A farewell to Kathleen

Kathleen O'Keefe
Kathleen O'Keefe hard at work in the Post newsroom with Japanese photographer Mabuchi Naoki. Bill Burke

A farewell to Kathleen

Kathleen Anne O’Keefe was the co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post. On December 2, she passed away due to complications from pancreatic cancer after a nine-month struggle with the disease. She was only 54.

Without her noble and tireless efforts the newspaper would never have gotten off the ground, would not have survived for so long and would not have become the respected publication it quickly developed into, both loved and feared throughout Cambodia and around the world.

In the heady days of 1992, after we received permission to open a newspaper, Kathleen took charge of an endless number of tasks needed to get off the ground: setting up a computer system; rewiring our building as power lines were all shot; installing a generator as blackouts were constant; training Cambodians how to use computers as they had never seen one before; sorting out the production and printing process; creating the necessary paperwork to sell ads and follow revenues; sorting out a distribution network; repairing broken printers by herself as nobody in town could do it; and getting telephone landlines – a process that required about 20 visits to the MPTC. The list goes on and on and on.

We were riding the whirlwind back then, charging head on into totally uncharted waters in a country that was still at war.

It was frenzied, chaotic and nerve-wracking, and we were flat out 24/7. It was also the most exciting adventure in which either of us could ever possibly imagine being involved.

After six months of scrambling to get set up, the first issue came out on July 10, 1992, but there was no rest for the weary.

We had four paid staff (Kathleen and I worked for free) and managed to produce six issues when revenues finally started to top expenses, a stroke of luck, as we were almost broke.

Weeks unfolded into months, and months into years. With Kathleen as managing director, the paper expanded from eight to eventually 20 or 24 pages per issue, not the least because she was out pounding the pavement selling ads, one of the most thankless jobs on earth.

All too often, it was outside contracts for layout and design work, all undertaken by Kathleen, which helped keep the paper afloat year after year. She had a refined sense of style, was a wizard with software, and mastered the mechanics of producing brochures, pamphlets and books overnight.

She also became a beloved member of the small journalist community in Phnom Penh, I suppose in part because she had the most beautiful, penetrating eyes in town, but much more so because she had a generous and caring heart. People loved her and she was able to fit in with the helter skelter world of hacks abroad, not to mention learning how to cope with the more quixotic characters drawn to journalism, including deadbeats, tricksters and drunks.

One small story captures what I think many people remember the most about Kathleen: her general respect for human dignity.

In September 1997, a Vietnam Airlines flight crashed at Pochentong Airport when landing, where 64 people lost their lives. The Post was alerted and Kathleen, along with several reporters, sped out there to check on the story.

Dozens of villagers and cops also showed up on the scene and, to the dismay of the press, many were only involved in looting corpses and rifling through the luggage strewn over several acres of wreckage.

Kathleen came across an infant still alive. She picked up the child and raced back to Calmette Hospital where she had to argue with staff to treat the young toddler for free. With more than a bit of gentle prodding, she persuaded the hospital to deliver emergency care. The baby survived.

She didn’t look for credit and didn’t ask for it. I didn’t even learn about the story for several weeks, as I was overseas at the time.

I think it was this kind of unselfishness that many will think about when they remember Kathleen. She gave from the heart to the Post and to her friends, and to unknown others time and again.

Jason Barber, a veteran Post editor with impeccable writing abilities, and Kathleen spent the last 17 years together. They were happy and deservedly so.

My deepest sympathies go out to Jason as his loss must be unbearable. And also to Kathleen’s family in the US who have lost too early a very special soul.

Michael Hayes co-founded the Phnom Penh Post in 1992 and was publisher and editor-in-chief from 1992 to 2008.

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