Friday, November 9, 2012

'Hey now' ... Heity, the big guy

    Whenever I work at the newspaper downtown -- and that's only a day or two a week now -- I almost always think of Kent Heitholt when I walk across a parking lot late at night to the garage where my car is parked.   
     The really big guy -- 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds (or more) -- we all called Heity. The big teddy bear  always upbeat, with the great sense of humor, a prankster. The sports writer/editor whose standard greeting was "hey now."
      I was reminded of him recently when Scott Ferrell -- the sports editor at The Shreveport Times much longer than Heity was or I was -- posted this on Facebook: "Hard to not think about Kent Heitholt when Nov. 1 hits the calendar. Great boss, mentor and friend. Rest in peace, Heity."
Kent Heitholt (Columbia Tribune photo)
      Heity, murdered in the parking lot of the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune at about 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 1 (just after the night of Halloween) in 2001. Clubbed into unconsciousness (or nearly so) by a blunt object -- such as a tire tool -- and then strangled with his own belt. His watch and keys stolen. But his car still there next to the bloody mess.
       Heity, 48 then, married to Deb for almost 20 years, father of two (Vince and Kali), a University of Missouri journalism grad (1975) who simply loved the newspaper business. Loved sports and loved people, and loved writing about both.
       The news was stunning, sickening, and it hurt badly. Still does. His many friends across the country, I'm sure, share that feeling.
        The murder case is a complex, convoluted one. I don't care to go into the details. In fact, I never read about the details until last week in preparing to write this piece. Couldn't bring myself to do it before. Too gruesome.
        It is a case in which two young men from Columbia were convicted of the murder and are in prison for terms of 40 and 25 years. But one has recanted his confession and testimony; the other, accused by the first guy, has denied all along he was there.
        So there is a lot of doubt, a lot of people who think they didn't do it. Accusations that one of Heity's co-workers -- supposedly not on good terms with Heity (pretty unbelievable) -- did it. It's been the subject of in-depth reports on CBS News' 48 Hours and several blogs. (See below for links on the case).
       Just last week, on the day of the 11th anniversary of the murder, a judge refused a new trial for one of the young men.
       Heity liked to have his fun, a little too much at times. Without the sordid details, that's why he left a job with the Nashville Banner covering University of Tennessee athletics and, fortunately, soon found a job with The Shreveport Times as a sports columnist/writer.
        His good fortune -- and ours.
        We worked together for a year after I came back to The Times (after 12 years in other jobs) as sports editor in 1987. He was our lead writer, but no prima donna. He helped out with everything -- high schools, agate, talking to other writers, guiding younger people, whatever.
         Gerry Robichaux, who preceded me as sports editor, posted this last week: "When Ken worked with me, he bailed me out hundreds of times, staying late to help. Never said a word, just chipped in. Super guy. One I won't forget."
          Heity wasn't among the super writing talents I've worked with in 45 years. But he was very good, wrote some great people pieces. He was so dedicated, so supportive, just fun to be around.
           He and Deb and the kids -- Vince was little, Kali a baby -- lived two blocks from my parents'  house in South Broadmoor. So I'd visit the Heitholts occasionally on walks around the neighborhood.
            He and I spent much time discussing stories, how to cover them, how to best use our staff and our space, both of us frustrated at times (but not with each other). Many late-night talks in the paper's parking lot ... not such a pleasant memory now.
             You could tell by looking that Heity loved to eat. Not so obviously, so did I. We found a common cause: crawfish. Several times we took our dinner break to visit an all-you-can-eat crawfish special on West 70th Street, and see who could eat more. We had nothing stronger to drink than ice tea, and we'd spend a couple of hours, then come back to the office -- smelling like crawfish (yukky) -- and help get the section out.
             Believe me, we both put in enough hours of work to make up for the long dinner breaks.
             Eating crawfish was more fun than work.
             Heity. The guy turning out the bathroom lights when he knew you were the only one in there and he was leaving.
             Heity. The guy whose desk often looked like a hurricane had hit. Neatness was not a plus.
             Heity. Sweet with his kids, and other people's kids.
             (This is from Louise Pierce Dortch, the longtime Times administrative assistant who was good friends with Heity: "One of my favorite stories about Kent came from a sports writer. He and Kent were covering something and Kent ended up spending the night at the guy's house. The only bed was in the guy's small child's room. He got up early because he thought Kent might scare the child when it woke. He eased open the door to find Kent sitting on the floor playing a video game with the kid. The child looked up at him and said, 'I like your big friend, Daddy.' ")
             Heity. He was a high school athlete at a private school in St. Louis, and his dad (from a family of great athletes) was a coach. They agreed that Kent wasn't much of an athlete; I remember him saying he played tackle in football and was the team's placekicker and he -- ruefully -- remembered missing a field-goal try that would have won a big game against an arch-rival team.
             Heity. Laughing boisterously (with me) in the office.
             We had one disagreement, in a staff meeting one day. One of us wanted to run three places in the results of the many area track meets, to save time and space; the other wanted to keep it a five places to get more names in the paper. We exchanged views, tersely, for about 20 seconds. No big deal.
             When Times management decided they wanted to make a sports editor change, I was out and Heitholt succeeded me. The paper's editor -- not the one who hired me -- was from Nashville and was familiar with Heity.
                Heity called me and said he wished the situation wasn't what it was, felt that maybe what he had told the editors contributed to the change. I assured him -- and I assure you now -- I had no problem with him, that I felt he had been supportive. I told him that I obviously didn't do a good enough job, that the job wasn't right for me and I wasn't right for the job, and I needed to move on.
               Heity and I talked a few times over the years after I moved to Florida and then Tennessee.  We talked about the situation at The Times, where Heity -- I'm sure -- was a better, kinder, more patient fit as sports editor. I remember him talking about covering the Shreveport Pirates in the Canadian Football League (yes, you read that right) in 1994-95.
            By 1996, he was no longer sports editor, just a columnist. He moved to Columbia, Mo., home of his Missouri Tigers, as sports editor of the Tribune. He and Deb felt it would be a nice place for their kids. He seemed pretty happy anytime I talked to him.
            One thing he always kidded me about, never let me forget.
            On the first Sunday in May 1988, we ran a long centerpiece I'd written on "A Day with the Shreveport Captains," a behind-the-scenes look at the team and the activities at the ballpark, a story that started on Page 1 and jumped to a full page inside. It was also after Kentucky Derby day (a story at the bottom of the sports front).
              But the photos on the two stories were identical size (huge mistake on my part). When the first edition came out, they were transposed -- the baseball photo with the Derby story, the winning Derby horse with the baseball story. Imagine the reaction when we saw that.
            This, too: Heity, in editing, jokingly had changed my byline title from "Times Sports Editor" to "Times Epic Writer." And that also made the paper.
            Lee Hiller remembers I got on Heity about the byline before I even noticed the photos.
            It all got fixed for the city edition. But Heitholt and I had a story to exchange for years.
           Another Heitholt story: Near the end of the baseball season in 1988, we ran a wire story from Arizona about a minor-league player from Shreveport in the Cleveland Indians' farm system being sent to a drug/alcohol rehab place.
            That afternoon, I came in and Heitholt was on the phone trying to explain that it was a wire story and that, no, we weren't going to retract it. I asked Heity who he was talking to, and he wrote the name on a slip of paper. It was the player's father.
              Obviously, Kent was having a tough time satisfying the caller. But he kept his cool.
              I knew the dad; he had been a high school coach in Bossier for two decades. I knew the mom, a high school teacher in Shreveport who had called the papers several times over the years to complain about coverage of her son (and never to thank us). I knew the kid, who would go on to a great major-league career with Hall of Fame numbers and often a Hall of Shame attitude toward fans and media.
               Finally, I told Heity to let me talk to the dad. He switched the call. I had no more luck with Dad, who had always been polite to me, than Heity. When I told him we would check it out but no correction was planned, he lost his cool and yelled, "I'm going to come up there and put you and Heitholt in a garbage can."
               I couldn't help but laugh. "You'll have no trouble doing that with me," I replied. "But Heitholt might not be that easy. Thanks for the call."
           After Heity's death, the Columbia Tribune ran a tribute to him, with contributions from all over the country.  Read them and you'll know how loved he was.
           He was, as our friend and longtime Times columnist Teddy Allen has said many times, "a beautiful human being."
           How true. If only we could have some more crawfish-eating sessions.
           Hey, now.




  1. Joel Bierig: Nice piece, Nico. Heity was truly a gentle giant.

  2. John Henry: Another good read. Off topic: I'll eat some crawfish with you.

  3. Pat Booras: Enjoyed knowing and working with Kent Heitholt. Excellent journalist and very nice person.

  4. Gerry Robichaux: Great reading tributes to Kent. One of the best.

  5. Doug Ireland: Thanks, Nico. To know him was to love him.

  6. Steffi Bierig: Thanks for sending this. It really is a beautiful tribute to a man you all knew and friended

  7. I wish I had known him. Nice touch, Nico. I hope your name is still making it into newsprint somewhere.

  8. Jim McLain: The Big Dude was a special person and I miss him every day.
    Here are some other memories:
    Bill McIntyre was working in the office one (I think it was a football or basketball Friday) night right after Kent had been hired. His phone rang. McIntyre answered and asked who was calling. The Big Dude said, "This is Kent." McIntyre said, "No, you're not," failing to recognize the familiar nasal tones of Kent Lowe. We all got a laugh from that..
    Scott Ferrell, who phoned me the day after Kent was murdered, said Kent had stopped and gotten out of his car that night after work to feed a stray cat that hung around the newspaper office. It's ironic that if he hadn't been so kind-hearted, he may still be alive today.
    I was always in awe of Kent's ability to crank out copy on deadline and it was all good stuff.
    I remember in 1989 when I went out to Tacoma for the Final 4 with the Techsters, Kent was covering a men's tournament over in Seattle. The men's and women's playing schedules were different, so he drove over to Tacoma to help me with the women when he could have probably just taken the day off and gone sightseeing.
    After I retired and before I got back on a daylight schedule, I used to call him late at night up in Columbia if I'd heard a good joke or had some news to relay. He was a tireless worker and we sure hated to lose him here. He appreciated a good joke and I can still hear him laughing today.

  9. Seems like a great guy. Hopefully some day justice will be served and they'll find out who murdered him.

  10. From Dave Moormann: Amazing! Just the day before you posted this, I was talking about Kent to my wife, daughter and her fiancé. Thanks for sending. Heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me of when Kent, John Adams and I all worked together in Jackson, Miss.

  11. From Yale Youngblood: Great blog about a great guy. He is missed.

  12. Sure wish you could get at least some of your facts right.
    Yes, two slightly built youths inexperienced in fighting were indeed convicted of attacking this huge guy and besting him in a knock-down dragged out bloody brawl. His large aggressive coworker who was the last person to see him alive was not ever considered a suspect despite the unusal head injuries and unusual lug nuts on the co-worker's car. Coworkers car was NOT left at the scene and coworker gave so many versions about which car he drove and where it was located that its an utter wonder that the coworker was never considered a suspect.

    The police kept the role played by the belt secret for two years but then revealed it (and a multitude of other facts) to the confessing neurotic druggie who implicated Ryan Ferguson.