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‘just a guy IN OMAHA’ Mike Kelly made a remarkable career out of telling other people’s stories through his 48 years as a reporter, editor and columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. His advice to young journalists, “Get out in your community to where the stories are,” could also be seen as a reflection of his work as an emcee for various nonprofit fundraisers and community events. LIKE ANY TYPICAL AMERICAN BOY GROWING UP IN THE 1950S, MIKE KELLY WAS A FAN OF TV WESTERNS. ONE HE PARTICULARLY LIKED, TOMBSTONE TERRITORY, CHRONICLED THE UPS AND DOWNS OF SHERIFF CLAY HOLLISTER’S EFFORTS TO KEEP ORDER IN TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA, “THE TOWN TOO TOUGH TO DIE.” Unlike a typical boy, a detail that caught Kelly’s attention was the narration at the beginning of each episode proclaiming the story to be “an actual account from the pages of my newspaper.”

University of Cincinnati, which is a great school and has a lot of students from out of town, but it was a statesupported school and did not have a journalism major.”

“It’s important to always be polite,” he explains; it’s not just a reflection on his community newspaper, but the right way to be. And for all the times he’s been recognized, there are lessons in humility that make him Kelly was a new graduate in 1970 and hoping to make chuckle. For instance, even after decades at the Omaha his college girlfriend, Barb, his wife. (The couple did World-Herald, Kelly would sometimes receive mail marry the next year and raised their four children in meant for former executive editor Mike Reilly. And he’s Omaha. They now have 10 grandchildren.) She had not even the only Mike Kelly in the field. The Atlantic immediately started a teaching job in Cincinnati; Kelly Media Company’s prestigious Michael Kelly Award for applied for an entry-level position at the Omaha World- journalism? Not him. It’s named for a nationally known Herald. reporter and editor who lost his life while covering the invasion of Iraq. A high-profile newspaper editor “My primary motivation? Getting a job!” he said. “I was noticed Kelly’s nametag at a meeting of American very lucky to get a job fresh out of college and I Society of Newspaper Editors in 2003, where Kelly was presume they must have seen something there, but, receiving an award for column writing. “Instead of honestly, I didn’t know what to do at first.” saying, ‘Hi, how do you do? I’m so and so’ or ‘Congratulations’ or whatever, he just looked at me and The writing Kelly produced in the early days of his says, ‘I knew him.’” career was markedly different from the tight, insightful prose his later readership enjoyed. As popular as his column proved to be, Kelly’s body of

“A big part of the show was the newspaper called the Tombstone Epitaph. I didn’t know what an epitaph meant, I thought it was like gazette or something, another name for newspaper,” Kelly recalled. So when he was 10 years old and his parents gave him a children’s printing set to play with, “I very proudly made my little family newspaper and used the little stamps for the headline. I took it in to show to my mom and the name of the newspaper was the Kelly Epitaph. “I wasn’t very good at the beginning. I’m not being falsely modest; I really wasn’t,” he said. She burst out laughing.” Despite his mother’s amused reaction, the Epitaph hardly marked the end of Kelly’s interest in journalism. 60 years later, Kelly has exited a 48-year journalism career with his official retirement from the Omaha World-Herald on September 28.

The truth about English He’s proud of his broad reporting experience: police beat, courts, county government, City Hall, “a lot of news reporting and feature writing.” In 1981, he became a sports editor and columnist, a role he filled for a decade. At his request, Kelly “came back to the news side” in 1991 and penned an award-winning column three times a week until his last days at the newspaper.

Mere self-awareness wasn’t good enough for Kelly. Although his patient editors offered guidance and support, he was determined to improve his skills and find his voice as a writer.

work wasn’t devoid of controversy. “I got booed a couple times in public when I was in sports, because I didn’t toe the Husker line on something,” he said. After writing a column about a Catholic priest who left his vocation to marry late in life and voiced regret about not having a family, “I was publicly rebuked by a past archbishop of Omaha: ‘Mike Kelly is supposed to be a Catholic.’”

“When I realized I didn’t know very much, I started buying every book I could get my hands on about Other people’s stories writing and reporting,” he said. “You can get better As a columnist, he said, Kelly was more comfortable when you apply yourself and work at it, and I was really telling other people’s stories. interested in becoming a good writer.”

One book, The Truth about English by Robert C. Pinckert, “In recent years I think it’s pretty true that I haven’t gotten into hard-hitting opinions,” he said. “I’m not that provided an especially valuable nugget of wisdom. impressed with my opinions, anyway; I’m happy to write the kinds of stories that I have done.” “(Pinckert) said, ‘The master trick that separates pros from amateurs’—he was referring to writing—‘is arranging a sentence for emphasis,’” Kelly said. “If there For the most part, his style was to keep himself out of In contrast, the start of his career was somewhat the copy. tenuous, Kelly said. But it turned out far better than he is a hallmark to my writing style, then that is it.” imagined. “If I could go back to the beginning and look Just a guy in Omaha “I feel strongly about that. There are times, if there is a at it in the reverse and say to my younger self, ‘Okay, good reason to insert yourself, to do it. But otherwise, here’s what your career is going to be,’ he’d say, ‘No way!’ A photo of Kelly ran with his column, so he became accustomed to occasionally getting recognized in public. in columns where you say ‘I said this’ and ‘I did that’— Kelly said. Although his parents had once published a I don’t like the first-person singular.” community newspaper and he grew up in a household He insists he’s “just a guy in Omaha” who doesn’t see himself as a celebrity even on a local level. “If I am, it’s that subscribed to multiple dailies and discussed the There were some notable exceptions. In 2002, because I’ve been around so long. I’ve done a lot of news, Kelly never even attended journalism school. beginning with a column headed “A plea for more different things.” openness on rape,” Kelly told a very personal story. “There were eight kids and I didn’t want to be any more The first line was, “You don’t have to read between the of a burden than I already was on my parents When he is recognized, Kelly is conscientious about lines and wonder: my daughter was raped.” financially,” he said. “I went to the hometown treating people with courtesy and respect.


mmaGazine •

DeCemBeR 2018

metroMAGAZINE’s DECEMBER 2018 Issue  

metroMAGAZINE presents our DECEMBER 2018 issue online now! metroMAGAZINE is published quarterly by ALH Publications, serving the Omaha/Linco...

metroMAGAZINE’s DECEMBER 2018 Issue  

metroMAGAZINE presents our DECEMBER 2018 issue online now! metroMAGAZINE is published quarterly by ALH Publications, serving the Omaha/Linco...