PHOENIX – Dick Kelsey, a retired Associated Press broadcast editor who was revered as much for his humor as his hardworking nature, has died after a seven-year battle with cancer. He was 76.
Kelsey died Thursday surrounded by loved ones at his Phoenix home.
The longtime editor never sought attention in the newsroom of AP's West Regional Desk in Phoenix unless it was to share a funny story or sly observation. From the glint in his eye, it was clear when he was about to toss out a joke or his own funny spin on the day's news.
A storyteller at heart, Kelsey regaled co-workers with anecdotes of his exploits in AM radio in Buffalo, New York, in the 1970s and coverage of decades-old stories. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll and an uncanny ability to recite an apt lyric from Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan that connected with the dominant news story of the day, said Josh Hoffner, AP news editor for national beats and one of Kelsey’s former managers.
“Dick was a talented journalist, a gleeful storyteller and a terrific all-around person who was absolutely adored by his many colleagues and friends at the AP," Hoffner said. "He loved nothing more than rolling up his sleeves and going to work on a big breaking story. His presence in the newsroom was legendary, with his infectious sense of humor, sharp wit and love of puns that never disappointed (even the bad ones).”
Kelsey worked primarily in broadcast during his time in Arizona, editing state news summaries sent to radio and TV stations across the Western U.S. Even when the West Regional Desk — which includes a team of Phoenix reporters — was a hectic hub over a major story, he remained calm.
“Dick was a steady presence on the AP’s west region broadcast desk,” said Chris Havlik, an AP video producer and former broadcast supervisor. "He could always be counted on to keep things light in the newsroom even when he was in the middle of writing and updating news summaries for 13 different states seemingly all at once.”
J. Richard Kelsey was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up in nearby Lockport. He fell in love with radio and television at a young age. Overcoming a childhood stutter fueled his mission to someday be on the air in whatever medium so people would listen to his voice, said his wife, Sharon.
“That's all he ever wanted to be,” she said. “How many other people are that lucky to get to do exactly what they wanted to do with their life?”
At Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, Kelsey decided to minor in radio-TV and ended up in a few classes with a young David Letterman. Kelsey would confirm that the former “Late Show” TV host was just as hilarious then.
Upon graduation, he was hired at his hometown radio station, WUSJ. He thrived as a disc jockey, newsman and talk show host. From there, Kelsey went to radio stations in Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania. By 1980, he moved westward and had broadcast stints in Denver and Austin, Texas.
Kelsey then made the leap into print journalism and spent a few years at the United Press International in Dallas. By the 1990s, he moved to its Denver office and was covering some of the biggest news stories. Among them were 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey's killing and the Oklahoma City bombing trials.
“I think he was quite proud of that — that he was able to juggle all that and get the information, help everybody,” Sharon Kelsey said.
When the UPI/Denver bureau closed, Kelsey took a job as a news director at a radio station and then as a writer/assignment editor at a TV station. In 2005, he landed at the AP as a broadcast editor in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jim Clarke, AP's managing director of local markets, was the news editor who hired Kelsey. Clarke recalls getting a call from Kelsey his first day in town. His new hire had gotten into an accident, and his car — with all his belongings — was totaled. But what stuck out was Kelsey’s resilience.
“He instantly fell into the routine. I mean, I’ve on-boarded a few reporters and editors in my life at the AP, but this guy took to it absolutely like a fish to water,” Clarke said. “The broadcast report instantly improved because he wanted to do a good job.”
Kelsey also enjoyed keeping in touch with anyone he mentored — and not just in journalism. He was very proud of being 28 years sober and using his experience when being a sponsor for someone else.
“He helped other people shine,” Sharon Kelsey said. “He was brilliant in his own way. But it was an unassuming way. ... And I think that’s a real quality.”
Besides his wife, Kelsey is survived by his daughter, Jennifer, son-in-law Eric, grandson Cooper and sister M. Jane Kelsey. A private service is planned.
On his last day before retiring in 2017, Kelsey sent a parting note to colleagues saying he was, for once, speechless.
“This has been a bittersweet day for me, but the sweet part is all the kind words I’ve received by phone, email and IM,” Kelsey wrote. “The past 12 years, 8 months and 15 days (give or take) at The Associated Press have given me a ringside seat to real journalism alongside the best in the business. Stay cool everyone.”