Remembering Linda Kay's gentle patience

Linda Kay (via Concordia)

Every young journalist’s career will inevitably trip up on that first big mistake.

In my case, the doozy happened in 1995, barely two years after I was out of journalism school. I burned a source by being too hasty to get a story, published in the weekly where I was working, into a metro daily. In the process, I proved a bit insensitive to the traumatic nature of the event.

Yes, I would go on to alienate other people later in the course of doing my job, but this one was the result, not of journalistic necessity, but of impatient ambition to get my byline in the big leagues.

It was thwack-the-back-of-your-head kind of stuff.

This failure tormented me enough that I needed to talk to somebody: Somebody who’d been in the business long enough to impart wisdom; somebody who would be generous in patience, willing to listen to me go on about my rookie insecurities; somebody who could help me fix the damage I’d done, learn from my mistake and get back into the game.

In short, a mentor.

That somebody was Linda Kay.

And so, when I got the email from Concordia University earlier this past week about a memorial for Linda, I had to apologize in spirit to my former teacher and journalism mentor. Linda passed away on October 12 at age 66. After everything she taught me, I had not only missed the lede; I’d missed the story.

According to her obituary in the Montreal Gazette, she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2016; the disease had gone into remission, but had returned this March.

As noted in the Gazette, Linda started at the Paterson News in New Jersey, moving on to the San Diego Evening Tribune where she became the newspaper’s first female sportswriter. She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for best local reporting under deadline in 1979, covering an airplane crash, while she was still in her 20s.

In 1980, she moved to the Chicago Tribune, becoming a columnist and the first female sportswriter that paper had ever hired.

For an aspiring journalist learning his craft at Concordia in the early 1990s, all of that history was the stuff of quiet worship. That Friday-morning feature writing course was our temple, her Brooklyn accent our messenger from the newswriting world we all wanted to enter.

Those Friday-morning memories include plenty of gentle guidance on how to craft a great story, not to mention how to pitch it, and, even better, some tidbits from Linda’s storied career. I can recall her reading from a first-person feature she’d done, reflecting on her early experiences as a woman breaking into sportswriting. She described walking into a locker room, post-game, and hearing a shout from somewhere in the back: “Is there a broad in here?”

But it is her patience I remember the most, a gentle patience that will serve her well in eternity.

When I went on about my struggles, early on, at the weeklies (some of those struggles legitimate, others now clearly seen as trivial), she told me how it reminded her of her start at the Paterson News – an infinitely generous comparison if ever there was one.

Equally generous was her willingness to keep on the phone during those evening calls, or to answer my letters, in the years immediately preceding email.

At such times, she did not so much impart to me some treasure of wisdom from her own vast store, but instead she conversed with me as a friend, until I stumbled upon the answer myself.

This is the mark of a great teacher.

I believe the last time I saw Linda in person was in 1997, at a Montreal bookstore that now exists only in our memories, where she was signing copies of Romantic Days and Nights in Montreal: Intimate Escapes in the Paris of North America.

She encouraged me in my own writing endeavours, words that will never leave me. 

But at the moment I am thinking of another encounter. 

In the first year or two after leaving Concordia, remembering some of the other working journalists who would drop by different classes to speak about the profession to us eager students, I humbly offered to do my part. I dropped by a few times to speak to Linda’s class about the particularities of being a community journalist at a small-town weekly.

After one such talk Linda took me to lunch by way of thanks and expressed amazement that I would take a day off from my job at a weekly in Hawkesbury to drive in and talk to her students: “Why are you doing this?”

As if she had to ask.