Christine Kay, a longtime New York Times editor who helped shape coverage of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, died last week after a long struggle with cancer. She was 54.
Growing up in a working class community outside Pittsburgh, Kay developed a passion for bringing to life the struggles of people who are often marginalized. As an editor at The New York Times she helped the paper rack up awards, including a Pulitzer Prize that cited “Portraits of Grief.” She developed the approach to that series of short profiles of the lives of those who perished on 9/11.
“She was one of the premiere editors at the Times,” Deputy Managing Editor Matthew Purdy said. Her blue-collar upbringing “gave her a feel for people whose lives are often overlooked … [she] dedicated herself to telling those types of stories,” Purdy said.
Dan Barry, a New York Times reporter who worked with Kay, said she brought deep understanding to structuring long form stories.
“She could bring to life what otherwise would have been a boring investigative story,” Barry said. “She was insistent on flesh and blood and humanity in these stories, otherwise you lose your reader.”
Barry said that in a recent story he co-wrote about the life and death of a sex worker in Queens, Kay took the unusual step -- for an editor -- of going there herself.
“She wasn’t feeling well, but she was insistent that she come to Flushing to see this world,” Barry said.
“She would really become a partner with reporters on the story,” Purdy said.
The youngest of five sisters—a brother died in infancy—she grew up in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. At an early age she was writing short fiction, her sister Judy Kovac, of Pittsburgh, said.
“As soon as she could write she started writing stories,” Kovac said. “She was a good story teller.”
Her father, who owned and operated a gas station and auto mechanic shop, died when she was 15. She finished high school early and graduated from Penn State University, Kovac said. Out of college, she worked first for the Pittsburgh Press, then as an assistant editor at Newsday for five years.
“She was a careful and thoughtful editor,” Newsday deputy assistant managing editor Tim Healy said. “If she was assigned to something you knew it would be handled right.”
Doug Dutton, Newsday associate managing editor said, “Christine was a smart story editor and clever headline writer … [and] also a terrific person who cared about her colleagues and was fun to work with.”
Kay joined The Times as a copy editor in 1995 and served later as an editor on investigative and enterprise stories.
“She wanted us to know the injustices that were going on,” Kovac said. “Work was her life.”
Outside the office, she filled her passport with stamps from India, Morocco, all over Europe and the Caribbean, Kovac said. She also found time for simpler pleasures, relaxing with her poodle Simone in her Manhattan home and baking cakes with her nieces and nephews.
While she battled breast cancer for 12 years, undergoing treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she remained an optimist, her sister said.
“She was looking for the best in everything, that’s how she survived,” Kovac said. She participated in drug trials that she believed may have helped develop cancer treatments for others, she said.
“Even in the end she lost her battle, but maybe she helped someone else out,” Kovac said.
Besides Kovac, she is survived by sisters Kathleen Spechtold and Mary Beth Abraham, and her mother, Carmelia, all of Pittsburgh.