Monday, January 18, 2010

A Full Life

Every morning when I read the paper, I scan the obituaries. We take the state paper, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, they have listings for the whole state. I can't tell you how many times I have come across the obituary of someone who has led an extraordinary life that bears repeating. Since Mom is now in a nursing home I've been privileged to meet some of those extraordinary people. I used to do a newsletter for the facility and we had a "Resident of the Month" column that allowed us a glimpse of someones' life. It amazed me when I interviewed the person or more often the family, their great accomplishments came out. Nursing homes across the country house former artists, people who worked and excelled in industry, teachers who made a difference in the lives of children...and Moms and Dads who have outlived their children. Sad but true.

The following obituary was in last year's paper and it chronicles an amazing life. Please take the time to read this and if you know someone who's in a facility, go visit them soon and let them share a little of their life with you!

Al Kuettner, who covered the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a UPI reporter and then returned a generation later to find the South had made major progress in race relations, died Saturday at the age of 95. Kuettner died at Concordia Care Center in Bella Vista, Ark. He had been in declining health over the past few months. "He was one of the best reporters of his time, covering the civil rights movement day in and day out, always with an eye toward covering the story thoroughly and accurately, without bias or distortion," said Tobin Beck, former executive editor of United Press International. Beck edited Kuettner's book March to a Promised Land , which was published in 2006 by Capital Books.
Alfred G. Kuettner was born in Atlanta on Oct. 17, 1913, and grew up in a culture sharply separated by race. He attended Georgia State College - earning tuition money by working aboard freighters steaming to Africa. His ambition was to be a journalist, and after working at a weekly newspaper in Decatur, Ga., Kuettner was hired in 1942 by the wire service United Press, which later became United Press International. A decade later he was assigned to cover the budding civil rights movement full time, based in Atlanta. He first met a young Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 at the start of the bus boycott prompted by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white rider.
John Herbers, bureau manager for UPI in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1950s and early 1960s before becoming a civil rights reporter for The New York Times , recalled Kuettner's courage in covering what initially was an unpopular story in the South.
"I think he was one of the most remarkable journalists of his period," Herbers said Sunday by phone from his home in Bethesda, Md. "He wasn't in it for himself, his motives and accomplishments were based on his love of the profession and how important that he felt news of the civil rights movement was to society.
"When the civil rights movement began, not many journalists were covering the story in the South. Al was one of the early acquaintances of Martin Luther King. At the time the civil rights movement was not particularly popular. Al was a pioneer in his coverage of the story. Most station owners and news agencies did not want the story covered, because they were hoping things would go back to the way they had been. It took a great deal of originality and courage to report on the civil rights movement at that time."
Kuettner also had poise and savvy in potentially dangerous situations. When covering the integration of Birmingham's West End High School in 1963, Kuettner needed to find a phone to dictate his stories to UPI's Atlanta regional bureau. He arranged to rent a phone at a house across the street from the school for $5 a day. When the woman of the house upped the price to $100, Kuettner asked a favor of the local phone company, which installed a private line for him on a pole outside the school. But a hostile crowd shouted him down whenever he tried to use the line. Kuettner responded by asking the hecklers to line up and dictate their comments to the surprised UPI Atlanta desk editor on the other end. They did, and Kuettner's phone was not bothered again.
One highlight of Kuettner's career was covering Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in August 1963 during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Kuettner recalled in his book that King's speech had been fairly unremarkable until King launched into the "dream" section, which had not been included in the advance text given to reporters. Kuettner was covering the rally with veteran UPI White House reporter Merriman Smith, and both scrambled to keep up with King's changes to the expected speech.
"We were writing furiously, trying to get down his words, because there were no notes, no text for this one - only King at his best," Kuettner wrote later. "We had no time to look at the crowd's reaction, but it was unnecessary. The reaction could be heard and felt like something visceral, now sweeping up almost in a sob from the depths of many hearts, making the long trek to Washington at last worthwhile for them."
Kuettner was a stickler for accuracy. On June 6, 1966, when another wire service reported that an assassin had killed James Meredith, who had broken the color barrier by enrolling at the University of Mississippi, Kuettner was working in his garden in Atlanta.
Kuettner got in his car, raced to his office, and called the hospital switchboard. Using what he hoped was an authoritative tone, Kuettner told the operator to put him through to surgery. When a male voice answered, Kuettner asked the condition of Meredith. "He is very much alive," the man responded. "I should know. I am the doctor working on him."
Kuettner was known for keeping calm even in the most stressful situations.
"What I remember about Al most was this calm demeanor even amid an anti-civil rights demonstration where a surging crowd would have rattled most," said Joe Chapman, a former UPI photographer who often covered events with Kuettner. "He was relaxed talking to anyone, from Martin Luther King to white extremists such as J.B. Stoner."
More than 20 years after Kuettner's reporting had taken him to Little Rock, Ark.; Oxford, Miss.; Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Ala.; Washington; New York City and dozens of places small and large, he went back to see what changes the movement had brought. He began work on a manuscript that would be completed another 20 years later.
"I realized that towns like Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, and many others have begun to outlive the shadows of race reaction," he wrote. "There has developed, to say the least, acceptance of federal determination to protect the ability of citizens and their families to receive equalized education unhampered by restrictive race rules, to attend public events based on ability to pay a ticket price, and to live in peace "from sea to shining sea."
He went on: "I thought of the legacy left by those black and white who in spite of the bigots were determined that the races could live together in a country where men and women accepted and respected those of all colors who crossed their paths in peace."
When Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, Kuettner commented that he had not expected to see that milestone passed in his lifetime.
"He said 'we passed a phase. There's still a long way to go, but the foundation isn't sand anymore, it's in concrete,'" recalled his assistant, Stacy Gibson. Before the decline of his health in recent months, Kuettner had been planning to research and write a second book about race relations in the United States.
After nearly two decades covering civil rights for UPI, Kuettner left the wire service in 1968 to become senior editor at Pace Magazine in Los Angeles. The magazine geared toward teenage and young adult readers folded after two years. In 1970 Kuettner became education editor at the Cincinnati Post and Times-Star, and in 1972 he became public information officer for the University of Cincinnati, helping with the school's transition from a private to a public institution. In 1979, Al and his wife Helen purchased the Gravette, Ark., News Herald , but they retired several years later when Helen's health began to fail. Helen, his childhood sweetheart whom Al had married in 1953, died in 2007 at the age of 86.
Kuettner is survived by son Christopher and wife Christina of Morrow, Ohio, and their family of Ben, Michelle, Samantha and April. Christopher said his father tried to get into the military during World War II but was rejected because of a heart murmur, and so went to work for United Press in what ironically was a high-stress job.
"I think what he went through was as stressful as combat," Christopher said. He said in the early 1950s Kuettner went to South America to report on revolutions where he was close to gunfire. "I asked him what made him the most afraid, and he said it was flying on a DC-3 through mountain passes in the Andes. If the plane got lost in the clouds that would be it, you'd be dead."
Christopher remembers his dad as the ultimate professional journalist. "To my mind, he was kind of like James Bond with a pen and not a gun," Christopher said. "He was the consummate journalist - get three sources to confirm your information, and do your homework."

*Photo courtesy of


  1. Thank you for sharing his life with us. There are those among us who make ripples, he made waves.

  2. What an incredible life story of an exceptional man living during an exceptional time in our country. Thank you for sharing it.

    The Raggedy Girl

  3. Very very interesting post!My students studied M.L.King and his peaceful civil right movement this schoolyear. I also spoke them about the American civil war and the abolition of slavery in those years.

  4. A very Brave and courageous man has gone to his rest . I am sure he will have many crowns...

  5. amazing life. wouldn't you have loved to pick his brain?! thanks for sharing!

  6. What an interesting and full life he lived. I'm going to go look at the Demozette online to see if there was a picture with the article.

  7. What an amazing man. Thank you for sharing his story. ♥ Diane

  8. Feedsack FantasyMonday, June 01, 2009

    This story about the life of a wonderful man is moving ... I can recall all the events described that he has covered. IF only the school systems actually taught history as it truly was, rather than camoflaging & altering it ... what a wonderful world this would be. It is men like this that make documentation of our true history to be etched forever in mankind. TYSM for sharing this article ... TTFN ~ Marydon

  9. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story in such a beautiful way.

    These places which were the hotbed of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s are places I once lived, and now, I live here again after a number of years away: Anniston, Alabama, Birmingham, Alabama and Oxford, Mississippi.

    I remember all these events very vividly as they were unfolding, and as a kid, being very confused by the whole thing. I have written about some of it in my book about my mother which will be available before too long.

    I spent the the last five years of her life in nursing facilities, day in and day out, making sure they didn't kill her. Every one of the old people I met there had a story. They all eagerly wanted to tell it, maybe to reassure themselves that they once had a life beyond the "warehouse" bed they now occupied.

    I met some real characters, and I will never forget them.


  10. To have a life that makes a difference that's my dream. Wonderful post!

  11. What an impressive man that definitely left his mark on the world!

  12. I'm a new reader and really enjoy your blog. I can only imagine that upon reaching heaven, Jesus said to Mr. Kuettner, "Well done, good and faithful servant." Thank you for sharing this and giving us a glimpse into the life of this extraordinary man.

  13. It is amazing to imagine how many countless lives full of interesting experiences and wisdom have been lived. My 95 year old grandmother just LOVES to regale us with tales of her life and we LOVE to listen!

  14. How very interesting about Al Kuettner's life.

    I often wonder how things would be now had Martin L. King lived.

  15. Joycee, thank you for sharing such a wonderful story of this awesome man. I think the people should be thankful to have him there... I am truely touched by his life story!


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