Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Remembering Gail Kerr, Nashville's Last City Columnist

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 8:17 PM

In the late summer of 1983, I was told by my new editor at the Nashville Banner to head on over to the Metro Courthouse and start covering it. Off I went. And within a very short period of time, I found myself meeting my competitor, who had been described to me as a dumb and vicious and mean-spirited creature, one who embodied all that was wrong in American journalism.

Thus did I meet Gail McKnight. To those who knew her, you can appreciate the joke.

Obviously, I was never able to hate Gail McKnight, later Gail Kerr. How would that have been possible? How could one have even mildly disliked the woman? For the smiling, joking, always sunny, perennially positive, dead-straight honest reporter and columnist Gail Kerr, one could feel nothing but kinship, friendship, even love. I know that's how I felt. And the city felt the same way.

Through the years, as we began our news careers, Gail and I tried to beat one another relentlessly. But a couple of stories along the way allowed for a measure of camaraderie. I'll never forget how she invited me to come join her, and some other Metro Council members, for a private get-together after the council meetings ended. I knew nothing about these get-togethers, but go along I did after one of the regular council meetings ended, joining people like local attorney George Barrett, Metro Councilwoman Betty Nixon, and a bevy of others drinking cold beer at Rotier's. Gail shouldn't have included me — I was trying to beat her. But she did anyway.

I will never forget partying with Gail — and I swear she probably is regaling the angels with this tale now — in New Orleans at a National League of Cities meeting, which included dancing a conga line with half the council, including the inimitable Ludye Wallace, who particularly shook his booty with Gail.

Recently Gail was pumped that I had started writing a column for The Tennessean, and to the end she was a champion for what the paper was trying to do, in spite of the horrible print economy, the loss of advertising dollars, and the diminished editorial resources at the daily. We emailed back and forth a lot, and I'd always ask about her health, and she never complained. "I'm just keeping my head down, getting my work done, and getting my health together," she would say.

I was astonished to hear of her death, because she had emailed me only 24 hours earlier about some problems I had been having with my editors at The Tennessean. She carried the flag until she died.

Columnists come in all styles and flavors, and ultimately must bare their souls in a highly public swan dive into the issues of their place and time. The Gail Kerr columnist and persona that we came to know and love was not the tough, wisecracking, cynical city scribe at the corner bar, nor the hip young traveler coasting across Nashville's neon nightlife. Instead Gail was the calm, wise, genteel conscience of the city, ever appealing to the better angels of our nature. Gail was the aunt on whose door we knocked for advice, the plainspoken neighbor upon whose judgment we came to rely, the guileless and unpretentious friend about whose motives we were never in doubt.

There is an elemental substance in Nashville — I wish we could bottle it — that makes it such a civil and friendly and enjoyable and workable place. And it found voice in Gail, who was mightily possessed of that very same substance herself. Her absence in our morning pages will be painfully noticeable, because she was so much of the city in the way that only a truly fine columnist can be. We have now lost our only good old-fashioned city newspaper columnist. Her death makes me sad for so many reasons.

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