Laura Rollins Hockaday, a longtime writer for The Kansas City Star credited for adding diversity to the society pages, died early Tuesday at St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City from complications associated with viral pneumonia.
She was 79.
Well-liked and well-connected, Hockaday worked at The Star from 1962 to 2000, cultivating countless friendships along the way. Anyone in the newsroom during those years can probably share a memory about Hockaday’s famous holiday bourbon balls. They had a kick, like her.
She changed her city and her newspaper. And though she hobnobbed with the rich and mighty, she did so in work boots. Even at countless galas and black-tie affairs, she opted for the practicality of flat-heeled, rubber-soled “ball boots” that she paired with skirts.
“I can’t run in high heels,” she explained with a laugh in a story on her retirement.
Gwendolyn Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, called Hockaday a trailblazer for putting people of color on the society page.
“You’d always see her, being places where those before her dared not go,” Grant said.
“One courageous lady,” said local philanthropist, educator and civic leader Barnett Helzberg Jr., former chairman of Helzberg Diamonds. “More than just a great journalist, she had a lot courage to do what she did.”
From “Women’s News” section writer to travel editor to society editor, her mission evolved to covering the entire community, particularly the under-recognized civic contributions of African-Americans and Hispanics.
“She had an array of friends in all communities that were pretty special,” her cousin Irv Hockaday, former CEO of Hallmark Cards Inc., said on Tuesday. He and other family members were with her when she died peacefully.
As The Star’s people editor in her final 18 years with the paper, her Wednesday profiles introduced readers to scores of role models. Week after week, her column proved that Kansas City society was more inclusive than exclusive.
“Society reporting should really be a common denominator for the community,” she once said. “It should be a medium for bringing people together instead of setting people apart.”
In 1982, when editors first asked if she wanted the society job, she resisted. Coverage then consisted of party photos and scores of names. Hockaday thought the names and faces did not reflect the city’s diversity. She took the job “on the one condition that she would define what the society was,” said Irv Hockaday.
Grant, the Urban League president, said Laura Hockaday was “progressive in her thinking and inclusive in her behavior.”
In honoring Hockaday in 1986, the league told her: “With professional skill, warmth, compassion and courage, you have opened the society sections of The Star for all to see that Kansas City is a beautiful ethnic mosaic.”
Even though “Laura was a part of high society, she never acted like it,” said a longtime Star colleague, former religion writer Helen T. Gray. “She acted like your best friend.... No airs whatsoever.
“When she would smile and ask how you were doing, she really wanted to know — how are you doing?” said Gray, The Star’s first African-American woman reporter, hired in 1965. “She did not see color or class, she just saw people.”
The Kansas City Association of Black Journalists now offers a Laura R. Hockaday scholarship. When she retired in 2000, the city of Kansas City passed a resolution honoring her decades of service. It read, in part: “Laura Hockaday has been deeply dedicated to her profession and her city, and has been a major force of change that has made Kansas City a better place.”
Jackie White, longtime fashion writer for The Star, recalled Tuesday the huge impact Hockaday had on the newspaper.
“She insisted on desegregating the society column, to make it inclusive of all of Kansas City,” White said. “She did that because she knew the image the Star projected about the city. And she changed that. She wanted to include everyone and add diversity to those pages.”
White described Hockaday as a walking encyclopedia about the social world. She knew everyone and all their back stories. And she knew how to get them on the phone at deadline.
“If I or anyone needed a phone number, she had them all — and she kept them long after she retired,” said White.
Hockaday, who never married, was the daughter of the late Clara S. Hockaday, who co-founded the annual Pembroke Hill Clothesline Sale in 1953 and the Jewel Ball in 1954. Her father, the late Burnham Hockaday, was a Kansas City native who served as a 1st lieutenant in World War I in the Army’s 89th Division.
Laura Hockaday lost her beloved brother, John, to cancer in 1962. He was 21 years old, a student at the University of Kansas and an enlisted member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
Early in Hockaday’s newspaper career, she helped write the “Come Into My Kitchen” column — a development that led to quite a culinary debacle. She once put two cups of grated lemon peel in a chicken casserole instead of two teaspoons.
For weeks photographers puckered their lips whenever they walked by her desk.
Which leads back to those legendary bourbon balls. Hockaday got the recipe from a woman who sent them to her son in Vietnam.
With the help of loyal colleagues, Laura rolled up hundreds of bourbon balls for many years for reporters, editors, photographers and printers. She always added more bourbon than the recipe called for.
“You couldn’t bring booze into the newsroom,” she said. “This way you just rolled it up and disguised it.”
A private burial at Mount Washington Cemetery is being planned.
Former Star reporter James A. Fussell contributed to this story.