Kathleen Anne O’Keefe, co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post and mentor to a generation of Cambodian journalists, died in the United States on Monday. She was 54.
O’Keefe had battled pancreatic cancer for nine months, “which she faced with her customary backbone of steel”, her family wrote in an obituary published in The Boston Globe.
In turns newspaper founder, media trainer, human rights worker and advocate for those with HIV/AIDS, O’Keefe is remembered by family, friends and former colleagues as resilient, compassionate and deeply empathetic.
In 1992, with then-husband Michael Hayes, O’Keefe moved to Cambodia from Bangkok, where she had been working for a refugee organisation, to launch the Post, which started as a fortnightly newspaper.
It was to be the first independent newspaper in any language in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975.
The couple rented a three-storey villa opposite Wat Botum and lived on the first floor of a building that would house the newspaper’s offices, their home and various other guests, including foreign correspondent and early Post contributor Nate Thayer.
Those who worked at the paper as it was getting off the ground say the ambitious project would likely have foundered without O’Keefe’s steady hand.
“Kathleen O’Keefe was the Phnom Penh Post’s secret weapon – a combination of General Patton and Mother Teresa,” Thayer said.
“There was never any question among anyone, from the get go, that it was Kathleen who was in charge, the irreplaceable glue that kept the very, very goofy idea of planting the flag of the Free Press in the headquarters of the belly of the beast, Phnom Penh, alive.
“I can’t tell you how many times Michael Hayes reiterated that the paper could simply not survive without Kathleen.”
Although the couple later divorced, they continued to work together at the Post.
The first young Cambodians whom they recruited speak of a woman who was immensely caring and affectionate, especially towards local staff.
Chap Narith, the first employee hired by Kathleen and Michael, after their cleaner, remembers a kindly American woman whom he first met while working as a waiter at the International House restaurant.
“At the time, my English was terrible, but Kathleen was one of the customers who realised the difficulties of Cambodians to communicate in English at that time in 1992. She spoke slowly and clearly to me so that I got almost all of her words,” Narith said.
After a month, they had struck up a friendship and Narith was offered a job to handle the administrative side of the newly launched newspaper, where he still works today.
“Kathleen, a charming, kind and generous lady, cared very much for the suffering of Cambodians and tried her best to assist the Cambodian people and nation,” Narith said.
Putting out a newspaper on limited finances without access to a local printing press and with frequent power cuts presented a formidable challenge. But it didn’t faze O’Keefe.
Ker Munthit, who joined the Post in November 1992, remembers “a wonderful boss and sister full of kindness and energy” who would fly to Bangkok to deliver the paper to a printing house after pulling an all-nighter on deadline day at the office.
“Perhaps most people just remember Kathleen as the co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post, but she did more than that. She helped plant the seeds for free speech and the freedom of the press that we all enjoy today,” he said.
“That is a big legacy she left behind in a country she once called home, and we should never ever forget that legacy.”
In the days when Cambodia was slowly opening up to the world after the Paris Peace Agreements, and on paper committing itself to all sorts of democratic freedoms, O’Keefe was unafraid of speaking out about freedom of the press.
Anette Marcher, a former reporter, remembers her standing up and speaking boldly about the right and duty of journalists to pose difficult questions at a symposium “consisting mainly of powerful male government officials”.
After leaving the Post in 2003, O’Keefe did a variety of work for community groups and human rights organisations, often as a volunteer. Later, she managed a project for media development NGO Internews Europe to improve media coverage of HIV/AIDS.
In 2009, after 17 years, she left Cambodia. Together with her partner, former Post editor Jason Barber, O’Keefe travelled the south and east of Africa in 2010, before taking up a job in late 2011 in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
There, she worked until late-2013 on a child protection project for an Italian NGO and trained radio station staff from Somalia and Somaliland for a Dutch organisation.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, who worked with O’Keefe first at the Post and later on the HIV/AIDS media project, remembers her endearing sense of humour.
“Unlike most foreigners, she felt like a Cambodian. Because she understood what Cambodians needed.… She built not only professional relationships with us, but social and personal relationships,” he said.
“It’s funny because she was our boss but she became so close to us so we could ask for anything, even ask her to lend us money.”
A native of Medford, Massachusetts, O’Keefe graduated from Harvard University in the early 1980s before working for a tech company in Boston.
She joined the Asia Foundation in 1987 in San Francisco, later working for it in Kuala Lumpur from 1989 into 1990.
In 1991, before moving to Cambodia, O’Keefe worked for a year in Bangkok for the Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA), processing Vietnamese refugees applying for residence in the US.
Kathleen O’Keefe is survived by her husband, Jason Barber; father, Joe O’Keefe; and three siblings.
Her family asks that in lieu of sending flowers or gifts, to “please carry out acts of kindness to others, in memory of Kathleen and in keeping with her spirit and nature. Love is the answer”.
Tributes to Kathleen O’Keefe
Kathleen had one of the sharpest minds, and certainly the most beautiful eyes, of anyone I have ever met. She was an organizational genius with a beautiful heart.
Kathleen O'Keefe was the Phnom Penh Post's secret weapon--a combination of General Patton and Mother Theresa. I have never met anybody who did not love Kathleen O'Keefe.
There was never any question among anyone, from the get go, that it was Kathleen who was in charge, the irreplaceable glue, that kept the very, very goofy idea of planting the flag of the Free Press in the headquarters of the belly of the beast, Phnom Penh, alive.
When the Post opened in a three story rented villa across from Wat Botum in 1991, Michael and Kathleen lived on the first floor, the Post newspaper operations were on the second floor, and I lived on the third floor. The newspaper, against all odds, took root and deservedly acquired the reputation as the must-read, unflinching, truth-telling, remarkably principled bastion of the Free Press.
While the Phnom Penh Post flourished, Kathleen and Michael's marriage did not. Soon enough, Michael moved up the extra bedroom next to mine on the third floor and Kathleen remained on the first floor. I am sure Michael deserved it, whatever it was that made things like marriages and newspapers not work out. But the newspaper operation never skipped a beat. Michael and Kathleen and the rest of the Post troops continued to cherish the Post.
But everyone had a special, untouchable place in their heart to cherish Kathleen.
I can't tell you how many times Michael Hayes reiterated that the paper could simply not survive without Kathleen. He was, like he mostly was, right. When he was not, Kathleen stepped in and fixed things that the rest of us did not have the talent or brain power or will or charm to accomplish. She was the glue that kept the beast together and she kept well-oiled the many, ever changing moving parts of running a newspaper.
I loved Kathleen O'Keefe. Everyone did.
And I was and, remain, in awe of her talents and her heart. Everyone who knew her was.
It is very, very sad that Kathleen has gone now, at the age I am now, writing this, 54. It is sobering for everyone.
But it is much, much more a blessing for everyone lucky enough who she shared her special, extraordinary self with, however cut short that has been.
Nate Thayer, former Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent in Cambodia
I was shocked and couldn’t believe it when I heard the news that Kathleen had passed away. How could a young, kind, generous, beautiful lady be there on this world for such a short time like this? It’s unbelievable.
The first time I met her was at the International House in Phnom Penh while I worked there. She was a regular guest. At the time my English was terrible but Kathleen was one of the customers who realised the difficulties of Cambodians to communicate in English at that time in 1992.
She spoke slowly and clearly to me so that I almost got all of her words. After a month of knowing her I was offered a job at the Phnom Penh Post.
Kathleen, a charming, kind and generous lady took care very much for the suffering of Cambodians and tried her best to assist the Cambodian people and nation. She was one of the best American daughters coming to help the Cambodian nation and people towards prosperity, liberty, respect for human rights and of course press freedom.
Like the Khmer saying, the good people cannot live for too long on this earth, while the bad struggle for too long with their sins. The good people do not deserve to live on this earth but in heaven. I believe Kathleen’s soul has gone to heaven. Please rest in peace.
Chap Narith, account director/special projects manager, The Phnom Penh Post
Kathleen O’Keefe, you passed away, but the memories we have had with me and other colleagues are constant.
I met Kathleen sometime in 2000 as my boss and just a few months later she became like a close elder sister and living in a big family of the old age Phnom Penh Post.
You are an American that was deep in local tradition and culture and very humanitarian to many people around you and you have taken care of them the most.
You treated staff as members of your family and very kindly. I am about to cry when I see a memorial funny picture with you.
Kathleen, you are in my heart and I wish you to rest in peace. My condolences to all of your family.
Vong Sokheng, Phnom Penh Post reporter (2000- present)
As former editor-in-chief of Cambodge Soir (1995-2006), I would like to pay tribute to Kathleen. She was a very great person and all people in Cambodia who love truth must thank her for her integrity and her courage. She was also a very kind person with a great sensibility. As their elder, I am sure that young journalists in Cambodia will never forget her commitment for a better Cambodia and a better life for all Cambodian people.
Pierre Gillette, former editor-in-chief, Cambodge Soir
As an inexperienced Cambodian journalist back in early 1990s I came across many western journalists, including Kathleen O'Keefe. Kathleen was very friendly and pleasant to all Cambodian journalists like me regardless of their backgrounds.
I would like to recall her greeting me when I worked for Reuters in the late 1990s, by saying: “Hi, Madra what is your scoop today?” I listened to her and learned a great deal in terms of journalism.
Kathleen O'Keefe has passed away, but her sweet memories at work and friendships among Cambodian journalists continue to fly high in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Ek Madra, former UNTAC interpreter, reporter at The Cambodia Daily (1993- 97), and Reuters correspondent (1998 – 2009). Currently a press officer with the Royal Government of Cambodia.
I always wondered how such a small, lithe body could contain such an enormous heart.
But yours could, Kathleen, and the amount of people all over the world who have benefited from your courage and generosity is simply uncountable. From poor young Cambodians, that you decided to give a chance in life, to heartbroken hacks who just needed a shoulder to cry on. You have touched and helped more people than even the most ambitious human rights worker can ever dream to achieve.
Now your heart is no longer beating, Kathleen, and the world has become a substantially less caring and giving place. To me, the only comfort is remembering that I have had the privilege to know you and to be your friend.
And to remember the times we spent together. Like that one time at a Phnom Penh symposium consisting mainly of powerful male government officials when you stood up and spoke boldly about the right and the duty of journalists to ask critical questions.
Or that – completely different – time when we sat on a hilltop somewhere in Burgundy, France, watching the sunset and talking about how simple and beautiful life can be.
There are many more moments that I will remember. But I will still miss you terribly, Kathleen. Because although my heart is nowhere near as big and accommodating as yours, you will always have a prominent place in it.
Rest in peace, Kathleen. All my love.
Anette Marcher, former Phnom Penh Post reporter
Kathleen was always such an open and friendly person.
We first met when I moved to Cambodia with dreams of being a journalist during UNTAC in 1992.
Though recently founded, the Phnom Penh Post was already such an institution, and Kathleen one of its principals. I have a long memory for folks like her, with her openness to everyone, even me – when I was just a newbie.
I used to aspire to her fashion sense - that so-gorgeous-without-even-trying way she had about her. In fact, that’s probably the way I’ll remember everything about her: so-gorgeous-without-even-trying.
To most people Kathleen was often known as a co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post, but she did more than that.
She has helped plant the seeds of free press in Cambodia that we all enjoy today.
That is a big legacy she left behind in a country she once called home, and we should never ever forget that legacy. She has touched so many lives here in Cambodia and she will be terribly missed by all of us. Rest in peace, sister!”
Ker Munthit, former Phnom Penh Post reporter (1992-1997)
It was easy for people to fall in love with Kathleen. I once had a crush on her, but that early admiration for this beautiful, bright, charming, compassionate, energetic, funny, caring and truly good person turned into a long and close friendship.
And when I got married to Nuj, Kathleen embraced her too and they became very dear friends.
The two main areas where our paths crossed were the Phnom Penh Post and the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
Her presence and role in both were vital for their success. I contributed to the Post in the early years and dealt mainly with Michael.
But her presence was everywhere, keeping the ship on course and off the rocks. In the FCC, her energy galvanized us and helped ensure that the club became a cultural and intellectual centre in Phnom Penh. She was particularly active in putting together photo exhibitions, but she had comment on everything. I didn't always agree with her, but I was grateful and awed.
And then, of course, she was like a second mother to my sons.
She even went with Nuj to Pochentong after the coup of July 1997, later appearing on CNN newscasts carrying a little boy onto a Thai Royal Air Force plane for evacuation - action beyond the call of duty.
She never became a mother, but she had many children, including [my] Billy and Baramee. My thoughts also go out to Jason, Kathleen’s family and her former husband, Michael. Meeting Kathleen was a coup de foudre for me and I will always love her and her memory.
Leo Dobbs, former Cambodia-based correspondent
Shared a space and lives above the Mekong River with Kathleen in 1997.
She tolerated the long hours of me churning out news stories below her bedroom loft, and was a great supporter of us news hunters and gatherers.
She had a way of making you feel you belonged – and was the heart and soul of the Phnom Penh Post, plus made sure we got paid! A passionate lover of lost children and life.
Kathleen and Jason's visit to Australia brought me great happiness - and was a link back to the time we were all a family.
Tricia Fitzgerald, former South China Morning Post correspondent.
Actually, unlike most foreigners, she felt like a Cambodian. Because she understood what Cambodian people needed.
She built not only professional relationships with us but even social and personal relationships with all the journalists working with her, particularly Cambodian journalists. She was a funny lady and she enjoyed reading funny stories.
She tried to encourage and she tried to help other Khmer staff including one of our colleagues who had trouble with his family, his wife wanted to divorce him.
She tried to console him and reconcile the family. It’s funny because she was our boss but she became so close to us so we could ask for anything, even ask her to lend us money.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, former Phnom Penh Post reporter (1992-1995)
I met Kathleen in Bangkok in 1990. Kathleen was the first person to invite me to a Thanksgiving party in Phnom Penh at their Phnom Penh Post house. I will always remember Kathleen and her gentle voice.
Rest in Peace Kathleen.
As co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post, Kathleen was heart and soul of one of the best independent newspapers of its kind anywhere. Her values and judgement shone through its pages. As part of an editorial team under her joint management, we dug where we wanted and reported what we found, knowing that we always had her smart and steely support. During her time at the Post she cared very deeply for the paper and what it stood for, and she cared for its staff like a family.
Matt Grainger, Phnom Penh Post editor 1993-6 and 1998