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WOSTER: Longtime AP reporter Joe Kafka deserves happy retirement

Terry Woster

When I went back to covering the South Dakota Legislature for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in 1987, I moved into a Pierre office building that also housed the Pierre bureau of the Associated Press.

It was my good fortune to be thrown into almost daily contact with Joe Kafka, who along with Chet Brokaw, worked for what both of them would tell you is the "oldest, largest and best wire service in the world.''

Well, I worked for AP for nine years, and I wasn't about to argue. In fact, sometimes when one of them would say that, I'd quote Mark Twain, who said, "There are only two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe -- only two -- the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press on earth.''

I'm not saying every AP reporter is great, but the ones I knew were gifted at digging out facts and, often on the fly, organizing those facts into a readable, understandable news story that almost invariably was as objectively written and presented as is humanly possible.

Joe Kafka could do that with the best. He was a good reporter and a gifted editor. He asked telling questions, and he could spot a hole in a news story from across the block. If you asked him, he'd say he wasn't the best writer in the world. Maybe he wasn't, although he had a knack of finding a lead sentence that was simple but descriptive and that encouraged the reader to move to the next paragraph and the one after that. Perhaps that was his radio training. In radio, a writer needs to be brief and clear and the first half a dozen words are about all the writer gets to hook the listener.

Kafka started in radio in Nebraska, wrangled a job with AP Radio in Washington, D.C., eventually decided he wanted to raise his son in a simpler world and accepted the position in Pierre. When I first met him, I was unsure whether he liked me or not. He can seem gruff at first. For as long as I've known him, he's had a few days' growth of beard (long before Hollywood decided that was fashionable) and the shortest buzz cut hair you'll find outside of boot camp. Sometimes in the morning, he can be a bit, well, snarly.

The gruff appearance hides a warm-hearted guy. I got to know that guy over a couple of decades of working in the same place. We usually ended up being the last ones out of the Capitol press room on Friday nights during session. I'd be writing weekend and Monday copy, and Joe would be cranking out one story after another on the day's action. He could take notes all day, then stand at his keyboard and knock out 300-350 word stories for hours. During those marathon evenings, we'd take a couple of minutes now and then to talk life, or shop, or politics, or just to marvel at the fortune of being able to do that kind of work and receive a paycheck, too. Then we'd turn back to the keyboards.

He could be aggressive in interviews, but he had infinite patience with cub reporters or interns who were trying to learn to report and write. Others (me) might get frustrated in those situations. Joe stayed calm, repeated what he'd said twice before, explained the rule of grammar or the AP Stylebook entry and encouraged the kid to give it another try.

Joe left AP at the end of 2008 to be press secretary for Gov. Mike Rounds. He stayed on when Gov. Dennis Daugaard took office in 2011. A week ago, he hung it up. He and Gina decided to retire and grow old together. I wish them a bunch of years to do that.

The AP and its readers were well-served by Joe Kafka. In its turn, state government was well-served, both by his work as press secretary and by the example he set for and the encouragement he gave to the public information officers.

For the past quarter-century, I've been his colleague and his friend. You could say I've been well-served, too.