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January 11, 2012

Rachael Kamuf: A great journalist, mentor and friend

When I started my first internship, the editor of the weekly Louisville Eccentric Observer took me to meet someone who seemed like the scariest editor in journalism.

Staring at me behind big intimidating glasses was Rachael Kamuf, LEO’s managing editor. She wore shoulder-length brown hair and a blazer and spoke with her thick Owensboro accent, her voice deepened by years of smoking. She offered no small talk. Nor did she smile.

It was summer 2001, and over the course of the next three months, Rachael would teach me the very basics of news reporting and writing. Rachael hammered into my skull some rules: Use “said” almost always, use “explain” or other attribution verbs once a month or year. Avoid acronyms. Be a polite nuisance with hard-to-get sources.

A veteran Louisville business journalist, Rachael brought her reporting prowess to a young, funky alt-weekly. She walked two other interns and me through the steps of reporting: whom to call and when, how to set a scene, how to form clear, clean prose.

Editing sessions were painful. Rachael inserted BIG SCARY QUESTIONS in bold, all-caps into my painstakingly written stories. More than once she threatened to throw away my thesaurus. She seemed to delight in making me squirm. Before one editing session, she walked over to my desk and taunted me, saying: “Come hither, said the spider.”

After a few stories, I learned how to preempt Rachael’s intimidating questions and how to eek out some praise, which she did wind up giving as my reporting and writing improved. I went on to have the confidence to write news stories at my college paper, including one about the 9/11 attacks. By the end of my second summer with Rachael, she had worked with two other interns and me on an enterprise project on a touchy subject in heavily Catholic Louisville: teenagers having oral sex and spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Rachael became one of the greatest influences. She was a tough, fair journalist who would take no bullshit but also do what she thought was morally and ethically right. Two summers were all spent working with her. Though brief, my stints with her were formative to early in my career, and I am eternally indebted to her coaching, prodding and encouragement. She was a great editor, mentor and friend.

Aside from the skills and confidence she imparted, I’m left with small, fond memories. Her smoke breaks in the courtyard of the Billy Goat Strut building. Her stories about her family back in Owensboro, growing up on a tobacco farm. Her requests to fetch a 12-pack of Coke from her old Saturn. Helping her with yard work and teasing her about exploiting her labor (yes, she did pay me!). The antique compass she gave me when I graduated college. The card she left under a windshield wiper of the truck I was to drive to Missouri to start my first real job.

Like with so many friends and mentors from years ago, I fell out of touch with Rachael. I’m grateful I got to enjoy a lengthy (and overdue) phone conversation with her in December, and then lunch a week later at Blue Dog Bakery, one of her favorites.

I’m happy I got to tell her I recently imparted some of her lessons to student journalists. I’m happy I got to give her one last hug. I just never got to tell her how much I owe her. 

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