Beverly Kees truly was one of a kind, both as a journalist and as a person. Her sharp wit, gracious manner and dedication to the highest ideals of journalism made her a woman ahead of her times, yet ready for all seasons and all settings.
Beverly died Dec. 10 as she entered a crosswalk on a busy San Francisco street while walking a neighbor’s dog. She was struck by a tractor-trailer making a turn into the crosswalk and died on the scene. Her sudden death spurred an outpouring of warm memories posted by journalists and friends on Legacy.com.
As a journalist, Beverly was a leader in the first wave of women to move into top editing posts. She was the first woman to edit the Daily Minnesotan before graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1963, when women were not allowed in Sigma Delta Chi. Later in the 1960s she launched the Taste and Variety sections for Cowles’ Minneapolis Star, and in the 1970s, the Food section and Thursday, a weekly feature insert, for the Minneapolis Tribune. By the end of that decade she’d reached the top for most women journalists of the era: launching and editing soft news sections.
But Beverly was just getting started. As cracks appeared in newsroom glass ceilings, newspapers began looking for women who could lead both men and women. First Knight Ridder and then McClatchy found the best in Beverly, the first woman to hold a top editing post in Knight Ridder when she became executive editor of the Grand Forks Herald in 1981. She went on to edit the Gary Post-Tribune and then McClatchy’s Fresno Bee into the 1990s. Through her solid news judgment, grace and poise she showed that editors can handle hard news without becoming hardnosed toward staffers and the public.
Beverly shattered many glass ceilings in her career, showing that the best man for the job is often a woman. She opened newsroom doors for all groups once left outside. Always personable and approachable, Beverly counseled many who followed her into journalism, both as students and professionals.
In the early 1990s, she sensed tightening budgetary pressures on the newsroom as the bottom line became more important to newspaper owners. She realized she could best advance journalism by investing her talents in people, not profits. This took her in autumn 1993 to The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, where she co-authored an authoritative report on coverage on politics.
By the time the report was completed in spring 1994, Beverly had transplanted her base to the San Francisco Bay area. She joined the new Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center in Oakland. Her title: program director. Her assignment: develop, produce, promote and publicize programs and reports on the First Amendment and journalism that would have an impact on Northern California and beyond.
It was a match made in heaven. Her energy, ideas, enthusiasm and contacts were the key to making the center a crossroads for students, professors, professionals and the public. Her Freedom Forum programs in Oakland and, beginning in 1997, San Francisco were engaging, enlightening and enabling for those who cared about free expression and journalism. She attracted and booked an impressive array of speakers, produced programs and publications that were both provocative and thought-provoking, and convened important meetings of people interested in news at all levels. Whether running summer programs for Chips Quinn Scholar newspaper interns or convening national meetings of newsroom training editors, Beverly always hit the right notes.
I never really knew how she got so much done so well and with so much enthusiasm. So I asked her how she was able to book big name journalists and public figures such as Walter Cronkite without paying the usual speaking fees. With a smile she answered, “I just call and ask if they believe in free speech. When they say ’Yes,’ I say, ’Want to give one?’ ”
Although The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center closed four years ago, Beverly continued to advance journalism. At a point when most with her accomplishments would be slowing down, Bev ramped up, leading Northern California’s SPJ chapter, editing reports for journalism organizations, staying involved with newsroom training programs and teaching future journalists at San Francisco State University. At every point she met some great person, came up with another fantastic idea or looked for ways to help others.
For me, the best memory is the personal motto she learned as a Girl Scout: “Always leave your campsite better than you found it.” Through the positive energy in the strength of her voice, the warmth of her smile, and the twinkle in her eyes, Beverly left journalists and journalism much better than she found us.
As one way of making journalism’s campfire even better, the Kees family and Sigma Delta Chi Foundation have established the Beverly Kees Fund for Journalism. The fund will assist initiatives close to Beverly’s priorities: newsroom training, journalism education, freedom of information, diversity and programs in San Francisco and Minnesota.
Tax deductible contributions designated for the Beverly Kees Fund for Journalism may be made payable to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and sent to:
The Beverly Kees Fund for Journalism
c/o Sigma Delta Chi Foundation
3909 N. Meridian Street
Indianapolis, IN 46208
Longtime SPJ member Félix F. Gutiérrez is a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and former Senior Vice President and Executive Director of The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center.