The stories exploring the power of Kansas City Star journalist Mike McGraw’s life-changing work could begin in any of a hundred places.
They could just as well begin with the black-and-white photograph McGraw’s son Andy McGraw remembered hanging from a light switch in his house growing up.
It was a picture of a coal miner, the son told an overflowing crowd packed into the Kansas City Star’s Press Pavilion for a memorial service Sunday afternoon. The service came a week after McGraw died of cancer at 69. In the intervening days, prominent journalists from across the country had made statements paying tribute to McGraw’s work and reputation.
The photo of the coal miner came from a time when McGraw — or “Mick” as he was known to friends — was freshly building a legacy of investigative reporting fueled by a love for the strength and dignity of every human being.
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“Dad made the point to me,” Andy McGraw said, “that the lights only came on because of the workers in the mine, breathing in the earth.”
Sunday’s memorial took notice of McGraw’s achievements — including a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk Awards and many, many others.
But “in the end,” said Mark Zieman, vice president of operations for the McClatchy Co. and former editor and publisher of The Star, “Mick’s legacy…is not awards and trophies, but kindness, friendship and love.”
“Mick loved people,” Zieman said, “especially the little guys who were victims, the voiceless, folks crying out from prison…or crying out from the grave.”
McGraw had retired from The Star in April 2014 after a 30-year career but continued to work in journalism.
The way McGraw worked was evident even in his final weeks at North Kansas City Hospital, said the family, friends and co-workers who visited and stayed with him.
“Dad interviewed everyone who came into his room,” Andy McGraw said, “not as a distraction from the considerable pain he was in, or to endear himself to his caregivers. But because he was genuinely curious.”
It didn’t matter, his son said, that McGraw was agnostic and a reader of the aggressive atheist writer Christopher Hitchens. When one of his nurses at the hospital with a beautiful voice blessed him with a rich rendition of “Amazing Grace,” he “loved it,” Andy McGraw said. “He told her, ‘You grabbed my heart.’”
“He was not pandering to her,” he said. “He knew it was her love for Jesus that made the connection between them possible.”
McGraw’s fanatical attention to detail in his reporting was the same attention he gave his wife, Ruth, and both of his sons and their families, his son John said. John McGraw was a big “Ghostbusters” fan as a kid, and his father was the type who built his son a Ghostbusters costume “with a fully-fabricated photon pack, modeled to a T.”
“He listened,” John McGraw said. “My father listened.”
Saying goodbye is hard, Zieman said, especially with the many difficulties and uncertainties ahead for journalism.
McGraw leaves at a time “when the need for his type of investigative reporting has never been greater,” Zieman said. “But Mick the consummate reporter never left a story with a hole. Even though his passing leaves a big hole, he spent his life teaching us how to fill it.”
“With a whole generation of journalists that he mentored,” Zieman said, “Mick lives on in them.”
In his last days, McGraw was in hospice care. One of those days, John McGraw said, he talked with his sons about the end that was coming.
“I asked, ‘Are you transitioning?’” John said. “And he said, ‘I feel like I’m packing for a journey. But it’s not a sad journey.’”