I rarely have harsh words with editors, but there was this one time.
The story involved a dispute over ownership of a jackpot-winning lottery ticket. I’d spent a long Thursday reporting and interviewing, covering a hearing and writing a story from a convenience store in Winner. A quirky early-May weather system brought freezing rain overnight. In my lightweight, rear-wheel-drive pickup, it took until 3 a.m. to get home to Pierre. Short on sleep, I reached the bureau the next morning anticipating a routine Friday and an early exit.
Maricarrol Kueter had a different plan. Kueter, my editor at the Sioux Falls newspaper, called as I was taking my first sip of coffee.
“I need you to go back to Gregory and put together a Sunday piece on the lottery story,’’ she said. Tired and maybe still tense from the ice-covered roads, I exploded. I really let her have it, the only time I ever did that with Kueter.
She listened quietly. When I stopped, she said, “Be that as it may, I need you to go back to Gregory and put together that Sunday piece.’’
She was so matter-of-fact, so unmoved by my rant, that I broke out laughing. She did, too. When I caught my breath I said she could have at least pretended my outburst had bothered her.
“The day I let a ranting reporter bother me is the day I leave the newsroom,’’ she said. She laughed, but it was true. Reporters didn’t scare her. Neither did editors, publishers, advertisers, politicians, business leaders or anyone else who came in contact with the newspaper and her role as manager of the daily news operation.
Kueter died last Saturday, just 63. She’d been dealing with cancer for several years. It was time, finally, to let go. She did that in a hospice center, surrounded by members of her big, close family and supported by the thoughts, prayers and affection of a host of reporters and editors and photographers. During her career, she was the newspaper version of the sun, a center mass with a gravitational pull that influenced the orbits of a whole bunch of journalists, including me.
She could be testy now and then. She had an eye-roll that spoke volumes about her inability to suffer fools, stuffed shirts and pompous personalities. But she had a big heart, a soft spot for young, eager reporters and a real love for the craziness of a daily paper’s newsroom. She knew what she knew, and she was willing to learn what she didn’t know
When she took over as my immediate supervisor, she told me, “Look, you know more politics than I’ll ever learn, so I’m going to trust you to keep me from making mistakes in our coverage.’’
I said I’d try and added, “But you’re my boss, so I’m going to trust that you won’t ever defer to me instead of your best judgment.’’ Yeah, like there was ever any danger that would happen. She’d listen, but she made the decisions.
We sat together once during a breakfast with Sioux Falls legislators. One of the newspaper’s big bosses nodded off during the questioning. Kueter and I had a real those junior-high moment, stifling giggles until she had to leave the room. When she returned, we couldn’t look at each other the rest of the meeting.
When the Legislature closed pistol permit applications to the public, Kueter directed me and a couple of others to gather and publish all 46,000 apps on file before the closure law took effect. We made it. I pointed out that the apps, good for four years, would start to become obsolete almost immediately. True, she said. “Even so, it was a noble effort, and open government demands noble efforts.’’
One thing that always tickled me about Kueter was how excited she became when I’d file my stories from the State Fair. For all her professional accomplishments and newspaper skills, she remained a small-town girl at heart. She never forgot what South Dakota is all about. Journalism needs more people with such memory.
Kueter was my boss and my friend. She excelled at both roles. I miss her.