Published: Tuesday, November 09, 2010, 10:24 PM ??? Updated: Tuesday, November 09, 2010, 11:32 PM
Kathy Kemp, a respected journalist whose gentle prose and refreshing humor delighted readers of The Birmingham News and the old Birmingham Post-Herald for almost 30 years, died tonight after a nearly decade-long battle with cancer.
Ms. Kemp was 55.
In her award-winning features and Sunday columns, Ms. Kemp wrote with a passion for, and an understanding of, the people and places that made her hometown of Birmingham and her home state of Alabama so fascinating.
"Kathy was a brave and gifted writer," Birmingham News Editor Tom Scarritt said tonight. "We will miss her very much."
After she learned she had breast cancer nearly 10 years ago, Ms. Kemp also wrote candidly and courageously about her disease, matter-of-factly sharing the details of her illness with readers while also marveling about how it had given her a new appreciation for life's simple pleasures.
"When you have cancer, as I do, you start to notice things," she wrote in a 2003 column. "The veins in the petals of a perfect red rose. The sweetness in the air after a late-spring rain. All the small miracles of ordinary life."
Ms. Kemp joined a close-knit group of cancer survivors and caregivers who called themselves the Traveling Sisterhood, and, emboldened with a new sense of adventure, she went on fly-fishing trips to Montana and Louisiana with the group.
"I had no idea how many times and in how many places a woman could hook herself (eyebrows, nostrils, third toe on left foot) without catching so much as a minnow," Ms. Kemp wrote following one of her fishing expeditions.
In 2007, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama honored Ms. Kemp at the Pink Ribbon Tee Party and Auction the group holds each year before its charity golf tournament.
"Kathy showed others a tremendous amount of courage and what you can do while you are fighting this disease," Dolly O'Neal, the foundation's co-founder, said Tuesday. "Kathy Kemp was just such a survivor. Her stories were so upbeat."
Earlier this year, Ms. Kemp won the Alabama Press Association's first-place prize for best human interest column for her 2009 column about undergoing Gamma Knife brain surgery.
"We stopped for fried chicken on the way home," Ms. Kemp wrote of the experience. "The treatment must have affected my memory, because I couldn't recall anything ever tasting that good."
But Ms. Kemp's cancer did not define her as a journalist, or as a person. Her humor, compassion and natural curiosity did.
Whether writing about Beth Holloway's anguished search for her missing daughter, Natalee, or about an illiterate laborer learning how to read in his late 50s, Ms. Kemp did so with dignity and respect.
Clyde Bolton, the retired sports columnist for The Birmingham News, said he knew Ms. Kemp was special the summer she interned for the paper. Her body of work through the years proved him right.
"She had that passion for writing that all good writers have," Bolton said Tuesday. "And she had that little touch of humor that she could drop into most any situation that she was writing about.
"Plus, she was a very good person, the kind of person that the world needs more of."
A Birmingham native, Ms. Kemp grew up in West End -- coincidentally, in the same house where former Birmingham News food editor Jo Ellen O'Hara also grew up. When Ms. Kemp went to work at The News as an intern in the 1970s, Ms. O'Hara became her editor and the two forged a lasting friendship.
After graduating from West End High School, Ms. Kemp studied journalism at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and English at Southern Connecticut State College in New Haven, Conn.
Ms. Kemp spent four years as a feature writer for The New Haven Register before returning home to Birmingham in 1981 to begin a 16-year tenure at the Post-Herald, where she won the Associated Press Newswriting Sweepstakes Award for a series on the Ku Klux Klan.
While at the Post-Herald, she covered entertainment, features and news, and the Scripps Howard News Service three times honored her as its Writer of the Year. Scripps Howard later inducted her into its Editorial Hall of Fame.
In 1998, Ms. Kemp rejoined The Birmingham News as a feature writer and Sunday columnist, engaging readers with her colorful yarns -- from a day-in-the-life feature on the go-go-booted Birmingham Thunderbolts cheerleaders to a profile of Georgette Jones, the daughter of country music legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
She also authored three books -- "Reflections: Alabama's Visionary Folk Artists," "Welcome to Lickskillet (and Other Crazy Places in the Deep South)" and "The Beauty Box."
Ms. Kemp, a member of Third Presbyterian Church, is survived by her mother, Drucilla Kirkwood Kemp, and her companion, Kay Argo, both of Birmingham, and a brother, John Timothy Kemp, of Moulton.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete tonight.
Some of Kathy Kemp's work:
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