Kespohl made being unbiased tough

Friday, April 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:58 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

I don’t like children. As a girl, I know that I am supposed to love kittens, pink and babies. But I don’t love kids. I don’t even like them.

As an American, I am supposed to love baseball. I don’t really like sports of any kind, and my least favorite is baseball.

To be honest, I’m not great with politics. I can follow them when it is my job, but it will never appear on my list of favorite anythings.

When I first met Gary Kespohl for an interview in his basement office of Central Missouri Computer Center, I was prepared to handle a discussion of politics — because that was my assignment. But I was a little tense when the conversation turned to his beloved grandchildren and terrified when he approached his dedication to Little League Baseball.

It would seem that Kespohl and I were off to a rough start.

I think if I had been interested in any of his passions, it might have been easier to cover his campaign. But I couldn’t get excited or ask pointed questions about most of his interests, so I just wrote down everything I could and tried to understand it later. I usually still didn’t understand it.

For the first month, Kespohl seemed to keep me at a distance. He answered my questions politely, he was always honest, and he was always available to talk. But hearing some other reporters talking about their experiences with the candidates they covered made me feel like I was not as knowledgeable about him as I should have been.

I think it wasn’t until I sent him a draft of the profile I wrote that he really opened up and trusted me as somewhat of a decent reporter. I e-mailed him the draft, and when I called him the next morning he was friendlier than he had ever been. He was warm, volunteered more personal stories and was more relaxed. I think it was then that he realized I was not out to make him look stupid; I was just there to write what I saw.

With what I know now, Kespohl reminds me of a grandpa you’d see on TV, and I cannot be the only person who thinks that. He’s got that warm chuckle, the thoughtful speech and the house full of toys.

In one of our interviews, he told me that even after his sons had moved out of the house and gone on to college, the kids’ teenage friends still came to the Kespohl’s basement just to hang out in a safe, open, friendly environment (the pool table and free pop didn’t hurt, either).

And while that story might sound cheesy or unbelievable from any other “politician,” it immediately came off not as a speech, not as a political statement to get “in” with the “kids,” but as one of his favorite memories.

As a journalist in progress, one of the hardest things I try to deal with is that whole “ethics” thing. When I am interviewing someone, I am not sure how far is too far when it comes to talking about myself. I am never sure whether I am projecting that “I agree completely” nod or that “Yes, I am writing this down but please remember I am completely unbiased and neither agree nor disagree with what you are saying. By the way, I have no soul” nod.

When I was at Jack’s Gourmet on election night waiting to capture the mood, facial expressions and shouts the moment the results were in, it was hard to stay a distant journalist in such an inviting atmosphere. And when I saw Kespohl, after I asked him how he was feeling (“Just fine”), he said: “Hey, you’ve gotta wear a sticker!”

Honestly, I would have gladly put a sticker on my shirt, especially since I looked pretty out of place without one. But another reporter who tagged along to cover the party insisted that I absolutely could not. She was right, but it was hard to agree.

Kespohl had already gone to find the roll of what had to have been 200 stickers and when I found him at the podium in the entryway to the restaurant and told him I couldn’t wear a political sticker, I could tell he was upset.

“I’m sorry, I am, but that whole ‘journalism-unbiased-nonpolitical’ thing... I’m sorry,” I rattled off. I was genuinely sorry, and I hope my illogical, speedy, mumbled apology made sense. Kespohl was disappointed, I think, but not angry.

I spent the rest of the night at the party talking to Kespohl’s family. His wife, Patty, had told me before that she doesn’t like interviews, doesn’t like being quoted and doesn’t really want a part in any stories I write. So I kept questions simple, and when her younger son came over to protect his mom from the big bad press, we completely slipped into a conversation that had nothing to do with election night. And that was perfectly alright with me.

I interviewed Greg Kespohl, the older Kespohl son, and while he was happy to answer my questions, once again it was hard to stay on topic. The whole family was so easy to talk to, and they brought up my favorite topic — Chicago — and there it went. Journalism out, casual conversation in.

By the end of the night, I think there were more reporters in the room than there were Kespohl supporters. And when the results came in, when Kespohl lost by 63 votes, all the reporters hung back to let him talk to his family first, waiting like the pack of vicious beasts we are.

I was the first to step up to Mr. Kespohl, my notebook shaking in my hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a few microphones stretched out in our direction. I wasn’t looking forward to this interview. Asking someone what they’re thinking and feeling after what has to be a letdown is not something you can really get revved up for.

But I nervously asked him how he was feeling, and Kespohl again was calm and said he was just fine.

“This was not life-altering,” he said, which really brought out my favorite thing about Kespohl. He was always the same person, always had the same views and always had the same laid-back attitude about everything. I asked a few more questions, another reporter asked something, and that was about it.

I tried to close with something sensitive and meaningful, but I’m really much too awkward to pull that off. I think I said something along the lines of one long quickly-spoken train of thought.

“I thought you ran a great campaign it has been a pleasure covering you I’m sorry you lost thank you for letting me cover your campaign.” I don’t even know if it was understandable.

And with the crowd of journalists overwhelming Kespohl, I really felt like I had made a very, very wrong decision. I had chosen the wrong profession because most reporters really come across as shamelessly pathetic, desperate for a sound bite but ready to leave as quickly as possible.

Then Kespohl did something I never would have expected.

“Well, I’m going to miss not having you follow me around anymore,” he said.

I was in total shock.

And then he reached out and hugged me. And at that point, I knew I had done a pretty OK job at being distant enough to stay unbiased but just close enough to be worthy of a hug. And that was awesome.

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