Death tells jokes that aren't very funny and excuses nobody from its mirth. Yesterday, April 3, it japed at Michael Kelly, devoted husband, adoring father—and one hellacious journalist—in the Iraqi desert. Kelly and an officer from the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army perished when their Humvee crashed while evading Iraqi fire, according to a news report.
Kelly had covered the first Gulf War with the fierce independence that defined his life. In that war, the Pentagon barred all but a few pool reporters from the battlefield, and Kelly, who persuaded the Boston Globe and NewRepublicto let him cover the war as a stringer, put his life on the line by free-lancing his way onto the front.
"He simply walked away from the whole apparatus of information management there and hitched a ride on an Egyptian tank," says Hendrik Hertzberg, then editor of the NewRepublic. This was the dangerous war, the battle against an unknown but potent foe in an unfamiliar land. Kelly traversed Iraq, filing extraordinary dispatches that he eventually reworked into his 1993 book, Martyr's Day: Chronicle of a Small War. It's death's joke that Kelly meet his end in the "safe" war where armor-clad soldiers shield embedded reporters like Kelly with the ferocity of she-bears. Kelly was reporting for the Washington Post, where he was a columnist,and the Atlantic Monthly, which he edited until last fall.
Kelly grew up in Washington, D.C., and was educated by the Jesuits at Gonzaga College High School near Capitol Hill. On the day of the second Nixon inaugural in 1973, when Kelly was a sophomore, he and Lisa McCormack and Nancy Hackett, two chums from the adjoining Catholic girls school, cruised down Pennsylvania Avenue before the inaugural parade, snipping the metal "no parking" signs from poles with wire cutters. After a brief run-in with a cop in which they surrendered a stack of signs, the trio returned to school and sold the signs they'd hidden under the front seat to nuns, priests, and lay teachers for $1 each.
McCormack still displays the no-parking sign in her home office. Kelly changed the nature of his troublemaking—or at least started thinking about changing it—after a stern talking-to from a Gonzaga priest.
"Michael had gotten caught drinking a beer in the Gonzaga parking lot just before he went to detention for getting caught smoking a cigar. The priest said, 'You can either be a fantastic con-artist or shape up and do something serious,' " says McCormack.
Kelly's journalistic gift announced itself at the University of New Hampshire, where he worked on the student newspaper, the New Hampshire. USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon recalls how Kelly, who only seemed to party and report at UNH, exhibited precocious reportorial skills in covering the state Legislature for the paper. "He had an ability to pick up a story and define it," Cauchon says, "with a verve that college kids don't ordinarily get." Kelly had a swagger and confidence and "was a little Fonz-like in his leather jacket." Kelly wasn't fake cool, says Cauchon, but the real thing.
"He was miscreant in a good way," says another fellow student-journalist, Gary Langer, now at ABC. "As a 20-year-old, he really did have it all. His most appealing factor in those days he had a probing mind that accepted nothing at face value. Obviously the qualities that are paramount in being a good journalist. His success as a storyteller and weaver of tales made him an absolute natural in this business."
"And he was a helluva good dancer," Langer concludes.
Kelly graduated from UNH in 1979 and knocked about in the journalistic trade, working for ABC, the Cincinnati Post, and the Baltimore Sun, following the path of his father, a longtime Washington journalist he admired greatly.