 66 and though the death is not unexpected--he'd been in ill health for years since suffering a stroke--his loss is felt.

Joe was the local daily's metro columnist--a position Dan Casey holds now--for 11 of the 36 years he was at The Times. (Casey wrote about Kennedy's recovery from his stroke here and here.)

"Columnist" was the job Joe always wanted. He was unceremoniously dumped from that position when cuts started coming fast and furiously some and I don't think he ever got over it. Joe was one of the first people offered "voluntary retirement" in September of 2007 when The Times was trying to strip to bare-bones in order to be sold.

At the time, the explanation from Publisher Debbie Meade was this: "Our business is profitable, just not as profitable as we had expected to be this year." All heart.

Joe was not the first veteran to be let go (and "voluntary retirement" in this case was a misnomer; you volunteered or you took a chance of losing your benefits) and he was far from the last. I don't  know that he was the most popular of those sent away, but his column was widely read and appreciated. He wrote about ordinary people--one of them himself--and he wrote with rare candor and sensitivity. When his wife, Sharon, killed herself in 1999, we suffered with him. He wrote of being a single father, of struggling and celebrating. He wrote of success and of failure. After The Times gig was up, his columns appeared in weekly newspaper The Roanoke Star-Sentinel. (Here  and here are columns for that publication.)

Joe was a quiet guy who smiled a lot, frowned silently when he disapproved and rarely made a fuss--though I felt the brunt of his anger at one point. Joe told me about this African-American-owned restaurant he at at frequently, one that served fried fish and "hot smokes." I visited, liked it and wrote a story. I thought he was going to kill me. "That was my goddamn story!" he fumed. He called me a sonofabitch and I don't think he ever got over it. I don't recall I ever wrote about anything he mentioned again.

Joe was a lifelong Orioles fan and a pretty good softball player. He occasionally became vocal about the Birds. When we worked together, the Orioles were good. (Two other friends, Kurt Navratil and Kurt Rheinheimer are also Orioles fans. Never quite got that, but I suspect the three knew each other.)

Joe was an obsessive of the first rank. I recall when he hurt his heel running for long distances (over and over, he hurt it). He tried different expensive shoes, different expensive doctors, different strides and finally had to give it up. So he took up biking. Like "century biking," 100 miles at a time. He was the very picture of physical health, trim and vigorous. I wondered about the obsessions, though.

His writing style when we were both feature writers at The Times always gave me a chuckle. Joe often came back to the office with story notes filling a big, yellow legal pad. He quietly sat at his desk--in a noisy features department--and typed everything he'd noted. All of it.

This was on a typewriter, not a computer, so he was transferring paper to paper. He set about re-arranging the notes and creating some order. Then he went at eliminating quotes and information, tightening and sorting more. Finally, he started writing what he called his "first draft." Joe's the only news guy I ever knew who wrote "drafts." Most of us just typed our stuff and turned it in. When he finally let go of the story, it was like he was giving away one of his kids. He didn't want to part with it.

But he did. Often enough to become a popular writer, one whose byline people anticipated. It is odd that his photo is almost absent from the Internet. I have no idea why.

Joe and I were never friends, but we respected each other. I went to a pig roast at his Craig County farm once and saw a Joe Kennedy I didn't know, one centered on family, healthy, happy and open. I think other people knew that man whether in person or through his writing. He is a guy many called "friend," even if they didn't know him face to face.

Here's what Joe wrote for the Star Sentinel in a column about writing his own obituary:

"The story would not be complete without my confessing that, like many, I thought everyone and everything would last forever, steadily evolving, growing more interesting every day.

"How, in our measly obituaries, can we elders impress on our young how quickly it all goes by, and how irretrievably everything changes?"


  1. He came to mind this morning for some inexplicable reason - well before I even got on Facebook and - just now - saw your tribute to him. There are no coincidences. May his soul and spirit rest in peace and happiness. Wendy

  2. I felt as if I knew him personally when he worked for the Roanoke Times..It saddened my heart when I read about him today, but I want to thank you for what you have shared..I never knew he had a stroke..I often wondered what happened to him...Oh he was a great man..

  3. I think Joe would have liked that piece a lot.

  4. Thanks, Darrell. Hope you're doing well in retirement. Alert me when your book comes out.

  5. I feel like I have experienced his death twice now. Once when he left "The Roanoke Times" and now that he has left this earth. I ALWAYS enjoyed his column and glad I got to tell him a few months ago. Godspeed "A Cuppa Joe" ~

  6. A courageous and forthright piece. Others have referred to Joe's "humanity" and "trials," but you give us the full picture. Joe himself was not one to hide his shortcomings and difficulties, which I admired in him. I suspect that those who have recently spoken about him generally did so because the particulars were already known by him and others close to him, and wanted to contemplate and remember them when they were ready.