No longer a boss himself, World-Herald Managing Editor Dave Kotok was preparing to leave work Thursday afternoon and meet his wife for the Omaha concert by “The Boss.”
But before seeing Bruce Springsteen, he wrote one last line, an email to the staff: “It's been a great ride, thanks to all of you.”
With that, having cleaned out his seventh-floor office, he picked up a box of personal items and called it a career. As he began walking out of the newsroom and into retirement, people spontaneously applauded.
Kotok modestly waved it off, saying with a slight smile: “I had my party.”
Indeed, we had feted longtime reporter and more recently editor C. David Kotok last Saturday night at a farewell party. We teased him, lauded him and poked fun at him.
His last name, it was mentioned, is a palindrome — spelled the same forward and backward. Appropriate, because he worked such long hours that he often caught himself coming and going.
At one point when their three children were young, his wife, Shane, hung his photo at home. He finally noticed it, and she explained: “It's so the kids remember what you look like.”
At our workplace and at yours, people come and go. It's a natural cycle, a kind of circle of life.
For the past four years and four months, Kotok, now 65, oversaw the day-to-day activity of our roughly 150-person print and online news operation. A former political reporter, he timed his departure to follow the 2012 elections.
Executive Editor Mike Reilly, 52, said at the informal buffet dinner last Saturday that he couldn't have asked for a better right hand than Kotok, his former mentor.
“He might be the best combination of newsman and gentleman that I've ever worked with,” Reilly said. “He's exceptional at relating to people and drawing the best out of them.”
Reilly called Kotok our newsroom's “happy warrior,” making work fun for the rest of us. Reporters told how he had supported them. Our publisher, Terry Kroeger, 50, personally paid tribute.
As managing editor, Kotok practiced MBWA — management by walking around. He'd offer a comment or suggestion, stop to kibitz at another staffer's desk, check on photos and then take a call on his frequently ringing phone.
His many sources and contacts called often with story tips. The image of Kotok walking the newsroom while talking on his phone is so fixed in our minds that a mimic at his farewell party drew big laughs simply by walking through the crowd and holding a phone to his ear.
Covering the news is often not fun and games. In 2005, Kotok noted that his journalistic résumé did not include “war correspondent,” so he volunteered at age 58 to go to Iraq. With photographer Jeff Bundy, he embedded for weeks with Nebraska troops.
In one very close call, a very loud IED exploded near the vehicle immediately behind the one Kotok was riding in. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.
One of his most memorable articles came in December 1996 in Washington, D.C., when he interviewed and assembled six U.S. senators or senators-elect at the Capitol — no easy feat — for a photograph by our Kiley Cruse.
All six in that “brotherhood of blood” had served in Vietnam: Bob Kerrey and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska; Max Cleland of Georgia; John Kerry of Massachusetts; John McCain of Arizona; and Chuck Robb of Virginia.
As Kotok wrote: “Most were wounded, one was tortured, all saw the blood of their countrymen spilled.”
Long known for his savvy coverage of politics, Kotok interviewed lots of local and statewide candidates as well as six men who became president: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Kotok also served as urban affairs reporter in a period of Omaha's early 21st-century growth. He told me the other day that it's been gratifying to see Omaha change — not just physically but also attitudinally.
The city celebrates itself now, he said, in a way that it previously didn't.
He was always a helpful colleague in various ways, and not just by mentoring, sharing information or directing coverage. A member of Beth El Synagogue, he for years volunteered to work on Christmas Day.
As an editor, he worked in the newsroom to the last day, taking part in the daily planning meeting, the news huddle.
Now he and Shane, admissions director at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, will have more time to travel, ski and visit grandkids. Kotok plays golf and tennis and intends to spend more time at the gym.
His retirement plan was announced in August, along with the promotion of his successor, Melissa Matczak, 39. She'll be great.
Retirement and making room for the next generations are parts of the natural cycle.
As a contemporary of Kotok's and a year behind him in age, I know it's something we all face. I'm not going anywhere for now, but sometimes I hum the Paul McCartney song “Will you still need me, will you still feed me ... when I'm 64?”
Dave Kotok retired as an editor, but he spent most of his career proudly carrying the title of reporter. He gained respect and admiration for the way he went about his jobs.
As Reilly said: “No story was too big for Dave to handle. No story was too small for Dave to be willing to handle.”
It wasn't quite 4 p.m. Thursday when our happy warrior walked out the door a final time after 32 years at The World-Herald. His work was done, he was headed to see The Boss, and as Kotok wrote, he'd had a great ride.
I watched him. He didn't look back.
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