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Larry Dale Keeling, a ‘crusty’ columnist who explained Kentucky politics, dies at 71

Herald-Leader editorial writer Larry Dale Keeling
Herald-Leader editorial writer Larry Dale Keeling Staff File Photo

Larry Dale Keeling, whose writings in the Lexington Herald-Leader for 41 years lambasted missteps of Kentucky politicians and lauded progressive government, died late Monday of lung cancer. He was 71.

Keeling, who grew up in Willisburg in Washington County, wrote for the Herald-Leader from Sept. 27, 1974 to Nov. 7, 2015, when he retired. During his years at the paper, Keeling was a reporter, editorial writer and columnist.

Known for his crusty comments in his columns and blogs, Keeling once wrote under the moniker “Kentucky Curmudgeon.”

He referred to former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whose administration was mired in a merit system hiring scandal, as the “Boy Governor” and Fletcher’s staff as “Kiddie Korps.”

He came up with the term that encapsulated the scandal when he labeled it “Fletcher’s BlackBerry Jam.” The moniker came from the electronic trail of evidence left by the personal mobile devices of Fletcher aides.

Keeling said he thought of the phrase when he was mowing his yard.

In one of his final columns, Keeling wrote, “The Fletcher administration days were the funniest of times for curmudgeonly columnists (particularly compared to Steve Beshear’s, who can be rather dull to cover). Never a lack of inspiration for snarky columns. So, if Hal Heiner becomes governor and brings former members of Fletcher’s klutzy Kiddie Korps back to town, I may be tempted to extend semi-retirement beyond my previous plans.”

Keeling received a bachelor’s degree in 1969 from the University of Kentucky’s journalism honors program. He worked for two years on the UK student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, as a reporter and assistant managing editor. He liked to tell people he was a 1965 graduate of the old Willisburg High School. His late mother, Elizabeth G. Keeling, was Willisburg’s postmaster.

After UK, Keeling joined the U.S. Air Force in May 1969. He was honorably discharged in May 1972 as a first lieutenant. His military career included stints at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, Griffis Air Force Base in New York and in Taiwan.

Before joining the Herald-Leader, Keeling was a local government reporter for The Bradenton Herald in Bradenton, Fla., and The Martinsville Bulletin in Martinsville, Va. He also was a reporter-photographer for the Henry County Journal in Bassett, Va.

Though many politicians often grimaced and groaned at his writings, Keeling’s colleagues remember him with admiration and fondness.

“Larry had this classic, very newspaper-like curmudgeonly exterior, but in person he was the most polite man you could ever meet,” said former Herald-Leader Publisher Tim Kelly. “I admired his sense of outrage at things he felt were worthy of outrage in Kentucky government. There were plenty and he invariably was correct.”

Front from left, Rita Gatton, Jaci Carfagno, Joel Pett, and Marilyn Thompson, second row, from left, Tim Kelly, Larry Dale Keeling, Jamie Lucke, and Vanessa Gallman, the Lexington Herald-Leader Editorial Board in the pressroom, Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, September 7, 2005. Janet Worne Herald-Leader

Kelly said Keeling had “the misfortune to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist the year after our Maria Henson had won in 1992 for ground-breaking work on the state’s failure to protect women who were victims of domestic violence.”

“Although I was told it was not a factor, I will forever believe that Larry would have won otherwise,” said Kelly. “I believe that because the Pulitzer board did not name a winner in editorial writing that year. He deserved it.”

Former Herald-Leader President and Publisher Rufus M. Friday, said he enjoyed Keeling’s extensive knowledge and insights in Kentucky politics during their short time together on the newspaper’s editorial board.

“It was enlightening to listen to him provide witty, but informative feedback,” Friday said. “It did not matter which party, both were given sage counsel and admonishment when he felt they had lost focus on who they really represent. I especially enjoyed his annual ‘special report from Fancy Farm’ that he’d give for our editorial board meetings in his signature Larry Dale tone and delivery.”

“He will be sorely missed but his thought-provoking editorials will live on,” Friday said.

Larry Dale Keeling

Herald-Leader editorial editor Vanessa Gallman said, “Larry had a lot of respect for state workers and lawmakers and he knew the challenges they faced in efforts to serve taxpayers. But he also despised deceit, hypocrisy and greed from anyone. And he never hesitated to call it out.”

Keeling “offered a conservative point of view, but also had a strong libertarian bent making him an early supporter of gay marriage and a passionate advocate for casino gambling in the state.”

David Holwerk, former editorial editor for the Herald-Leader, said Keeling was “a special kind of journalist, very personal and very intense.”

“He tested civic life with his own set of values and priorities, and he never pulled his punches when he found it wanting,” Holwerk said. “He was a treat to read.”

Jamie Lucke, who worked with Keeling on the Herald-Leader editorial board, said he was “a meticulous writer” and a “wordsmith.”

“He started the day by working the crossword puzzle,” Lucke said. “I can see him walking around the newsroom, head down, deep in thought, searching for the right turn of phrase.”

Lucke said Keeling never shied from using blunt language in his writing.

“Larry Dale was not one to say ‘dissembling’ or ‘misleading’ when what he meant was ‘lie,’” she said.

Lucke said her “crusty” colleague “turned into a big puddle of love” when he met and married Beth Cayce of Hopkinsville, a former employee of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission.

“Their relationship made him happier I would say than anything since he was the youngest child in a big Washington County farm family,” Lucke said. “He always called her ‘my angel.’”

Joel Pett, the Herald-Leader’s Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, said Keeling was “smack in the middle of the Herald-Leader editorial pages’ heyday.”

“Larry knew Kentucky better than the rest of us, was the only one of us to have served in the military and often served as a crucial restraint on some of our ill-advised impulses,” Pett said. “He also was a terrific writer, who made it look easy, always a sign of a real pro.

“Working side-by-side with Larry for over two decades was a real privilege, even though he sometimes beat me at golf and poker,” Pett said.

Ferrell Wellman, former host of “Comment on Kentucky,” a public-affairs show on the Kentucky Educational Television network, said Keeling “was a first-rate critical thinker.”

“As a reporter, he was always able to ask the right question,” Wellman said. “I liked having him on ‘Comment’ because his analysis was always insightful.”

Wellman said he first met Keeling in 1969 when he worked at Lexington’s WVLK and Keeling worked for The Kentucky Kernel on the University of Kentucky campus.

Keeling had “a wonderful, dry sense of humor.,” said Wellman, noting that Keeling often hosted parties near the opening of the Keeneland fall meet.

“Contrary to his curmudgeonly reputation, he was a good host.”

Funeral arrangements for Keeling are pending.