Advertisement
  1. News

Michael Konrad spent his life making his co-workers and community better

The former Tampa Bay Times editor died July 16 after contracting the coronavirus.

The obituary Mike Konrad’s family wrote would never have made it past him. He died at Oak Tree Hospital, it read. That was incorrect. It was Oak Hill Hospital.

Mr. Konrad, who worked for the Tampa Bay Times for nearly 30 years, would have caught that right away.

It may seem like a small thing.

But small things matter.

And collected over a lifetime, they add up. Like the birthday cards Mr. Konrad always sent, the bouquet that showed up at a funeral home before anyone shared the address, the 3 a.m. drive to take a friend to the airport, the call he answered from a hopeful reporter, the quiet confidence he gave to so many journalists as they started their careers.

Mr. Konrad spent his life developing friendships and building community.

He died July 16 after contracting the coronavirus. He was 64.

We can’t have large funerals now or wakes or memorial services. But since Mr. Konrad’s death, the people he knew over a lifetime have shared their stories.

These are some of them.

Mike Konrad, in the St. Louis Cardinals hat, with family at a Cardinals game. He also was a loyal Tampa Bay Rays fan and visited every baseball stadium in North America. “He was our rock,” said Teresa Keefe, Mr. Konrad’s sister-in-law. “He just had this sense that people needed to be connected and cared for.” [ Courtesy Teresa Keefe ]

The Konrad family started each day with the morning paper in Decatur, Ill., and ended it with their local Effingham Daily News. By his junior year in high school, Mr. Konrad decided he’d go into broadcast journalism.

As the high school marching band’s drum major, he also drove everyone nuts, said his brother, Scott Konrad. Mr. Konrad was always humming and drumming, and practiced the clarinet constantly.

At the University of Illinois, he picked up the trumpet and switched to print journalism. After working at three newspapers in Illinois, Mr. Konrad moved to Florida to work at the Times as a copy editor.

He remained loyal, however, to the St. Louis Cardinals.

In 1990, he became editor of the Times’ Hernando bureau. For years, journalists in the bureau worked from a small office on a steep hill in Brooksville.

Bill Stevens, who oversaw the Times’ bureaus, spent a lot of time chatting with Mr. Konrad in his pristine office, newspapers stacked neatly in one corner, his pants and shirts always pressed and creased. Like his appearance and surroundings, Mr. Konrad remained unruffled.

“I never met anybody that didn’t like Mike,” Stevens said, “even people who hated the St. Pete Times, and there were many of them in Hernando County.”

Mr. Konrad oversaw stories that changed the community — from ceaseless coverage of the Suncoast Parkway to reporting that killed a proposal to develop land that’s now Weeki Wachee Preserve to exposing shoddy homebuilding practices, which helped change Florida hurricane laws.

Journalists he worked with remember 12-hour days, plus nights and weekends spent in the newsroom, but Mr. Konrad, who played clarinet for the Hernando Symphony Orchestra, always made time for sports, the arts and his friends.

The Hernando bureau in 2014. From left: Barbara Behrendt, Jean Hamilton, Kathryn Varn, Mike Konrad, Octavio Jones, Arleen Spenceley, Dan DeWitt and Danny Valentine. Lisa Buie served as Mr. Konrad’s first assistant editor. “He taught me not only how to make a story better but also how to lead a bureau.” [ Courtesy Kathryn Varn ]

Most journalists never expected to end up in Brooksville, a small Southern town, Stevens said. But in the Hernando bureau, they found a place rich with news and an editor devoted to helping them get better.

We should note – editors aren’t always the most beloved of colleagues.

“Their boss changes their precious prose, and reporters think their precious prose should not be touched,” said Barbara Fredricksen, a former Times journalist. “But all of Mike’s reporters just loved him.”

Graham Brink, now the Times’ editor of editorials, spent nearly two years in the Hernando bureau at the start of his career. After an arsonist set a series of wildfires in the area, Mr. Konrad taught Brink what to look for.

“This isn’t a story about wildfires,” Mr. Konrad told the young reporter. “This is a story about a wildfire arsonist. Even though we don’t know who’s doing it, tell me — who does this?”

It’s a lesson Brink shares with young reporters today.

As Jeffrey Gettleman’s first editor, Mr. Konrad was gentle with criticism.

“He taught me so much about writing: how to lean on the verbs, say things in a few words, change up the rhythm of a sentence,” said Gettleman, now South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times and a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Kathryn Varn started an internship in the Hernando bureau, annoyed that she was far from the other Times’ interns. But soon, she settled into a newsroom that Mr. Konrad made feel like a family, with Friday lunches at locally owned restaurants.

Varn now covers criminal justice and public safety for the Times.

When Mr. Konrad retired nearly three years ago, he did something not many journalists get to do anymore, Brink said.

Mr. Konrad got to the end of his career on his own terms, not because of a layoff or downsizing. He planned to travel, continue playing with the orchestra and watch lots of baseball.

When Mike Konrad visited childhood neighbor Diane Holloway and her husband in Canada last July, he made a roomful of fast friends at parties, hiked and stayed in a hostel, which he was glad to have done, she said, so he’d know never to do it again. [ Courtesy Diane Holloway ]

Mr. Konrad did not write his own obituary, but the one his family wrote contains some of his words.

In the hospital, when asked how he’d like to be remembered, he wrote that he was a musician and baseball fan and someone who believed everyone is equal.

He also wrote this: “He was a journalist who believed in the power of journalism to promote a fair democracy that works for everyone.”

Mr. Konrad hoped a tree would be planted in his memory along the walking trails at Tom Varn Park in Brooksville.

For his long-time friend Fredricksen, that seems fitting. Brooksville is where he put down roots and spent a career using journalism to make it better.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Barbara Fredricksen’s last name, which Mike Konrad would have caught, too.

Those we’ve lost:

We’re collecting stories of the people we’ve lost to the coronavirus. Please share suggestions at khare@poynter.org, and sign up for our weekly newsletter, coming soon, called How They Lived.

Read other Epilogues:

Deo Persaud built his life from scratch in Guyana, then did it again in America

Rita Mosely walked miles each day for work and pushed her family much farther

In the world of dentistry, Dr. Peter Dawson was a rock star

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement