Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in The Star on July 9, 2000.
The late James P. Davis, a longtime Wyandotte County commissioner, was a tall, imposing figure who was the first African-American to confront me with The Star’s sorry history of mistreating black people in print.
It was in 1973. Davis had a habit of making thundering denunciations when he got angry, and he was angry that day. Drawing himself up to his full height in front of me, he roared: “The Kansas City Star never prints the pictures of blacks unless they are charged with a felony!”
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The Kansas City Times, the morning edition of The Star back then, had published photographs of three black youths from Wyandotte County on Page One that morning. The youths were charged with murder.
Davis’ accusation against this newspaper was not quite true on the day he made it, but it was too true for comfort. By that time, the color wall had begun breaking down in the way this newspaper covered different races, but Davis’ observation had been totally and persistently true not that long before.
In her own way, former Star society editor Laura Hockaday did more to correct Davis’ complaint than anyone else who has worked here at 18th Street and Grand Boulevard. Backed by former publisher James Hale, Hockaday agreed to take on the society editor’s job in 1982 only on the condition that she be permitted to portray society as it truly exists in this city and region.
Hockaday, who retired a few days ago after 38 years at this newspaper, understood an essential fact. To fulfill its potential, a city should be colorblind. People of all races and all walks of life engage in ceremonies and hard work on behalf of worthy causes, and those people deserve to be reflected accurately in the pages of this city’s metropolitan newspaper.
Hockaday always seemed to get more excited about telling the story of someone who had done something good than the tale of someone caught in scandal.
She was self-deprecating almost to a fault. She did not consider herself special, but Laura Hockaday was special in several important ways that make her absence from this institution a gaping void.
She had a knack for putting people at ease. She smiled, and anyone within range knew that smile was genuine. No matter how difficult the personality she was interviewing, Hockaday didn’t let her personal ego get in the way of collecting the facts that needed collecting, of enticing the interview subject to trust her with information that would have been disclosed to few others.
Over the years, I have covered more gubernatorial inaugurations and other political parties and celebrations than I care to count. Often, Hockaday was there, too, notebook in hand, double-checking to make certain that she got the names and facts right.
Descended from society blue bloods, Hockaday easily could have traveled only in the circles dominated by the Mission Hills set, but had she done so, the region’s readers would have been less well-informed about people whose contributions have been vital to the continuing success of Kansas City and its myriad of suburbs.
In Hockaday’s eyes, human worth did not get measured by skin color or other ethnic features. People were worthwhile because they did something or were something that triggered the natural-born storyteller in the veteran journalist.
Last year, I was one of the editors from this newspaper who sat behind one-way glass and watched and listened to women readers who had agreed to participate in focus groups. We were attempting to learn things about readers who had not been regular readers but had agreed to read the paper for a month.
During the initial session, one African-American woman was particularly skeptical about the paper’s ability to portray issues important to her.
At the follow-up session four weeks later, that same woman said her attitude had changed. She was now enthusiastic about The Star because she had read a feature article Hockaday had written about the woman’s friend.
The focus group member was impressed because Hockaday’s story portrayed her friend exactly as she was. “I want to read The Star now, and I will always look for Laura Hockaday’s stories.”
That’s the kind of tribute all journalists should aspire to.