Hiott: Thank you, Austin, for Kelso condolences


Longtime Statesman columnist John Kelso died July 28 at 73.

Readers reached out across social media to bid him a fond farewell.

Although he was known and loved by many, here’s what you might not know.

Thank you, Austin.

It would be hard to imagine a more loving tribute than the ones so many of you offered up in the past week to honor our beloved longtime columnist, John Kelso. Hundreds of social media posts lamented Kelso’s death, offered condolences and shared some great memories.

“My dad and I shared so many laughs over John Kelso’s column,” wrote Christie Manners on a Facebook post of Kelso’s obituary. “There were times when Mr. Kelso’s humor was the only bridge across a great political divide.”

OBITUARY: John Kelso, longtime columnist who kept Austin chuckling, has died.

And then there was the sign last Friday at Ben White Florist, which said, “The Original South Austin Icon. RIP John Kelso.”

Will Bargmann concurred with that Austin institution’s assessment.

“John Kelso was the heart and soul of South Austin,” he posted. “He will be missed by all us Bubbas.”

Kelso met an astounding number of Central Texans — if you believe all the stories from those who recounted bumping into him about town, sharing a laugh, or, in later years, exchanging an email or two.

If you never had the good fortune to get to know Kelso, here are some things you might not know.

Despite his sometimes-acerbic way with words, he was an absolute sweetheart. On the occasion when his ribbing hurt someone’s feelings, he took it hard. I recall many a conversation over the past couple decades in which, crestfallen, Kelso would say plaintively, “Don’t they know it was just a joke?”

The thin-skinned were not met with scorn, but with puzzlement. To Kelso, who was plenty self-deprecating, there was no understanding of those who took themselves too seriously to not appreciate one of his jabs.

KELSO’S LAST COLUMN: Where have all the great handymen gone?

He was a perfectionist. It was not unusual for Kelso to call the copy desk late at night to fuss over a word or two as he was rereading a column minutes before deadline. After the work of the copy desk was moved to another state as part of a job centralization effort, he didn’t have the number to call, so sometimes he’d call me late at night at home to see if maybe I could get those guys in West Palm Beach, Fla., to change this word to that word.

Even though Kelso was a much better writer than his editors — or at least this one — he was gracious about the work we did, even when it meant taking out some of his funniest stuff because, well, it just didn’t meet that old “community standard.” At one point, he kept a drawer full of columns that got bounced back. It grew thick in the early ’90s, when Kelso had an editor who just wasn’t amused.

Once, over a beer, he fessed up to me that he occasionally slipped into his column at least one outrageously over-the-line joke in hopes his editors would feel so guilty cutting it that they would miss the rest that just bellied up to the line. Another time, when we’d both taken moderate heat from an unhappy publisher about a pretty tasteless premise that I had let into print, he groused good-naturedly at me: “You’re supposed to keep us both out of trouble.”

I took the job a bit more seriously after that, not because of the hide-chewing from on high, but because of Kelso’s admonition. Although I wasn’t editing Kelso at the end — that honor was held by Andy Alford, senior editor for news — I held onto editing his column as long as I could, even as I moved into different roles in the newsroom, because it really was one of the truly fun parts of the job.

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And a final fact: For a long time, though Kelso was surrounded by good friends, caring co-workers and an adoring Austin, he was a pretty lonely guy. His wife, Kay, rescued him from that. He was the happiest I’d ever seen with her. She made him laugh — and Kelso loved a good laugh, of course. His stepdaughter Rachel was a source of much fond amusement. When she was still a kid in school, Kelso would practically shine when talking about how smart she was — and how she possessed a cleverness and sense of humor that he admired, even when it was directed at him in the height of teenaged smart-assery.

Here at the Statesman, we’re joining Kay Kelso and family in mourning. So are many of you.

“I’m crying!!” wrote Joe Heidelmeyer last Friday. “Godspeed Kelso! … The Statesman will never be the same.”

No, it won’t. We miss you, Kelso.

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