Former Newsday reporter Kathleen Kerr took a tip from a source in the halls of a Long Island courthouse and chronicled the story’s growth from a curious local dispute into a national bioethics debate that reached the corridors of Ronald Reagan’s White House.
Colleagues of the veteran journalist said such dogged reporting was typical of Kerr, who not only shared the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for her work on “Baby Jane Doe,” but also displayed an uncanny knack for discerning the significance of stories at their inception and reporting them as they realized full impact.
Kerr, a New York City native who lived in Bronxville for the past two decades and worked for Newsday for nearly 40 years, died Wednesday of ovarian cancer at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. She was 71.
Judges of the prize said the series was “enterprising and comprehensive coverage of the Baby Jane Doe case and its far-reaching social and political implications.” It was completed in late 1983 by several reporters and editors with Kerr and B.D. Colen as lead writers.
“My memory of working with Kathy is that she was one of the most dedicated investigative reporters I’ve met,” said Richard Galant, managing editor of CNN Opinion and a former editor at Newsday who worked on the series of stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.
“She was a fantastic reporter, very hardworking and very competitive,” said Colen, who added that he kept in touch with Kerr and spoke with her several months ago. “I was not an investigative reporter, per se, but a medical writer, and I covered bioethics. She was an investigative reporter’s investigative reporter — and a pleasure to work with. Our talents complemented each other.”
It was Newsday’s sixth Pulitzer and a remarkable career milestone for the 36-year-old Kerr, who lived her early years in Manhattan and the Bronx but grew up in Oradell, New Jersey.
The daughter of a professional baseball player — John “Buddy” Kerr — and a medical office manager, Kerr attended Catholic schools including St. Joseph School in Oradell and Immaculate Heart Academy in Washington Township, New Jersey, said a brother, Gregory, of Oradell.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Kerr may have gotten bitten by the journalism bug at FDU, her brother said. While there she served as editor of the Tarrevir in the mid-1960s, a turbulent time in American history when journalists reported on civil rights, the Vietnam War, riots, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and tectonic shifts in cultural attitudes.
“There was a lot going on in the world then, and journalists were doing interesting things,” Gregory Kerr said, adding that his sister once chauffeured the famed investigative Watergate duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, when they visited her school.
After working briefly at FDU in public relations, Kerr landed her first journalism job at the Hudson Dispatch in Union City, New Jersey, but she left after a few years and arrived at Newsday in the late 1970s, Gregory Kerr said.
It was there, she wrote in an August 1984 reflection on the Baby Jane Doe case, that she got a tip in a Suffolk courthouse about a girl who was stricken with severe birth defects but whose parents declined surgery for her — and an attorney brought a case in court seeking to force doctors at Stony Brook University Hospital to perform the procedures.
The case, which wound through New York’s legal system up to the Court of Appeals after a Long Island judge ruled against the parents, pitted those who championed the rights of fathers and mothers to make difficult choices about their children’s health care against others who took a “right-to-life” view that such power should rest with medical authorities.
But it took on a political character, too, when the state’s highest court ruled in the parents’ favor and President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which opposed that ruling, weighed in and demanded the child’s medical records, much like it had done in similar cases.
“This was not simply the story of a Long Island infant and her parents’ decision to withhold surgery from her,” Kerr wrote in The Hastings Center Report in August 1984. “It was a story of ethical, political and legal significance that touched everyone who had ever had or planned to have a child.”
Kerr, who also worked briefly for the New York Daily News, retired from Newsday in October 2017.
Her brother said she spent much of her free time traveling to France, Norway and Cape Cod, discussing politics, gardening, cooking, following tennis, swimming and discussing the media. She was an avid reader of mysteries, books about politics, journalism, the media and the 1960s.
Besides Gregory Kerr, she is survived by another brother, John of Brooklyn. A sister, Patricia, died in 2015.
Donations may be made in Kerr’s name to the Calvary Fund, c/o Calvary Hospital, 1740 Eastchester Rd., Bronx, NY 10461, or online at calvaryhospital.org.