Remembering Rachael Kamuf

This column is being written in the most meticulous manner. Every punctuation mark will be appropriate and essential. The syntax will be accessible and understated. Each fact will be checked and rechecked for accuracy. Rachael Kamuf would have wanted it that way. No, Rachael would have demanded it if she were here, which, tragically, she is not.

Rachael Kamuf, former LEO managing editor, friend, and tireless protector of a vital free press and the highest journalistic standards, died suddenly last week at the age of 62. Her passing ended a career that those of us who knew her might suggest was flawless. As a reporter, writer, editor and publication manager, she seemed to never make a mistake.

I certainly didn’t make a mistake when I hired Rachael as managing editor of LEO in 2000, shortly after I had turned over the editor’s role to Cary Stemle. Rachael and I had served together on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists, one of the most important activities of her life. SPJ’s mission is to protect the free flow of information in our democracy through defense of the First Amendment and to promote the highest ethics among journalists. Rachael did that not just through her work for SPJ, but even more through her work for the Associated Press, Business First of Louisville, LEO, and even the Kentucky Farm Bureau, whose publications she managed.

My only regret involving Rachael’s tenure at LEO was that I didn’t renege on my agreement that she would not have to write again. When we discussed her potential employment, she said she was simply tired of reporting, which was her best skill, and she refused a column, because she had spent a professional lifetime suppressing her strong opinions and wasn’t comfortable airing them.

But while LEO missed out on much of her wisdom, observation powers and humor, the publication benefited immeasurably from her ability to create a powerful and credible news source. Like a great point guard, Rachael made everyone around her better; she raised our game.

It showed the first time she metaphorically took the court. Her first issue as managing editor, in August 2000, was an exhaustive preview of all the political races of 2000, including the Bush-Gore presidential campaign, the 3rd District congressional race, and most importantly, the referendum on the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County. LEO’s coverage of the merger campaign continued throughout the fall and past the election, and it provided an important contribution to the community’s understanding of the issues involved.

With her strong reporting background, Rachael gave us the confidence necessary to tackle serious topics with the journalistic responsibility they demanded. LEO broke an important story about a surge of hepatitis-C cases in Kentucky’s prisons. We also produced a controversial series on corruption in the local planning and zoning process. Rachael made sure we cut no corners in developing those extremely sensitive reports.

Fortunately, Rachael Kamuf also had a terrific sense of humor, so she could appreciate the occasional eccentricities that have filled these pages. She would edit stories on female aphrodisiacs and people who emptied port-o-cans with the same attention to detail she paid to more serious fare. And she absolutely loved to work on basketball coverage, although she sometimes playfully whined when we gave more coverage to the Cards than her beloved Cats.

LEO was still a journalistic teenager when Rachael joined the team. Her contributions helped us mature far more rapidly than we might have without her. She was just what LEO needed, and when she felt that she had accomplished all she could here, she moved to another arena.

Fortunately, I was able to stay in touch with Rachael even into my political life, and our paths crossed often through her work with the Kentucky Farm Bureau. Unfortunately, the last time we spoke was at the memorial service for another LEO family member, Tom Peterson. It seems impossible that she now is gone as well.

Rachael was buried last Friday in Owensboro, where she and her 10 siblings were raised. In a very compelling way it makes sense that she was not buried here in Louisville, where she created such an important and noteworthy career, because the examples she set for her journalism colleagues, her friends and the people she covered over so many years cannot be buried.