Friday, 2 May 2014

John Killeen - a rock in the newsroom

When I worked for Westminster Press in the early 90s I regularly bumped into a bright and affable young journalist called John Killeen. He had been a trainee at Hastings and was the Hendon Times’ training officer. He was always cheery, positive and talented and it was no surprise to me that he became editor. When Westminster Press ceased to exist, we lost touch. But I was still shocked and saddened to learn of John’s premature death last month. The funeral was held on Monday and I asked John’s predecessor at Hendon, Barry Brennan, to write a tribute. These are his words: 

John Killeen
Modest stalwart of the Hendon Times
By Barry Brennan

The funeral on Monday of 50-year-old John Killeen, at the picturesque crematorium in Barham, below Canterbury, was low-key but touching. We knew this was our quiet and modest friend's preferred way - absolutely nothing ostentatious. His wife Theresa, who'd been John's life for 25 years - and he hers - had planned it perfectly.
It's just over four years since John was diagnosed with myeloma, the incurable blood plasma cancer. This came three years after he resigned his group editorship of the Hendon Times, moved to Folkestone, and into scriptwriting and short story writing - and for both he won critical success.
He had certainly attained success as a journalist. He rose from Hastings trainee to group editor of the Hendon and Finchley Times, Edgware and Mill Hill Times, Barnet and Potters Bar, Borehamwood and the Harrow Times.
How ironic, then, that in 1987 after I painstakingly selected five young hopefuls, including John, for our Westminster Press training course in Hastings, our MD tried to ban him from joining our papers.
 I had decided that, when a senior journalist left, I'd replace with a trainee. Or two trainees because they wouldn't break my budget. The MD, Tony Greenan, was known for being tough and irascible and realised my two-for-one-ers would hurt the budget when they became seniors. But he was prepared to try it.   
A month later I told him I wanted five trainees. My pitch was that I'd make sure all were talented, keen - and they'd stay longer than seniors, who kept nipping off to Fleet Street. Amazingly, he agreed. 
I joked that two-and-a-half seniors would have left by the time my five returned from the 20-week course. He didn't laugh. In agreeing, however, he stipulated all five had to be local. 
I soon found my five. Four were local but one was a Dublin graduate recently over from Ireland. I looked again at the other locals. Two or three were good, but John was better. So I gave him a contract.  
I had broken a clear undertaking and should have discussed it with the MD. But everything was a rush. 
I told the five they would receive training contracts and, if they passed their exams, a job.
Three days later the MD rang. He didn't often trouble me, but this was trouble. He was in a fury and said - along with many other things - 'Killeen cannot go on the course.' 

Ballistic's the word. He roasted me. I was trying to say I'd done what was best for the Hendon Times - but I doubt he heard.
I could hear the phone being banged around as he emphasised points. 
Then he paused. I tried to hear what his secretary was saying. It might have been 'Problem in the works.' The receiver slammed down. Temporary respite. For how long?  Well, luckily for me, there the matter lay.
I think he finally accepted I was right. If so, I wish he'd told me. I'd have slept better. A year on, John was producing great stories. I was often called into Tony’s office for a chat. These could be pleasant, as he possessed humour and charm, and during one session, he said: "Your Irish fella (Tony was Irish himself) he's doing quite well isn't he?" I thought that was decent of him.
John soon became chief reporter of the Edgware and Mill Hill edition. Reporters respected him, and so did his district editor. He helped run the office and continued to find strong stories.
Then a note went out from WP training guru, Bob James. Could any editor spare a senior to help the Hastings course? I thought JK would be good at that - and it would be good for him.
It was great experience. He was good for the trainees and he learnt from other lecturers. When he returned, he trained as a sub and page designer and became one of the best. Later he was appointed assistant editor.  
Modest about his own achievements, frequently chucking wry observations around the Hendon newsroom, he was a friend of all the staff - a trusted adviser, excellent sub and page designer. He never lost his rag and was great on IT and legal matters. He was the staff's rock, and in the world of journalism and the shambolic nature of news gathering, production crises and instant web demands, that's a superb compliment.
John was appointed deputy group editor and, when I took early retirement in 1999, I recommended that John took my place. Chairman Jim Brown and chief executive Paul Davidson agreed. After leaving, I'd call in, read through an edition or two - and feel so proud that the paper was in good hands.
All of this is about a tremendous guy's achievements as a journalist. But he and Theresa had another magnificent achievement: coping with his cancer.
John's colleague-in-crime Martin Oldaker, former editor-in-chief of East London Guardian series, 
and I visited him and Theresa about three months ago.  
All four of us spent a day laughing, so much uproarious laughter, at the fun we managed to find and the scrapes we got into.
There was no sign of what John, and consequently Theresa, endured. Keeping the cancer at bay involved relentless chemotherapy, and then six or seven weeks at a time in hospital isolation after plasma transplants, and so much more that I do not know. This continued until he was taken to hospital and died of pneumonia on 
April 11.  
I would like to show you a note John sent to close friends soon after being handed the devastating shock while in hospital with damaged vertebrae. 

"....and to cut a long story short, I was diagnosed with cancer. To be specific, myeloma (cancer of the blood plasma) which attacks bones, hence the back pain.
Busy editor's guide to myeloma:
Not a common disease. Exceedingly rare in the under 50s. No known cause. Just one of life's short straws.
Bad news: It's cancer. Obviously. No known cure.
Good news: If you're going to get cancer, it's one of the better cancers to get. Quite "treatable". Current prognosis is 5-10 years and improving in recent years.
This all happened last month. I spent ten days in hospital while they rescued my kidneys (apparently I had acute renal failure - a side-effect of the cancer) and started radiotherapy and chemo. Now I’m at home and I'll be taking chemo for about four months. The good thing is that it's all tablets that I can take at home and the side effects are fairly mild.
Strangely, very strangely, I have had no huge emotional reaction to this yet. It's not that I'm trying to be brave or anything, it's just I don’t feel any anger, or fear, or anything much. At the moment, it just is what it is. Maybe it's the five to ten year thing. That feels like a long time. When the doctor gave the prognosis Theresa burst into tears and I (inwardly) smiled, thinking 'I'll take that, thanks very much'.
Once you become a member of the 'unwell' your perspective changes, I guess."

A managing director relaxed his iron will; a young journalist was given a chance; and many good things came from that ...

Hendon Times tribute 

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