Veteran Vermont journalist Susan Keese died Saturday morning of complications related to the flu, her family announced Sunday. She was 67.
Keese, who lived in South Newfane, spent more than three decades as a reporter, columnist, editor and writing instructor. Most recently, she served as Vermont Public Radio's southern Vermont correspondent.
"We really miss her. We're all shocked," says VPR news director John Dillon. "She had this totally winning, light-up-the-room incandescence."
Keese's son, Christopher Pyatak, wrote on his mother's Facebook page Sunday that she died "after a complicated and devastating illness triggered by the flu more than a month ago."
"She fought so hard and so courageously, and we did everything we could to save her," he wrote. "There are no words to express how much she has been loved and how much she will be missed."
Keese worked as a general assignment reporter for the Rutland Herald from 1981 until 1987, according to her LinkedIn profile. She returned to the paper in 1995 to write the "No Stone Unturned" column, which focused on family life and the natural world. In between those jobs, she served as editor-in-chief of Potash Hill, the Marlboro College alumni magazine. She also spent a dozen years leading creative writing workshops.
In 2002, the longtime print reporter joined VPR as a southern Vermont stringer. When the station relaunched "Vermont Edition" as a daily news and talk show in 2007, she was one of its founding producers.
"She took to the medium really well and would write in these complicated stage directions for how she thought sounds should be used," Dillon says. "She really thought about it."
Dillon highlighted Keese's recent work covering the closing of two Windham County institutions: Vermont Yankee, the Vernon nuclear power plant; and the Austine School, the Brattleboro school for the deaf.
"She really worked hard to get the voices of the people affected," he says. "She wanted to humanize every story if possible."
After Tropical Storm Irene devastated southern and central Vermont in August 2011, Keese was stranded in Brattleboro and spent the night in a shelter. But as her colleagues recalled during their Monday morning news meeting, her personal travails — like many Vermonters, she had no power or internet at home — did not keep her from reporting the story to VPR's audience.
Keese developed a reputation throughout VPR, Dillon says, for sending notes to staff members to compliment them on a story or congratulate them on a major — or even a relatively minor — accomplishment.
Outside of work, she was an avid gardener and enjoyed spending time with her three grandchildren.
"We will miss Susan's gentle nature, optimistic outlook, curiosity and incredible storytelling," the station said in a story posted online Monday morning. "Our thoughts are with her family."
Updated below on Tuesday, March 10, at 8:07 a.m.:
VPR reporter Steve Zind filed a remembrance of his colleague Monday afternoon. Zind reports that a memorial service will be held for Keese on Saturday, March 14 at 3 p.m. at the Williamsville Grange.
Brattleboro Reformer reporter Chris Mays also wrote about Keese’s life in a story published Monday evening. He quotes her husband, John “Bud” Pyatak, as saying, "I think you would find it hard, if not impossible, to find a single person that would have a negative thing to say about Susan. She was a friend to all."
Susan Smallheer, the Rutland Herald’s southern Vermont correspondent, spoke with state officials and community members alike for a remembrance published Tuesday morning. She quotes Arlene Distler of Brattleboro, who participated in a writing group organized by Keese. “She was a very energetic, self-motivated person,” Distler told Smallheer. “Being able to write from the heart, that is what she loved to do.”