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Late UC PIO Had Legendary Career Documenting Race Relations and Equality

After a history-making career covering civil rights in the South, Al Kuettner managed UC's Public Information Office as the university went through the transition into the state system of higher education.

Date: 5/18/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Greg Hand
Phone: (513) 556-1822
Other Contact: Tobin Beck
Other Contact Phone: (703) 434-0354

UC ingot  

Al Kuettner, University of Cincinnati director of public information for most of the 1970s, died May 16 at the age of 95 at Concordia Care Center in Bella Vista, Ark. He had been in declining health over the past few months.

Prior to joining the University of Cincinnati, Kuettner covered the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a UPI reporter and then returned a generation later to find the South had made major progress in race relations.

“He was one of the best reporters of his time, covering the civil rights movement day in and day out, always with an eye toward covering the story thoroughly and accurately, without bias or distortion,” said Tobin Beck, former executive editor of United Press International. Beck edited Kuettner’s book, March to a Promised Land, which was published in 2006 by Capital Books.

Al Kuettner
Kuettner returned to the University of Cincinnati in 2007 to participate in a symposium on journalism and race.

Alfred G. Kuettner was born in Atlanta on Oct. 17, 1913, and grew up in a culture sharply separated by race. He attended Georgia State College – earning tuition money by working aboard freighters steaming to Africa. His ambition was to be a journalist – and after working at a weekly newspaper in Decatur, Ga., Kuettner was hired in 1942 by the wire service United Press, which later became United Press International. A decade later he was assigned to cover the budding civil rights movement full time, based in Atlanta. He first met a young Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 at the start of the bus boycott prompted by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white rider.

John Herbers, bureau manager for UPI in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1950s and early 1960s before becoming a civil rights reporter for the New York Times, recalled Kuettner’s courage in covering what initially was an unpopular story in the South.

"I think he was one of the most remarkable journalists of his period,” Herbers said Sunday by phone from his home in Bethesda, Md. “He wasn’t in it for himself, his motives and accomplishments were based on his love of the profession and how important that he felt news of the civil rights movement was to society.

“When the civil rights movement began, not many journalists were covering the story in the South. Al was one of the early acquaintances of Martin Luther King. At the time the civil rights movement was not particularly popular. Al was a pioneer in his coverage of the story. Most station owners and news agencies did not want the story covered, because they were hoping things would go back to the way they had been. It took a great deal of originality and courage to report on the civil rights movement at that time.”

Kuettner also had poise and savvy in potentially dangerous situations. When covering the integration of Birmingham’s West End High School in 1963, Kuettner needed to find a phone to dictate his stories to UPI’s Atlanta regional bureau. He arranged to rent a phone at a house across the street from the school for $5 a day. When the woman of the house upped the price to $100, Kuettner asked a favor of the local phone company, which installed a private line for him on a pole outside the school. But a hostile crowd shouted him down whenever he tried to use the line. Kuettner responded by asking the hecklers to line up and dictate their comments to the surprised UPI Atlanta desk editor on the other end. They did, and Kuettner’s phone was not bothered again.

One highlight of Kuettner’s career was covering Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in August 1963 during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Kuettner recalled in his book that King’s speech had been fairly unremarkable until King launched into the “dream” section, which had not been included in the advance text given to reporters. Kuettner was covering the rally with veteran UPI White House reporter Merriman Smith and both scrambled to keep up with King’s changes to the expected speech.

“We were writing furiously, trying to get down his words, because there were no notes, no text for this one – only King at his best,” Kuettner wrote later. “We had no time to look at the crowd’s reaction, but it was unnecessary. The reaction could be heard and felt like something visceral, now sweeping up almost in a sob from the depths of many hearts, making the long trek to Washington at last worthwhile for them.”

Kuettner was a stickler for accuracy. On June 6, 1966, when another wire service reported that an assassin had killed James Meredith, who had broken the color barrier by enrolling at the University of Mississippi, Kuettner was working in his garden in Atlanta.

Kuettner got in his car, raced to his office, and called the hospital switchboard. Using what he hoped was an authoritative tone, Kuettner told the operator to put him through to surgery. When a male voice answered, Kuettner asked the condition of Meredith. “He is very much alive,” the man responded. “I should know. I am the doctor working on him.”

Kuettner was known for keeping calm even in the most stressful situations.

“What I remember about Al most was this calm demeanor even amid an anti-civil rights demonstration where a surging crowd would have rattled most,” said Joe Chapman, a former UPI photographer who often covered events with Kuettner. “He was relaxed talking to anyone, from Martin Luther King to white extremists such as J.B. Stoner.”

More than 20 years after Kuettner’s reporting had taken him to Little Rock, Ark.; Oxford, Miss.; Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Ala.; Washington; New York City and dozens of places small and large, he went back to see what changes the movement had brought. He began work on a manuscript that would be completed another 20 years later.

“I realized that towns like Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, and many others have begun to outlive the shadows of race reaction,” he wrote. “There has developed, to say the least, acceptance of federal determination to protect the ability of citizens and their families to receive equalized education unhampered by restrictive race rules, to attend public events based on ability to pay a ticket price, and to live in peace ‘from sea to shining sea.’

He went on: “I thought of the legacy left by those black and white who in spite of the bigots were determined that the races could live together in a country where men and women accepted and respected those of all colors who crossed their paths in peace.”

When Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, Kuettner commented that he had not expected to see that milestone passed in his lifetime.

“He said ‘we passed a phase. There’s still a long way to go, but the foundation isn’t sand anymore, it’s in concrete,’” recalled his assistant, Stacy Gibson. Before the decline of his health in recent months, Kuettner had been planning to research and write a second book about race relations in the United States.

After nearly two decades covering civil rights for UPI, Kuettner left the wire service in 1968 to become senior editor at Pace Magazine in Los Angeles. The magazine geared toward teenage and young adult readers folded after two years. In 1970 Kuettner became education editor at the Cincinnati Post and Times-Star and in 1972 he became public information officer for the University of Cincinnati, helping with the school’s transition from a private to a public institution.

In 1979 Al and his wife Helen purchased the Gravette, Ark., News Herald, but they retired several years later when Helen’s health began to fail. Helen, his childhood sweetheart whom Al had married in 1953, died in 2007 at the age of 86.

Kuettner is survived by son Christopher and wife Christina of Morrow, Ohio, and their family of Ben, Michelle, Samantha and April. Christopher said his father tried to get into the military during World War II but was rejected because of a heart murmur, and so went to work for United Press in what ironically was a high-stress job.

“I think what he went through was as stressful as combat,” Christopher said. He said in the early 1950s Kuettner went to South America to report on revolutions where he was close to gunfire. “I asked him what made him the most afraid, and he said it was flying on a DC-3 through mountain passes in the Andes. If the plane got lost in the clouds that would be it, you’d be dead.”

Christopher remembers his dad as the ultimate professional journalist.

“To my mind, he was kind of like James Bond with a pen and not a gun,” Christopher said. “He was the consummate journalist – get three sources to confirm your information, and do your homework.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.