Remembering Seamus Kelters: Pioneering Trauma Journalist

By Scott North

Seamus made friendship easy. We met in 2003, when I was improbably plucked from my mid-sized daily newsroom in the Pacific Northwest and brought to Chicago to join a cadre of newly-minted Dart Center Ochberg Fellows.

We went around the room, each of us making introductions and talking briefly about our careers. Seamus was the senior fellow that year, which meant he'd help select us.

Several of those fellows had done jaw-dropping journalism in big places on big stories.

When I finished speaking, Seamus told the group that he knew me, or at least knew people with careers like mine, who find in one small place enough worthy stories to fill a lifetime. His big story was the Troubles, and it had taught him that when it comes to trauma and violence, all stories are local, unfolding on a human scale.

We spent the week talking about the craft, our fondness for good scraps, the joy of using the tools of journalism to confront bullies and to call attention to human suffering.

I told Seamus about a story I had begun reporting. It was about an ex-convict, then approaching 70, who was grieving the deaths of two sons. The man had spent much of his life behind bars, and had made plenty of mistakes. The year prior, one of his boys died during a violent struggle with police and the case was headed toward a federal civil rights trial. The man spent his days tending to an elaborate garden created in memory of his sons. He wrestled daily with anger and loss, but also gratitude for the love he'd known.

Seamus and I kept talking about that story in the months that followed, the themes at play, the possible approaches. With my boss' permission, he read drafts and offered ideas. He was a tough editor and pressed to not only make sure we were telling the story true, but also telling it right. The result was a narrative, presented in chapters, about the beauty and redemption one man found by taking a full measure of his life.

Seamus and I didn't get to see each other much, but we kept writing as the years passed, sharing news of our families and friends, the work we were doing. In 2014, a mudslide tore through a rural neighborhood in my community, ending 43 lives. A few months later, a young man brought a handgun into an area high school and shot five other teens, killing four, before he ended his own life.

Seamus was with us from afar, reading the stories and regularly sending encouragement. I'd read excerpts to my colleagues, always describing him as my cool friend at the BBC in Belfast.

Journalists from around the globe descended on our community to tell those stories. Pay them no mind, Seamus exhorted. Keep reporting and writing for the people in this place. "No one from outside could ever match the timbre," he said in one letter. "That comes with knowing your readership -- your own families, friends and communities."

He also urged us to keep the work in perspective. He'd nearly died in an accident a couple of years before.

Time, he wrote, "trundles along like a train and we always take it above all else for granted. It will always start at the same time, make the stops, overcome the twists and reach the destination."

That's illusion, Seamus wrote.

"My boys will not remember the great story I landed or the bullets I dodged or the intros I've written. They will remember I walked on a mountain with them and chased a dolphin. Those things are more important to me now and I'm just praying we'll all have the health to see more times like that."

My friend was wise and wonderful. I was blessed that he spent some of his time with me.