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 Kay Fanning

Kay Fanning died Thursday night at 73. She was an exceptional woman and an exceptional Alaskan. Her passing has special meaning for the Anchorage Daily News as she was owner, editor and publisher of the paper in years past, but she was also a friend, neighbor and colleague of hundreds of Alaskans, especially here in Anchorage.

Kay Fanning came to Alaska in 1965, a middle-aged woman who drove the Alaska Highway in a station wagon with her kids. Like thousands of other immigrants, she wanted to change her life dramatically, although few immigrants have left behind a life that, at least on the face of it, seemed so enviable.

Kay was born into a comfortable version of the American dream. Her father was a small-town Illinois banker of affluence, if not riches, who sent his only daughter to private school and then on to elite Smith College. At Smith, Kay pursued an interest in literature and writing with an eye on a magazine career, but, school finished, she accepted her family's advice and returned to Illinois.

In Chicago, she met Marshall Field IV, heir to the Field publishing and business empire.

They soon married, and she settled in to the life of a society matron.

Kay learned a great deal about journalism from Marshall Field. But as she freely admitted in interviews, she found the kind of life she led stuffy and the marriage eventually ended in divorce. Alaska now beckoned as a fresh start.

''I wanted adventure, the outdoors, the sheer beauty of the place,'' Kay remembered. ''I liked the general feeling of energy, the feeling that it was the frontier, the sense that it didn't make any difference that you came from a family with a big name. What mattered is that you had something to offer.''

Once at home in Anchorage, Kay took a job as the librarian at the Anchorage Daily News. She was paid $2 an hour. Her salary and surroundings were light years away from the world in which a columnist called her ''the Grace Kelly of Chicago.''

In the fall of 1966, Kay married veteran Chicago newspaperman Larry Fanning, an editor for Marshall Field. In a moment that changed Alaska journalism, she convinced her husband that they should buy the Anchorage Daily News.

The history of Kay's newspaper career is well known to longtime Alaskans. It's a tale of how he she and Larry hired energetic young reporters and hit the street with enterprising journalism. Of how they both had to play multiple roles at the paper to keep it alive. Of how Larry Fanning died suddenly in 1971 and left the Daily News to Kay. Of how the paper continued to lose money despite its improved quality. Of the joint operating agreement with The Anchorage Times that kept the News alive but ended in a lawsuit that terminated the agreement.

And of how Kay Fanning and her reporters won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for their reporting on the Alaska Teamsters' Union.

Yet even the most prestigious award in American journalism did not stop the flow of red ink. In January, 1979, Kay Fanning sold the Anchorage Daily News to McClatchy Newspapers of Sacramento, Calif.

Kay stayed on as publisher until May of 1983, when she became publisher of the Christian Science Monitor. During her years as Daily News publisher under McClatchy, both she and the paper thrived in a period of unprecedented growth.

During the later years of her journalism career, Kay not only edited the Monitor, but served on numerous national boards and received many honors for her commitment to good newspapering. But she always retained her ties to Alaska and was writing a history of the early Daily News when she died.

Kay led a life of repeated and at times dramatic change. But some things never changed. Her sense of fairness. Her commitment to hard work, however important or humble. The grace with which she carried herself. Her insistence that people who approached her newspapers should be treated with respect. And her conviction that newspapers have a mission of public service that must never be compromised.

Kay had many questions for life. Some of them were answered by her Christian Science faith. She also had questions for herself as a professional journalist.

''I think it is important to assess our own motivation often along the way. Am I in this purely for self-gratification? Do I simply want to enhance my own ambitions? Or is there a larger purpose?''

Kay Fanning found a larger purpose in this community -- and the many friends she leaves here will tell you Anchorage was blessed that she did.

Source: Anchorage Daily News, 21 October 2000



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