A love of words
Keta Steebs wrote to the end.
She died at home Friday, two days after her 88th birthday, and shortly after finishing her last weekly column.
Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Advocate, where Keta had chronicled life for nearly 45 years, plans to publish that column today, as usual.
Of course; Keta would expect no other choice.
Marcheta (Pearson) Steebs, my father’s first cousin, was a colorful, treasured family visitor.
But early on, a bit of a pain, I recall. Whenever she and husband Herman came by with first-born Scott (a few years younger than I) it was my childhood burden to watch over him as he threatened my toys, baseball cards and everything else important to my world.
(The silly things you never forget, Keta.) Scott and brother Patrick became occasional “stars” of Keta’s early columns, which inevitably drew comparisons to family humorist Erma Bombeck – though locals said Keta’s were better.
An “independent, intelligent and charismatic lady,” the obituary reads.
“Keta didn’t always take the popular opinion, but she could stand her ground.”
“She was influenced growing up during the Great Depression and her thoughtfulness for others before herself was evident in her support of Native American causes and the Salvation Army. … Throughout the years she was active in community politics on both the state and national levels.”
“When you came into a room and Keta was there, it didn’t take long before you knew it.”
Yes. Her presence was never overbearing, save the odd lecture to her beloved Herman (who passed decades ago). But she was a magnet of sorts with her observations, wit and – maybe you would have had to have known her – a perpetual winking at the state of things.
She loved to drop names, regularly compiling a local “best-dressed” list. Men mentioned in those columns, it would be discovered upon their deaths, carried the frayed clippings in their wallets.
“Keta loved humor more than anything.”
Here I’m given pause.
Certainly, she was accomplished at humor, the recipient of a “best humorous column” award from the National Newspaper Association as well as numerous state awards. But her journalism career, recognized last year with induction into the Milwaukee Press Club Hall of Fame, was more than jokes.
Besides features, she wrote the universal fare at a community paper: murders, accidents, politics, all told with care and crafted skill. Keta had no “training” beyond Iron Mountain High School and Homestead’s two-room Brown School, whose teachers she praised in a letter last summer to The Daily News.
At the Hall of Fame induction, Keta mentioned an aunt who’d predicted she’d amount to nothing. That same aunt, she deadpanned, died laughing at something Keta had written. Literally.
“At times I wonder where my path would have led if I had done what my parents would not let me do – enlist in the Army and do something really brave like sneaking behind enemy lines and putting arsenic in Hitler’s wiener schnitzel – but no such luck,” Keta once wrote.
Instead, she spent 32 years happily married to a former Army sergeant turned butcher, who ran a market in Door County.
“When people ask me how and why I got into the ‘writing game,’ I tell them it’s a lot better than grinding hamburger and stocking shelves,” she said. “The real reason, of course, is my love of words.”
After “retiring” from the Advocate, Keta continued her weekly column, “Keta’s Potluck,” which was picked up online by the Green Bay Press-Gazette and other Gannett papers. With her health sometimes fragile, occasionally they came from a hospital bed.
There was a touch of humor in them, always. But to say she loved humor more than anything … I’m not meaning to make a quarrel of it.
Fifteen years ago my sister, Connie, died of brain cancer. Keta attended the service and later wrote about it – how the minister fought tears as he recalled what my sister had said during a testimonial time in her final months, her speech difficult as she managed, “Praise God.”
Keta marveled, with measured reserve.
“I’ve heard more than one fervent ‘praise God’ from the pews,” she wrote. “Knowing Connie, I doubt if anyone ever said it better … Knowing myself, I doubt if I could have said it at all.”
Yes, cousin Keta loved humor. But she also loved the permanence of writing, the wonderful way in which she could etch herself into the world along with her friends, loved ones, the “best-dressed” and anything else that came to mind.
She loved those things that we do to the end of our earthly lives, whether it be praising God or double-checking the punctuation with an IV attached.
Jim Anderson’s email address is email@example.com.