In Memoriam: Michele Kay
Former St. Edward's University professor and student Michele Kay died Wednesday morning. She was 66. Described by some of her colleagues as "dynamite" and a, "tower of energy," but most of all, "a professional," Kay spent 40 years as a writer, journalist and public relations official before coming to St. Edward's. During her three years as a professor, Kay helped create the journalism minor and served as the faculty adviser to Hilltop Views, which underwent significant changes during her tenure.
Kay was first diagnosed with brain cancer in March 2009. She underwent two operations and treatment before complications following a third surgery set in November. She has been home, in the care of her family and Hospice Austin, during the past few weeks.
Kay was born in Cairo, Egypt, on Dec. 2, 1944. On her 12th birthday, after a year under house arrest, the family was expelled from Egypt. They were flown to England, stayed there for a year, and then went to the then-British territory of Hong Kong. This was in the midst of the Suez Crisis, a war fought by Great Britain, Israel and France against Egypt after Egypt attempted to nationalize the Suez Canal. Kay, a native French speaker, became fluent in English.
When she left high school, Kay began working at a newspaper, The Hong Kong Standard, where she soon became a hard news journalist. That role was unheard of for women, who, until then, were limited to covering "soft" subjects, such as fashion and weddings. Kay later worked for the South China Morning Post, the largest English-language newspaper in Hong Kong.
In 1965, Kay moved to the United States when her first husband, Keith Kay, was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in New Jersey. She became a speech writer for the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations during the Indo-Pakistan War. Kay also copy edited for several pharmaceutical journals during that time.
In 1967, Kay returned to Asia with her husband, who was a camera man and producer for CBS News. She did public relations work for Pan-American World Airways and organized rest and recreation trips for U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. At Pan-Am, she also supervised the shipment of remains back to the U.S.
The Kays returned to the United States and spent two years in San Francisco before moving back to Hong Kong in 1970. She freelanced for regional publications, before founding a business magazine for the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. She worked as the magazine's editor for four years before moving to Paris to serve in the same role for the American Chamber of Commerce business magazine there. Kay also wrote two books, "The Hong Kong Shopper" and "Doing Business in Hong Kong."
Kay moved back to the United States in 1981 to work as an editor and columnist for the Dallas/Fort Worth Business Journal, and, in 1984, became a senior editor of Texas Business Magazine. In 1988, she moved to Austin to join the staff of the Austin American-Statesman, where she worked as an editor for several sections. She also served as a columnist, a Washington correspondent and a Texas Capitol bureau reporter.
In a 2006 interview with Hilltop Views, Kay said she began to consider retirement in the late 1990s. However, she reconsidered and said she didn't want to, "retire and not do anything." So, Kay went to college for the first time and earned a bachelor's degree from St. Edward's New College program in 2002.
But Kay wasn't done. She wanted to teach college, and she couldn't without a graduate degree. So she got one — Master of Liberal Arts, also from St. Edward's, in the area of creative non-fiction.
And then she taught.
St. Edward's needed a professor — not a PhD, but someone with real experience — to teach journalism and to take the reins of Hilltop Views, the campus newspaper. Kay fit the bill. She agreed to take the job for three years.
When Kay arrived on campus, Hilltop Views was a student organization under the supervision of Student Life, and professors said the paper lacked professionalism and quality.
"It wasn't really journalism," said English Writing Area Coordinator Mary Rist. "It was just a newsletter where Student Life talked about the things going on around campus."
Rist's colleagues shared the same sentiment.
Humanities Professor Catherine Rainwater, who was a friend of Kay's, called the newspaper undisciplined and unfocused. Fr. Lou Brusatti, dean of the School of Humanities, said the paper was, "really pretty bad."
Kay thought so too. She made her case, vocally but privately, to Brusatti that things needed to change. When she stopped the pizza parties on production days, feeling they took too big a chunk out of the newspaper's budget and weren't setting the right professional tone, some students quit. Hilltop Views also moved from Student Life to the School of Humanities.
Soon, Kay had students who were truly committed to journalism. Eventually, she won approval to have a paid staff. The staff also began to produce a newspaper every week rather than every other week.
"She was great in that position," Rainwater said. "She turned that paper into something better and so much more competitive."
Kay won her students over too. While she expected professionalism when working on the newspaper, she hosted staff dinners at her home, where students saw a different side of their professor.
"Her strong newsroom attitude was complemented by a genuine interest in her students," said Bryce Bencivengo, who was a student of Kay's and a former Hilltop Views editor-in-chief. "She cared about you."
James Armstrong, a 2009 graduate who became editor-in-chief of Hilltop Views the year after Kay retired, affectionately remembered her energy, competitive drive and the way she chewed on pencils, a habit she developed after she quit smoking.
"I just loved the hustle and bustle of working with Michele Kay," Armstrong said. "You did not want to wait until the last minute to get something done around her."
Kay also teamed with Rist, Rainwater and the late Professor of Communication Marilyn Schultz to create the journalism minor.
"She was always early for meetings," Rist said. "She liked to observe people when they came in and how they reacted to the other people in the room."
Rist added: "She was kind of a reporter instinctively. She was always asking questions, so it was very hard not to tell Michele things."
Not only that, Armstrong said, but it was impossible to lie to Kay — a fact that became evident when the Hilltop Views staff tried, but failed, to quietly write a surprise editorial tribute to Kay as she was retiring. The editorial referred to Kay as, "our leader behind the scenes and a brilliant teacher every step of the way."
Sister Donna Jurick, executive vice president and provost at St. Edward's, knew Kay personally and professionally. She described Kay as someone deeply committed to the St. Edward's mission who served as a model for aspiring journalists. Jurick called Kay, "a wonderful human being and a professional."
"I have nothing but the utmost respect for Michele Kay, and the utmost appreciation," Jurick said. "And I valued her friendship, as well as her professional contribution."
Kay retired in 2008 with plans to travel with her husband, Robert Schultz, who survives her, and to spend time with her grandchildren. Her retirement was cut short when she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Armstrong said he would remember the straightforward, fast-talking, coffee-loving professor as someone who strived to achieve and pushed him to do the same.
"When she set out to accomplish something, she damn well did it — whether it was helping the paper, or being with her grandkids or having the will to survive," Armstrong said.
Kay is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Deborah and Chuck Gilbert, her son and daughter-in-law, Warren and Laura Kay, and five grandchildren, Annabel, Keith, Brennan, Austin and Nate.
Funeral services were held Saturday at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
There will also be a memorial service at St. Edward's University. Details are pending and will be updated on the Hilltop Views website.
This story was written by Tristan Hallman, editor-in-chief of Hilltop Views.