- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
John Kelso, the bard of South Austin, an involuntary native and vigorous tormentor of Oklahoma, the author of three humor books and a four-decade fixture in the pages of the Austin American-Statesman as well as hearts of his readers and newsroom colleagues, died Friday.
Kelso, an endlessly funny writer and genuinely sweet guy, was 73. Going on 12.
He died Friday from complications after a recent fall. He had been weakened by a second bout with cancer, which befell him in 2015 and stilled his ready wit and raucous staccato laugh after surgeons were forced to remove his larynx.
Even so, he continued to write his Sunday column, which he had done for the newspaper since his retirement from the American-Statesman in 2011. His last column, bemoaning his lack of home repair skills and the difficulty of finding a good handyman, ran July 2.
“I was starting to think it would be easier to find a bag of crack,” he wrote. “If crack actually comes in bags. I wouldn’t know.”
American-Statesman editor Debbie Hiott, who first met Kelso in 1990, said that despite his easy-going image, the columnist was incredibly hard-working and meticulous about his reporting and word-smithing.
“He’s the only retiree I know who for years continued to show up at work as if he’d never left,” Hiott said. “Going from being a full-time employee to a contractor gave him total flexibility to come in only when he wanted, but he obviously loved this place as much as we loved him.
“It’s hard to imagine an Austin or a Statesman without Kelso,” she added. “For decades, he has been a primary interpreter to the masses of some of what makes Austin so Austin.”
Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat who was Austin mayor from 1997 to 2001 — and thus a Kelso target from time to time — said that the columnist “was proof that we live in a special city. Where else could a cynical, opinionated smart ass with little more than a wicked sense of humor become one of the most respected journalists in town? He did more than his fair share of keeping Austin weird and keeping us from taking ourselves too seriously.
“And, man, will we miss him.”
Kelso was born in Fort Sill, Okla., and raised in Maine. But he got to South Austin as fast as he could, and really never left. He and his wife, Kay, were living in a home in the Manchaca neighborhood, not all that far from a beloved Kelso hangout, Giddy Ups saloon, when he fell ill.
During his college years at the University of Missouri , which Kelso managed to stretch over a comfortably long chunk of the 1960s, he had his first journalism job, a summer internship, at the Manchester Union-Leader in New Hampshire. He later worked at the Portsmouth Herald in that state before leaving for a stint in the U.S. Army.
Kelso, if his writings and newsroom tales are to be believed — and many of them are — was more Pvt. Beetle Bailey than Private Ryan during those years of service, which included noncombat typing for an Army newspaper in Germany and a fair share of creative gold-bricking. After the Pentagon decided it could carry on honorably without him, Kelso went to work as an hunting and fishing writer for the American-Statesman’s sister paper in West Palm Beach, Fla.
He moved to Austin and the American-Statesman in 1976, and by 1977 had begun writing his several-times-a-week column. For more than 15 years, he and Mike Kelley constituted a rarity among American newspapers: dual humor writers, with one or the other in the paper nearly every day. Kelley played the role of the worldly cynic and Kelso the wiseacre everyman, more comfortable in a barbecue joint or a dive made of cinder blocks than the emergent city’s more sophisticated spots.
“Really, he thought like a common man,” said Joe Cook, a longtime Kelso friend who met him when they lived at the same apartment complex in the 1970s. “He looked at the community starting with the mentality of a worker making a living. It was just wonderful to have a talented writer like him do that.”
Along the way, Kelso published three books: “Bubba (he’s the one with his tongue hanging out)” in 1984; “Texas Curiosities” in 2000; and the autobiographical “Confessions of a Professional Smart Ass” in 2014. His column was named best in Texas multiple times by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors. His work was also honored by the Headliners Foundation of Texas and the Society for Features Journalism. In 2005, he won the National Press Club’s Angele Gingras Humor Award for his body of work. That corpus de magpie included a column about a man’s arrest for swinging a three-foot-long alligator at his girlfriend during a dispute.
“At first glance, this Florida story appears to have all the elements of the perfect redneck yarn,” Kelso wrote. “Not only did it happen in a trailer, but it also involved drinking before noon. (David) Havenner said the trouble started when his girlfriend got miffed and bit him on the hand because they had run out of booze.”
He specialized in telling tales of the little-known and the truly odd, often spending much of the day bouncing prospective jokes off nearby reporters and editors — and shamelessly stealing their ripostes. But, he also was witheringly funny about politics — from City Hall to the White House. Kelso himself ran for president in 1980, presumably as a joke and a way to gin up easy columns, but failed to make the New Hampshire ballot.
He diagnosed former President Bill Clinton with “grabitis” after the Monica Lewinsky episode came to light in 1998. His prescription for the embattled leader: awkward handware.
“Put on a huge pair of barbecue mitts and try to undo your pants,” Kelso wrote in an April 1998 column. “See? You can’t do it. Suddenly you are being held prisoner by your own pants. And, if you couldn’t undo your own pants, you wouldn’t be able to undo anybody else’s pants, either.”
And of course he had words for the country’s current chief executive.
“Here I am, trying to find at least a tiny ray of sunshine with this Trump-being-my-president thing,” Kelso wrote shortly after the November election. “I remain hopeful that the man was simply putting us on during his campaign. You know you’re on shaky ground when your best hope is that the man who’s about to become your leader is a liar. But that’s where it’s at with me.”
And Kelso relished the once-a-year chance in the runup to the big game at the Texas State Fair to rain semi-serious abuse on Chokelahoma, as he called it. Or, variously, Mobilehoma, Yokelhoma and “that barren wasteland north of the Red River.” A longtime season ticket holder for Longhorn football games, with a seat next to University of Texas Superfan Scott Wilson, Kelso bled burnt orange despite inadvertently taking his first breath in red-dirt country because his father was in training there during World War II.
“It’s no secret that I was born in Oklahoma,” he wrote in an October 2012 column. “But don’t hold it against me. The first words I ever spoke? At birth, I said, ‘I know what. Let’s get the hell out of here.’”
His take on the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, the state’s founding story?
“Who’d stay overnight in Oklahoma unless it was on the house, or it at least came with a free breakfast at the Econo Lodge? Ever heard of anyone going on vacation in Oklahoma? Me neither.”
Wilson, a Kelso fellow reveller for 30 years, said, “Some of the funniest stuff he said was stuff that wasn’t in the column. He just had such a quick wit. One time I said to him, ‘Do you want a drink?’ And he said, ‘Does a cat have climbing gear?’”
Kelso even had fun with the subject of death, including his own future slip from this mortal coil. He took after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last year for rushing to state, upon U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected passing, that the Senate would not consider a replacement offered by President Barack Obama.
“Isn’t this sort of behavior a bit tacky?” Kelso wrote. “Shouldn’t there be a three-day waiting period on politics when somebody, you know, shuffles off to Buffalo? I’m hoping when I croak, somebody doesn’t call from the newspaper to tell me I’m missing deadline.”
Kelso is survived by his wife and two step-daughters, Lauren Williams and Rachel Cavin. At Kelso’s request, the family does not plan to hold a funeral. Kay Kelso asked that memorial donations go to People’s Community Clinic in North Austin or Spinone Rescue of America, a New Hampshire organization that specializes in a dog breed that the Kelsos had grown to love.