Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 92-103
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Don Lee Keith Is Dead
A Student's Acquaintance with a Maverick New Orleans Journalist
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Colorful, irreverent, and ruthlessly charming—Don Lee Keith left quite a mark on the world of New Orleans journalism. He received his second Alex Waller Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Press Club of New Orleans, April 29, 1979. From the Collection of Don Lee Keith, courtesy of Teresa Neaves.
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Don Lee Keith was journalist-in-residence at the University of New Orleans for seven years, until his death in July 2003. Keith was about the brightest literary star that under-funded college could probably afford, and in this role he played the bohemian academic: eccentric, charming, troublesome, untenured. He was a teacher less schooled than experienced, and his writing from forty-one years as a journalist did most of the instructing. His style of teaching, which included frequent cursing, saucy anecdotes, and brutally honest grading, earned him plenty of complaints, and if it wasn't for the students who did not drop his classes—the ones who often wrote at his prodding for the college newspaper, followed him around campus for extra class-time, and treated him as a mentor—Keith probably would have been replaced by another less troublesome journalist. He said that when the announcement was made that he had been appointed "Journalist-in-Residence," he asked, "Does that mean they're going to give me a cot and a hotplate?" Witticisms like these earned him a student following that kept him popular, if not employed.
Keith liked to wear long-sleeved, pastel button-downs to class, tucked into his jeans and accentuated by dark suspenders—a "City Editor" look, except for the cowboy boots, which added to his considerable height. In the cool season he wore sport coats; from April through September saddlebags of sweat-rings settled under each arm. He kept a handkerchief in hand ready to wipe his brow, the profuse sweating an early indication of his heart disease. A good full head of white hair topped his pinkish face, and if you were talking with him outside, he was smoking a cigarette. As you watched him think, the suspense would build up as he took in nicotine and looked up at an undetermined point in space. Finally, he would say something like this reply to a question I once asked him about his byline: "Well, when I was little I was called Donny. Then in short pants I was called Donald. Then, in Levi's, I was Don. But when I came to New Orleans to work for the Times-Picayune, one of the editors there figured that any Mississippi hick with a down-home drawl like mine ought to have a redneck byline, so I became Don Lee."
Don Lee Keith was a funny man, and his wit was spontaneous as much as controlled. Strolling across campus, he'd likely make some off-hand statement like, "You know, it seems like everyone on this campus is in a fat contest and a winner hasn't been decided on just yet." Or, if the classroom was too warm, he would say, "It's hot as a crotch in here!" When speaking of things that repelled him, such as giving interviews, he would say, "I recoil like a burnt spider." This humorous, urbane "hick" persona that he cultivated is especially present in his first-person columns, but it can also be heard in his features and profiles. He had a prominent "literary voice," and in the classroom it boomed.
A successful and acclaimed journalist, Keith was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, won stacks of journalism awards, wrote or edited for nearly every New Orleans publication around after his arrival in the city in 1962, and interviewed [End Page 93] many "persons of consequence," as he called celebrities and "important" people, particularly southern literary figures. As...