As Michael Kelly began writing a column for The World-Herald in late 1981, he asked for advice from then-Managing Editor Bob Pearman. Pearman replied with the brevity of an editor, simply telling Kelly: “Be interesting.”
That advice has become Kelly's calling card over three glorious decades, the first as our lead columnist in sports and the past two as our lead metropolitan news columnist.
Today marks the debuts of two more news columnists, as Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen join with Kelly to bring you more can't-miss stories of people from our community and region.
Their columns will come from side streets and town halls, back fences and store aisles. Their mission is to give readers a genuine sense of place in metropolitan Omaha, in Nebraska and Iowa. They will go out, knock on doors, climb stairs and find gems — discovering touchstones in the remarkable stories of our neighbors and friends.
Today is a good example of what you have to look forward to:
Grace's column on the front page is about a decorated Bellevue patrol officer, Suzanne Kessler, who writes poetry about victims of violence. Grace calls the victims Kessler's “ghosts. And the ghosts are everywhere.”
Hansen's column on the Living section cover is on the grande dame of the Old Market, real estate agent Bonnie Leonhardt, whom Hansen describes as “a one-woman welcoming committee. A human confetti explosion.”
Kelly's column on the Midlands section cover features 13-year-old Leon Gordon Jr., “a newly minted teenager from a tough Omaha neighborhood” who earned a trip to see Monday's presidential inauguration.
As you might guess from today's edition, we are changing our traditional format of nearly always running our news columnists on our Midlands cover. Going forward, on any given day, any one of our three metro news columnists might be found on the front page, on the Midlands cover or on the Living cover.
The three columnists now share a new blog on Omaha.com called From the Notebook, a name familiar to fans of Kelly's column. The best of the blog also will appear in Saturday printed editions.
Our new format will give us more flexibility to tell timely stories, both in print and online. It also allows us to more often accompany our columns with great photography from our award-winning photo staff.
Hansen and Grace have earned this coveted promotion because, like Kelly, they are among our very best reporters and storytellers.
Grace, 39, has covered topics such as City Hall and social services in her 14 years at the paper. She's tagged along with would-be copper thieves and chased after a slumlord, reported on earthquake relief from Haiti, on hurricane rescue from New Orleans and suicidal teens in Nebraska.
The Omaha native graduated from Marian High School and Marquette University. Before journalism, she learned about the world as a waitress, dormitory cleaner, telemarketer, Hy-Vee checker and high school English teacher in south Louisiana. She and her husband, Morgan Helton, a teacher at Creighton Prep, have three young children.
Hansen, 32, has covered the military and higher education since coming to The World-Herald in 2006 from the Lincoln Journal Star. His stories on post-Sept. 11 warfare have included spy missions flown from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska Marines stationed in the worst places in Afghanistan, and a high school teacher struggling to come to grips with what happened in Iraq. He's also written about Nebraskans' hatred for license plate designs, and a fifth-grader named Max busted for organizing an NCAA Tournament pool.
Hansen grew up on a corn, soybean and cattle farm in Red Cloud, Neb., graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is married to World-Herald food writer Sarah Baker Hansen.
Kelly, 64, began his career at The World-Herald after graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1970.
He covered police and then the courthouse and City Hall before becoming sports editor and sports columnist in 1981.
As a columnist, Kelly is especially gifted at making the personal story a universal one. He once wrote about a young man (born the day before Kelly) who received a low draft lottery number, joined the Army and was killed in Vietnam. When violent crime struck his own family, his columns about his then-24-year-old daughter's improbable survival and of her speaking out on behalf of victims of sexual violence drew national attention. And he brought the story full circle last summer when she married a network news producer who had covered her saga.
He and wife Barbara have three other children and eight grandchildren.
Metro news columnists must try ever harder to distinguish themselves through good writing, good reporting, good thinking.
It is especially important in today's argument-saturated culture, an era when anyone can blog and opinion is passed off as information.
The task isn't easy. But Kelly, Hansen and Grace are up to it.
Each brings readers a unique voice, set of experiences and way of looking at the world around them.
They share a passion for people, a wide-ranging curiosity and compulsion to discover and share.
They are elegant writers and first-rate reporters. And, most importantly, they keep listening until they understand the heart of a story.
They will be interesting.
Contact the executive editor: 402-444-1277, firstname.lastname@example.org