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Remembering Don Lee Keith 

Two perspectives on the life of a teacher and writer

I didn't know Don Lee Keith the writer. I knew him as my teacher.

Two years ago, I enrolled in the "Intro to Journalism" class he taught at University of New Orleans. I had no expectations of the course other than it would be a change of pace from stuffy literature survey classes. On the first day, he arrived with coffee and newspaper in hand and took roll. A tall gentleman with a mustache and a shock of white hair, he sat down and tucked his cowboy-booted feet under his chair. He asked everyone to introduce him or herself, and we became acquainted with his "shout-talking."

On the first day of a class, no one usually speaks louder than a whisper. Don Lee would shout at us to speak up. "Do it for God and country!" he yelled, breaking the tension in the class. I would wonder if he were faking deafness in order to break us from our shyness. Timidity, he said, does not make a journalist.

We grew used to Don Lee's peculiarities over the next two semesters. He had no syllabus, no lesson plans; we took sporadic notes from photocopied textbooks. He preferred research and feature stories for homework, saying, "I never met anyone who could pay their light bill writing essays."

Our first assignment was a fake police report from which we would put together a lead for a news story. His self-penned report described how Otis Mandell, a Kiwanis Club conventioneer from Ohio, was arrested on a Friday evening for trespassing into Jackson Square after closing, stripping off his clothing and mounting the famous statue while singing hymns.

Another exercise had the class writing about a woman who stabbed a horse-carriage tour guide with a 9-inch hatpin for giving out wrong information about Truman Capote's birthplace.

Don Lee addressed the students by their surnames and returned every homework assignment with a personalized response, the student's last name in huge capital letters at the top. Sometimes his input would be longer than the actual assignment. Other times he'd spell out his punctuation: "You've got to speak up comma dammit."

He peppered his lectures with anecdotes from his work at Rolling Stone and other magazines and stories about interviewing Tennessee Williams and Blaze Starr. He would talk about them as though they were his lifelong friends. His stories were also about the humility of the work, how he was thrown out of hotel rooms, sent hate mail and even put under FBI surveillance.

He had a professional journalist's eye for perfection. Our "accuracy assignment" involved long hours of research into obscure facts on New Orleans history. I spent many hours trying in vain to locate the second food patent in U.S. history. (I still don't know.) If we couldn't find the answer, we left it blank. One incorrect fact and we would fail the project. "If you don't know for sure, don't put it in. You'll ruin your credibility," he said.

Some of Don Lee's most important lessons came from his "for good measure" bits of advice. "One of the most important things about interviewing is to ask the question that'll most likely tick off the subject at the end ... and to know where the door is," he said. He also instructed that when someone says something interesting, you have to grab onto it. "Journalists wait their whole careers for a really good quote," he said.

Outside of the classroom, I could track him down on campus, sitting underneath a tree, smoking and reading several newspapers. When I felt that I was just pretending to know what I was doing, pulling facts together and calling it "a story," I knew Don Lee could talk. I would call him at home at midnight in the middle of the week, and he'd be awake. He once confided that after 40 years, he still didn't know what he was doing. "Hon, I've been faking it all my life. I'm just good at pretendin'," he said with a wink.

I know a lot of former students who will miss "DLK," as we called him in the newsroom for Driftwood, the campus paper. A lot of us thought that he was biding his time, teaching as a distraction from writing his great masterpiece. We would picture him alone at his computer, puffing furiously away at every Marlboro cigarette, his white hair a messy halo over his head while he agonized over each word. I'll personally remember how he wore suspenders and a belt every day and how he regretted not being able to interview Rasputin or John Wilkes Booth.

I'll also remember the last time I spoke to him, a month before his death. He still sounded full of spark and vigor, still shouting into the phone.

BYLINE: By Ronnie Virgets

Oh Tannenbaum, my Tannenbaum ...

Sometimes your Tree of Life takes a hit, loses a branch that is so close to the main stem, so near to the root, that there is no doubt that something is missing. That was my mother. That was my brother. That was my lover. My Tree will never be the same.

But then there are, too, the tiny branches, and their prunings take place out on the edges. Those little nips that take away the perfect places to hang a lovely ornament when you are decorating.

There would be a memorial service for Don Lee Keith at the chapel of the University of New Orleans. Since 1996, Don Lee had been moderator of the school paper and instructor in journalism, and if he had been half as good teaching about it as he was doing it, he must have been very, very good. He was nominated for a couple of Pulitzers and a Grammy and won a wheelbarrow's worth of awards from the Press Club of New Orleans.

Still, though he loved excellences more than most ever could, he was not the institutional man or the mechanical man. He worked for most of the publications around here and got himself fired from some of them. He knew that indolence was the key to the lockbox of the mind and gave it plenty of respect. And he walked the gangplank of deadlines so many times that he was bound to fall sometimes, and he did.

Yet he was print-hungry till the end. As he explained in the first of his "At Ease" columns that he wrote for The Courier in 1975: "Truth is ... that I've never made a nickel doing anything other than writing. I've found a closeness in words -- and a constancy and a romance too -- that I couldn't find anywhere else. Being a writer, I finally decided, was like getting paid to eat Aunt Jessie's chocolate pie. And besides, it beats the hell out of working."

Don Lee was a native Mississippian, as you could probably tell by talk of Aunt Jessie's pie, and he never lost the love of language that smites so many of his countrymen. He would wonder why English had a word like "inscrutable" but not "scrutable." Most people he truly liked ended up with a countrified nickname like "Earline" or "Booger Faye."

That didn't keep him from knowing New Orleans, a place he came to 40 years ago. The city and Don Lee nourished one another. He once wrote a tribute to Mardi Gras, talking of the pleasure without shame, and it was as good as anything written about Mardi Gras.

So they came to the UNO chapel to hear people say good things about him, and people did. They told stories about him, and the stories added up to the fact that Don Lee was one of those who decide that life is far too big a show to let it play only in rehearsal. It deserves center stage much of the time.

Not to say selfish. His doctor said that once he had lauded something in the paper, but Don Lee had answered that the writer had a cruel streak. But, the doctor persisted, if the article's subject was a jerk, shouldn't he be portrayed as a jerk? "Ah, but there's a way to do this without being cruel." It was important to him that you sought always to find that way

Everyone who came to the lectern spoke of his impetuous kindnesses. Janice Hero told how he would call her and read long passages to her, never losing contact with the memory that words first came to us through the ears.

"It feels like there's so much that I want to tell him still," said another.

Others talked about how he would make kites or cornbread with his own hands. Some had trouble reconciling a man of such restless curiosity with kite-flying, but he may have supplied the answer in one of his columns. "Kites in the air make princes of the little boys who put them there," he wrote.

Arthur Hardy said that Don Lee -- too many drinks, too many Marlboros -- might still be with us if he had taken better care of himself. But he'd never been afraid to trade quality for quantity, and another speaker said to call his life unfinished was to make it sound tragic. "His life was not like that."

Most speakers quoted Don Lee, especially in his aphoristic mode. ("Show me a man who wears diamonds, and I'll show you a man who beats his wife.") But the best description of his personal style may be in his own description of the style of fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

" ... is one of easy enticement, of laying out notions often enough that when it's time for her to start laying out conclusions, they are the obvious ones. She is skillful at this, artful and adept at dropping bread crumbs as she directs the reader toward the gingerbread house and its ready oven, final by nuance."

When the talking was done, everyone went outside the chapel. There were about a dozen balloons in Don Lee's favorite robin's-egg-blue color, and they were released all at once. Like loose kites they climbed together, acolytes of the summer sky, making king's children of the boys and girls who had put them there.

So that's how the tree got pruned this month. A nice branch got cut. A really good place for an ornament, and, without ornaments, what kind of tree do you have?

click to enlarge DAVID RICHMOND
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