Remembering Kay Balmer, remembering Rich Holden

First, it was Kay. A friend and co-worker I can only describe as luminous.

Then it was Rich. A wise and dapper colleague on the national recruiting circuit.

Two deaths, one day apart. One on the West Coast, one on the East Coast.
Both people so influential in my journalism career. Both now gone. So many of us here in Oregon and across the country left to mourn their passing,

Feels small in the scheme of things, but here’s my tribute to both.

Kay Balmer succumbed to cancer on April 14. She was a proud Montana native who worked in newsrooms in California and Oregon, including The Register-Guard in Eugene and, most recently, The Oregonian here in Portland. She was a talented editor who brought out the best in others and inspired tremendous loyalty along the way.

For me, she was a sounding board and major ally in the effort to bring new talent and new perspectives to The Oregonian newsroom. I was the newspaper’s first fulltime recruitment director. When I left that job for another position in the newsroom, Kay moved into the role and built on those early successes to diversify the staff and upgrade the overall talent. And when Kay was promoted to a senior editor position, I eagerly returned to the recruiting job with an expanded charge to coordinate our newsroom training program.

At every step of the way, Kay was there to offer support, ideas and encouragement. Her big smile, distinctive laugh and warm personality made her a delight to be with.

The last time I had lunch with Kay was at Bollywood Theater on Southeast Division Street. We shared memories on that summerlike September day in 2018 and bites of Indian food off each other’s plates.

Little wonder that when she passed, our former colleagues reacted with the most beautiful of memories. One called her “a glorious burst of light and strength.” Another described her as “one of the kindest, smartest, funniest people I’ve ever known.”

For me, “She was the rare person who made you feel like you were just about the most important person in her life (well, except for husband Bob). She gave you her complete attention. She listened, fully and completely, and she looked you in the eye. She asked how you were doing, never failing to ask about your spouse and each one of your kids. Our conversations were most often fun and free-flowing, and other times serious and focused. Either way, my day always felt better having engaged with Kay.”

Oregonian editors past and present at The Alberta Rose Theater on Jan. 24, 2019. From left: Kay Balmer, Sandy Rowe, George Rede, Therese Bottomly

Rich Holden died on April 15 in a New Jersey hospital after a lengthy illness. He was born in Missouri, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the renowned University of Missouri School of Journalism, and spent his entire 41-year career with Dow Jones & Company, publishers of The Wall Street Journal.

An obituary shared on Facebook by his wife, Mary-Anna, aptly summarized Rich’s career. He began in 1973 on the Journal’s national news copy desk. In 1976, he moved to Hong Kong as one of the original staffers that started up the Asian Wall Street Journal. During his tenure there, Rich served as a lecturer in residence at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Returning to New York in 1979, he worked in numerous editing capacities at the Journal and branched out to recruiting, hiring and training.

In 1992, Rich left the Wall Street Journal for the non-profit side of Dow Jones as Executive Director of the Dow Jones News Fund, a position he held until retirement in 2014. In that role, he helped steer promising college students of all races and backgrounds to the copy desks of newspapers across the country, including The Oregonian.

The 20th annual American Copy Editors Society convention in Portland gave me a chance to reconnect with Ron Smith (left) and Rich Holden in April 2016.

Rich was a man of great influence within the industry and a fixture at minority journalist conventions, where he would give freely of his time to volunteer on student news projects, and mingle with young and midcareer professionals alike.

I never got to work directly with Rich – well, except for the couple of times we teamed up on student newspaper projects at industry conventions in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Through our work and connections made on the recruiting circuit, we knew many of the same journalists in newsrooms around the country and enjoyed seeing them as they progressed in their careers and also became spouses and parents.

Thanks to Rich, I was invited to serve as Journalist in Residence at DePauw University in Indiana, an experience that in retrospect helped set the stage for the college-level teaching that I’ve done since leaving The Oregonian in 2015.

Rich had a smoky, baritone voice and a full-bodied laugh. He was a stickler for detail, as you would expect from a master headline writer and world-class editor. He was also a stickler for fashion, known for his matching ties and pocket squares, shirts with coordinated collars and French cuffs.

More than 60 friends and colleagues attended a retirement party on June 21, 2014, for Rich Holden to pay tribute to his career with the Dow Jones News Fund and The Wall Street Journal. Photo credit: David Sullivan

The outpouring for Rich was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. From Los Angeles: “Of all the sad news in the world, this is the saddest. Rich had the kindest, most generous soul.” From Florida: “Rich Holden meant so much to me and my career at the Miami Herald.

And from me: “Rich was a giant. I’ll forever be grateful for the wisdom and mentoring he so generously shared as a recruiter and champion of diversity. He made thousands of us not just better journalists but better people by living his values.”

Rich Holden: a master of the pun and a champion of diversity.

Journalism lost two beacons in the space of 24 hours. The human race lost two wonderful people. I am grateful to have known both.

9 thoughts on “Remembering Kay Balmer, remembering Rich Holden

  1. Losing colleagues who had such a big influence in your field to the ultimate “30” is so difficult to absorb. Big talents leave big voids. Let’s hope others will carry their banner forward. Los sientos.

  2. George, I’m sorry for your double loss. At this age, it seems, more and more of those people who impacted our lives are passing on. It is the way of things, of course, but that doen’t make their loss any easier.

  3. Thank you, George. A lovely tribute. I miss those days on the circuit. I did not know about Kay. Two hard losses. I hope you are as well as anyone can be in these awful times.

    • Thank you, Merrill. I read your tribute to Rich on the ACES site and enjoyed it very much. It was a nice recapr of all that Rich accomplished in his stellar career as well as a reminder of that baritone laugh coming from the bar at whatever gathering Rich was a part of. To lose both Rich and Kay within a matter of days was quite the double blow. Hope you’re doing well in these crazy times, too.

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