Kaelin moved people with her words

Carol Kaelin was at once tough and tender.

When I learned that she had died on Aug. 8, I couldn’t take in the news at first. She was too young, 62. But it wasn’t just her age. She was too vibrant. Too smart. Too funny. Too engaged with the people she loved.

My mind flashed back to the mid-1990s when she first started writing for The Enterprise. She’d come to the office with her two younger kids, Meg and Ryan, in tow. They took obvious pleasure in their mother’s presence, circling her like planets orbiting their sun.

Her elder son, Eric, told me this week that Meg and Ryan are grown now, about to start graduate school.

Time passes, I know, but not Carol M. Kaelin.

I like to believe her words will live on. They mattered to her, every single one. (I know because we could spend an hour discussing a single sentence.)

We worked together at The Enterprise for the better part of a decade. I never stopped learning from her although I was her editor.

Carol had a sense of humor, even in tough situations.

She told me once of her philosophy of life: “It’s not, ‘If you’re knocked down, you’ll get up again’…Maybe while you’re down there, you’ll see something interesting on the floor. Don’t just focus on the negative aspects. Do what you can.”

This philosophy was forged on a red-hot anvil.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, Carol was the youngest of six children by 15 years.

“My father died when I was 4; my mother died when I was 13. They sent the orphan to boarding school,” she said matter-of-factly.

This was her sophomore year of high school and she hated it.

She said of being sent away, “What I learned is people aren’t reliable…I went from being the youngest, the treasured child, to being told essentially, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ It changed the way I looked at relationships.”

She concluded, “I learned to be self-reliant.”

Her self-reliance made her a great reporter. She figured things out and she didn’t back down.

Carol was on the cutting edge with technology. She conducted our first online interview, with national pundit Katha Pollit. She handled a camera as well as a pen. Before the era of digital photography, Carol was a sure shot — capturing a pole-vaulter in mid-flight or a child at a school gathering with a guilty look as she took a cookie.

One story we shared a byline on was about a quiet young man, an 18-year-old high school student who had always seemed respectful, until the night he shot his mother once in the back of her head as she sat at her home computer. As we worked to piece together the events that led to the murder and the reason for the killing, Carol never lost sight of the young man’s humanity.

Her coverage of PCBs in the Hudson River led to a statewide award for our paper. I remembered Carol’s quip as she summarized the views of those opposing dredging: “The river is cleaning itself.”

Her story “River of Trouble” began, “Dodging foes amid tall pines and ancient oaks of the forest primeval, Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans evoked images of the lands on the Upper Hudson the way they once were.”

The judges were impressed with the way she used words, writing, “Many papers covered similar issues but rarely with such a literary bent and passion. Referencing Daniel Day Lewis in the lead could have been cheesy, but worked as a draw….”

Carol’s story was based on extensive research, allowing readers to grasp — to hold firmly in their minds — concepts that otherwise seemed elusive or hard to understand.

Carol did even more extensive research on an environmental problem closer to home when she wrote about each area of concern at the abandoned Army depot in Voorheesville.  Toxic wastes had been buried there with scant records of where or what. Our lack of finances never stopped Carol; she was after the truth.

Her discovery of thousands of pills in one area, for example, led me to put on a pair of high rubber waders and forage under the auspices of a local environmentalist, retrieving samples that we would subject to home chemistry tests. We also enlisted a local police department’s German shepherd, trained in drug detection, to help us determine the nature of the substances.

The project manager from the Army Corps of Engineers said that the series of stories helped secure hard-to-get federal funds for cleanup.

In short, Carol’s words could move people and projects forward.

When a post opened for an Enterprise sportswriter, Carol, without hesitation, stepped up to the plate. Her son said this week that she didn’t pay much attention to the professional sports he and his father would watch on TV. But she always watched the games her kids played.

When I asked her at the time why she wanted the beat, Carol said, “I like high school sports because it’s enthusiastic. It means something to the kids….It’s not ‘Another day, another million dollars.’ Their hearts are in it; they feel the game. You’re watching these kids grow up out there on the field. They’re learning how to handle disappointment, how to handle structure.”

So, when Carol covered sports, she wrote about more than scores or wins and losses; she wrote about what it meant to the kids. After her first year, she earned a statewide award for her work, competing against seasoned pros.

When she took the job, Carol also said, “I would like to, while still covering the main sports, focus on the different sports, too, to show people there are alternatives.  If you’re not a fast runner, and can’t play soccer, or you’re not a big bruiser and can’t play football, there are other things you can do.”

She did just that.

“Sometimes, all it takes is one child” was Carol’s lede on a 2000 story, “Waves of children enjoy adaptive swimming.” Carol told the story of a mother, Fern Pivar, who wanted her physically challenged son to be able to swim.

Carol’s story unfolded to tell not only about the kids learning to swim but also about their young instructors, swim-team members who were doing some learning of their own.

“You have to learn new skills,” said one. “You can’t teach them in the same way…You may be teaching them but they’re teaching you…The hardest part is not getting discouraged. When they progress, it’s wonderful — just to see the look on their faces.”

Carol’s story ended with the boy who started it all — he swam in the Special Olympics.

A lot of her stories were like that. She found the heroic in the everyday. And she made the rest of us see it, too.

I may be weeping, Carol, but my eyes are wide open. And, while I’m down, I’m looking for something interesting on the floor. Thank you for that.

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