Farewell To An Old Friend

ken-reese.jpg Over the transom today -- to borrow a phrase from the aforementioned old friend -- came some sad news. Kenneth M. Reese, who wrote C&EN's Newscripts column for 36 years, passed away on March 3 at the age of 85. Ken had a long history with C&EN, first joining the Chicago office in 1954. He eventually found his way to ACS headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 1962, when he assumed the role of the magazine's managing editor. In 1967, Ken retired from the weekly editor's grind to take the best job at C&EN -- Newscripts Editor. Although his wasn't the first byline to accompany the Newscripts column, it's fair to say that Ken took C&EN's odd little back page and made it into one of the magazine's most read. Even five years after Reese's retirement, readers still tell us that Newscripts is the first page they flip to -- the highest compliment one could pay columnist. The loyal following undoubtedly comes from Ken's wry humor, easy rapport with readers, and genius at picking subject matter. As one of the gang of writers who has helped put the column together since Ken's retirement in 2004, I'd personally like to thank him for setting Newscripts' editorial policy. "The editorial policy, if any," he wrote on the occasion of the column's 50th anniversary in 1993, "favors the chemical over the nonchemical, the scientific over the nonscientific, the grotesque over the normal." From this Ken managed to assemble a brilliant body of work, documenting everything from soapmaking inmates to spontaneous human combustion to Komodo dragon acupuncture. Personally, I'm still in awe of the breadth items he cobbled together for his recurring feature from the Department of Obscure Information: About 1 g of ozone will neutralize the odor of a liter of hog manure slurry; Japan saw the arrival of flush toilets in the late 1980s; red and yellow onions, but not white ones, contain quercetin. I can only assume that Ken gathered such information without the aid of the Internet, since he always submitted his columns  as neatly typed pages (presumably tapped out on the typewriter in his iconic picture) which were then reentered into an electronic file by a copyeditor. Have you got a favorite Newscripts column? A memory of Ken you'd like to share? Please put it in the comments. I'm sure Ken would want us to remember him with a good laugh.

2 Comments

  1. Ken Reese was one of the first people I met when I joined C&EN as a young reporter in 1969. He had already left the magazine, but was still writing Newscripts. He was a close friend of the ACS art director, Joe Jacobs, who later became and still is my husband. Ken was an exceptionally good newsman, a great raconteur, and a great friend. He had a hearty laugh, and his amazing manual typewriter, which became his signature. We always joked that some day the typewriter would be donated to the Smithsonian. Ken was a physically fit guy who played racquetball well into his 70s. He also enjoyed a good drink with his friends. My husband and I counted Ken as a good friend, and he will be missed.

  2. When I started at C&EN as a production editor in 1980, Ken was already a somewhat mythic figure at the magazine. He appeared in the magazine’s offices usually no more than once a week to drop off his next Newscripts column and pick up his voluminous mail. Ken had an amazing cadre of regular correspondents who fed him a continuous stream of material, much of it that made its way into Newscripts.

    I was actually both a little in awe and somewhat intimidated by this gruff, gravelly voiced veteran of C&EN. My boss, Don Soisson, and the staff editor, Ernie Carpenter, fed that with their stories about Ken as C&EN’s tough-as-nails managing editor. One story that stuck with me concerned C&EN’s annual Editorial Board/Staff meeting. In the old days, you could tell that the alcohol consumption at the staff dinner following the Editorial Board meeting had been a tad high, they said, if the following morning found Ken eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream at the start of the staff meeting.

    I spent the next 14 years of my career at C&EN in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I had little contact with Ken. I did read Newscripts every week, though, even if my reading of the rest of C&EN was not as thorough as my editors would have preferred. When I returned to Washington in 1994, I got to know Ken pretty well, and learned that beneath that gruff exterior was a kind, friendly, funny, and erudite person. We miss him.