January 8th, 2018 at 10:55 AM

Mickey’s Empty Seat

Mike McGraw’s desk in The Hale Center for Journalism at Kansas City PBS. McGraw, who passed away this weekend, left behind personal effects such as his jacket, pictures of beloved people and places, and stacks of reporter’s notes. He expected to come back. He will be very missed. (John McGrath | Flatland)
Mike McGraw’s desk in The Hale Center for Journalism at Kansas City PBS. McGraw, who passed away this weekend, left behind personal effects such as his jacket, pictures of beloved people and places, and stacks of reporter’s notes. He expected to come back. He will be very missed. (John McGrath | Flatland)

On Saturday, Jan. 6, our special projects reporter, Mike McGraw, passed away after a brief battle with cancer. “Mickey,” as he was known to us, was 69.

He came here to Kansas City PBS after “retirement” from a stellar journalism career. He won a Pulitzer Prize, our profession’s highest honor, during his 30 years at The Kansas City Star. From MU to KU to Princeton and beyond, he took time to mentor the next generation. You can read The Star’s full obituary here, and I hope that you do, even if to just begin to understand how he was a giant in the industry.

I was the last editor for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. At about half his age, female, and easily half as experienced, it may have seemed an odd pairing.

In perhaps a nod to that discrepancy, one of his former editors once asked me, “How do you edit Mick?”

“I don’t really,” I told him. “I just manage him.”

For McGraw was someone with an insatiable quest for shining a light, for exposing wrongdoing and telling the stories of the voiceless. And he was good at it, perhaps the best. The only hard part was pruning his story list. There were so many he wanted to tell.

Which explains why after retirement he couldn’t help himself — he returned to a newsroom focusing on local, long-form journalism. He was with us at Flatland, the digital magazine of KCPT, for three years, working three days a week. (Though we all know Mickey had little concept of the words “retirement” and “part-time.”)

That time’s a blip by the larger measure of his career, so I can’t — and won’t — speak on it all. I can say that while he was here, the legend in investigative journalism said he was as happy as he’d ever been as a reporter. Perhaps that was just him managing me as much as I thought I was managing him. But we gave him the freedom to write the stories he believed in, break free of the rigidity of print publications, and explore new avenues for sharing his stories. All perks, I believe, he earned.

Of all the stages of grief, an editor has to add in another: Failure. Today, I feel as though I failed. As though it was on my watch he died, and that death lets down so many — his family, the journalism community, and all the stories left unwritten. Reading through the amazing tributes coming in for him from across the country and beyond, I know, though, he didn’t belong to me and he didn’t belong to us.

We did get to have him for a little while, and we did good things. He was happy and proud of the work.

We should all be so lucky when the time comes.

— Kirstin McCudden is the managing editor of digital and multimedia content at Kansas City PBS.