From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
Alan Burdziak is the crime reporter at the Columbia Tribune in Missouri, the paper our old friend and former Shreveport sportswriter Kent Hietholt worked for when he died in its parking lot after midnight Halloween of 2001.
In light of recent developments in a murder case revisited by national media through these 12 years, Alan wrote me the first week of December. “I'm now working on a story remembering Kent Heitholt,” his note read, “something our paper hasn't done in years and that hasn't been done lately at length.”
That story, part of it concerning the entire ongoing tragedy, ran Dec. 8 and is easily findable online. What I did was write Alan back off the top of my head; most of what I wrote back is this:
I don't know how many times I roomed with Heity: at Final Fours, at tournaments, at regular games. Don't know how many times he spent the night with me when I was in Baton Rouge working for the Times-Picayune and he'd drive down from Shreveport. One memorable week was the SEC baseball tournament in Starkville. The maid told us, “This room looks like pigs live here!" So I can't say he was particularly neat. But he was neat in his writing: he always gave you the meat and potatoes. But he always tried to give you the little extra too. And he'd cover local things no one else wanted; the readers who cared about the paper, that's who he worked for.
And he was neat with his friendships. He kept messes cleaned up. Things can get dicey on deadlines. Lots of egos in a newsroom, and lots of egos in the sports world. But Heity got along with everyone. Not because he bowed down or sucked up to anybody: just the opposite. He got along because he was sincere and hard-working and an example of how to do things the right way and still have fun. He helped young writers and young wanna-be writers. Heity didn't give up on people.
Funny how some things stick in your head, when they were nothing at the time: me and Heity and his daughter Kali were eating at a Wendy's once. She probably wasn't even 6 yet. We must have been covering something in the middle of the day and needed to get her from school. Anyway, she spilled her drink. I don't think Heity ever stopped whatever it was he was talking about. "Fumble!" he said, and we wiped things up, and Kali said she was sorry and kept eating. No big deal. Just an everyday typo. He rubbed her hair and gave her some of his drink and kept talking and nothing missed a beat. He was a very big guy but a gentle man.
You wanted to have the seat by Heity on press row, at a press conference, in the newsroom, even at a Wendy's when drinks got spilled all over your French fries. Who cares? He made you feel better...Me and Heity and the late, lyrical Shelby Strother of Detroit ordered milk shakes in the pressroom in Seattle once at a hotel during a Final Four, writing late in the afternoon after practice, or maybe on the day between the semis and the finals. Soon, nearly every writer in there, dozens, were ordering milk shakes. Heity apologized to the waiter who'd just happened to wander through the press room at the wrong time...It is odd that I dropped both those guys at the airport for early flights the next morning after the Finals, and both are gone now, Shelby to cancer and Heity to whatever this mess is, one that can't be cleaned up.
Anything I'd say about Heity would be less than what he was and probably not totally true to how good he was to other people, how much he loved his family and cared for his friends, how he turned into a little boy when he talked about the little boy he once was, photographed sitting in the lap of a college-aged Dean Smith, a teammate of his Dad's on those championship Kansas basketball teams back in the day. Heity was a pro but still he was always that little bitty boy; that’s what made him so good as a writer but even better as a person. We'd all be better with a Heity in our lives.