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Reporter Interviewed Presidents, Astronauts

From Mercury astronauts to U.S. presidents to the incorporation of Rancho Palos Verdes, Mary Ann Keating wrote about them all.

Mary Ann Keating remembers how Jack Benny held her hand the whole time she interviewed him for a story for the Colorado Springs Free Press in the mid-1960s, and that Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper said he yearned to be the fastest man alive (and) “flew and drove accordingly.”

She also remembers a time in the early '80s when she fought to prevent the press from learning that a former El Camino College student was one of several NFL players suing schools because illiteracy prevented them from being able to read their contracts.

“I spent the first half of my professional life getting things in the paper,” Keating said during an interview at her art filled home in north Redondo Beach. “I spent the next half keeping bad things out.”

That’s because Keating’s professional life crossed the schizophrenic divide between reporting (Free Press, South Bay Daily Breeze, Los Angeles Times) and public relations (El Camino College).

She also enjoyed something of a miraculous ability to flow from one job to another without lifting a finger.

It's who knows you

“It’s not only who you know; it’s who knows you,” she said by way of explaining her professional success. “I can’t stress that enough.”

The first thing you notice about Mary Ann Keating, 78, is her ultra-blue eyes; the second is her smile, so wide and genuine that you almost neglect to notice she is all but confined to a recliner.

“Two years ago, dumb me, I was in a hurry,” said Keating, who had rushed home to change clothes between meetings, only to decide to water her front garden. After dragging the hose out, she somehow tripped and fell headfirst on the driveway.

Knocked unconscious, she awoke to find herself drenched and unable to get up. Needing help, her neck hurting, she saw a FedEx truck coming down the street. “I am lying there, soaking wet, and I wave at the FedEx guy, and he waves back!”

The anecdote brings a burst of laughter from the willowy, white-haired Keating, whose talent for storytelling is matched only by her way with the written word.

“I finally crawled into the house and called the paramedics. I had broken my neck,” she said. Her left leg paralyzed, doctors told her she would never walk again.

Doctors didn’t know Mary Ann Keating.

Although she has spent seven of the last 18 months in the hospital, she’s able to move her left leg and get around with a walker. “But my driving leg is fine!” she exclaimed as if winning the lottery. Keating not only drives, she plans to whip up lunch for an upcoming book club event she’s hosting at her home this week.

“I make killer French onion soup,” she said, adding with equal gusto that her temporary caretaker will wash the dishes.

You get the distinct impression that Mary Ann Keating has always squeezed every ounce of fun possible to squeeze out of life, a life that began in Colorado Springs in 1934. The youngest of three children born 10 years apart, Mary Ann Ramsay came from a traditional family—her father an accountant, her mom a housewife.

“Colorado Springs was a small town and everybody knew everybody,” she said. “You sneezed in the north part of town, and they said ‘Gesundheit’ in the south part.”

The population tripled when World War II came along, troops and their families drawn to Fort Carson, a new U.S. Army installation, and later to the Air Force Academy and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

“I was lucky enough to know the people in town who mattered, the rank and file military,” Keating said. “So when I went to work for the paper I had sources.”

'We've been waiting for you'

As a journalism student at the University of Missouri, she worked at the Colorado Springs Free Press during the summer, turning to television news writing after graduation. It was while working at a Colorado television station that she got a call from her former Free Press editor, who said, “We’ve been waiting for you to come back.”

Keating’s charmed existence in journalism continued without a hitch.

The journalist, who seldom took notes (she has a photographic memory), can’t remember a time she didn’t want to be a reporter: “It’s just part of who I am. You’ll laugh at this. I loved ‘Superman’ on the radio. I grew up in the era of radio. Lois Lane!”

The great thing about Colorado Springs in the 1960s, she said, was that “a lot was going on that brought people there on business that I could interview.”

All seven Mercury astronauts, interviewed independently, were part of that group. The first was with John Glenn. “One Saturday afternoon, I got a call from a mechanic at one of the garages, and he was whispering, ‘John Glenn’s here! John Glenn’s here!’” she recalled.

It turned out Glenn’s car had broken down, said Keating, who had worked to develop sources all over town. “Here he had gone around the globe, but he got to Colorado Springs and his car broke down.”

In her article, Keating wrote that Glenn “and his family were on the way to the new space headquarters in Houston, TX … The slim, soft-spoken blond gives no impression of having flashed triumphantly around the world three times...”

One of Keating's many scrapbooks is filled with photos of celebrities she has interviewed: Jackie Cooper, Phyllis Diller, Liberace, Maurice Chevalier, Bob Newhart, Sid Caesar, Glen Ford, Adlai Stevenson and President Jack Kennedy, to name a few.

On Nov. 22, 1963, seven months after she had covered JFK’s campaign stop at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Keating got a call at the paper from her father saying Kennedy had been shot. By then, teletypes were ringing and she and others in the newsroom had a little over an hour to beat the competition to street sales.

“We got all the pics that were shot when JFK was at the Air Force Academy graduation, dug up clips from his press conference, pieced together usable wire copy and grabbed whatever pics came over the fax from Dallas,” she said.

“Most of us grabbed bundles of the paper as it came off the press, then rushed to stand on four street corners in downtown Colorado Springs, and sold all 1,000 at a dollar apiece within fifteen minutes.” They beat the competition.

'I wonder if the giraffes will gallop'

On a lighter note, when Keating interviewed comedian/pianist Victor Borge, who was performing at the local zoo, the entertainer said, “I wonder if the giraffes will gallop in time to my playing the ‘William Tell Overture’?”

“So they dragged the grand piano over to the enclosure where the giraffes were, and Borge sat at the keyboard and played and, sure enough, the giraffes were bouncing around in time.”

One of her favorite celebrities was Walt Disney. “He made me feel like his whole reason for being in town was to talk to me,” she said. One to do her homework, Keating opened the interview with: “We are both Sagittarius, born Dec. 5 …”

Keating, who went on to become editor of the paper, left Colorado Springs abruptly in 1967, when her then-husband was transferred to the South Bay.

Living in Riviera Village, Keating (Mary Ann Lee at the time) had heard that an old newspaper pal, Sam Stewart, was somewhere in Los Angeles. “I got the local newspaper, the Daily Breeze, and looked at the masthead and here’s Sam Stewart, the publisher. Was it my Sam Stewart?”

When she called Stewart, who had been clued into her arrival by a friend, he said, “Yeah, I’ve been expecting you. When can you start?”

Another career-changing call came after 18 months at the Breeze. This time, it was from an editor at the Los Angeles Times, who wanted her to come to work for the Centinella-South Bay section. She thought it was a prank.

It wasn’t.

As usual, Keating hadn’t even applied. She went to work, one of four reporters at the Times bureau on Compton Boulevard, next door to the Del Fox Mortuary. Fox, who knew Keating, welcomed her with “funeral flowers,” she said.

“My whole newspaper career was timing,” said Keating, who covered the city councils of Torrance, Inglewood and Redondo. “I also covered Bob Beverly, who was state senator, and Charlie Wilson, a congressman from this district.”

Rancho Palos Verdes

Her beat expanded to Rancho Palos Verdes during the controversy over incorporation. “People who lived there didn’t want to be taxed,” she said. But the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) won out. “They didn’t want anymore unincorporated areas.”

Keating loved her job at the Times. She also grew to love the editor, Hal Keating.

“I had worked for Hal for seven years and we had become very good friends,” she said. By then a widow, she “held his hand through a couple of girlfriends, and he held my hand when Jim died.”

No one knew the two were getting seriously involved. “Not even my brother, who lived 13 minutes away (on the Peninsula),” she said. “We kept it very quiet.”

That’s why shockwaves were felt on May 1, 1976, when 150 people gathered at Mary Ann’s Redondo home for a May Day party and ended up at a wedding.

The few who did know, two judges (one of them the best man), Mary Ann’s niece (the maid of honor) and a caterer, were sworn to secrecy, the chocolate wedding cake hidden under the bed.

Among the guests: councilmen; mayors; Bob Beverly, by then a senate minority leader in Sacramento; Wally Anderson, city attorney for Gardena; and others. “Forget the Brown Act,” Keating laughed, referring to the California legislation that prohibits public officials from holding secret meetings. “We had quorums for six cities!”

The wedding was just what Hal and Mary Ann wanted: “We had both been married before. We didn’t want presents. We just wanted a party.”

Eight months later, Mary Ann Keating was asked by Del Fox, a member of the El Camino College Board of Trustees, if she would like to accept a position as public information officer at the college. That was in March of 1977.

She said yes and quit her job at the Times. But when she went to fill out the forms, the personnel office said, “We haven’t announced the job yet.” Keating tried to explain she'd already been offered the position by Fox.

“I didn’t realize the bureaucracy that the public sector puts people through before they are hired,” she said. “In a newspaper, you’re hired on your clips and you go to work.”

It took three months, but Keating was eventually chosen out of 300 applicants. “I had never been through the public sector interview process," she said. "I walked into the president’s office and here sat all these people … staring at me, asking me all these questions.”

She froze.

“I said, ‘Listen, I have interviewed kings, queens and presidents, but I have never been interviewed. Either you want me or you don’t. Excuse me.'” With that, she got up and walked out.

Can you start July 1?

Fretting over her performance later that day, she got a call from Stewart Marsee, president of El Camino College, who said, “Can you start July 1?”

Although she missed the variety of reporting, Keating worked at El Camino for the next 25 years, her existence with Hal Keating (“the love of my life,” she said) blissful until he died two years ago. The two had everything in common, art, opera, movies, cocktails, French onion soup—all except Siamese cats.

Hal, nevertheless, ended up giving his cat-loving wife a Siamese one Christmas that she named Noel. Noel has since been replaced by another Siamese, Rheji.

Since her retirement from El Camino 12 years ago, Keating, the recipient of a ton of awards (from press awards to a Congressional Medal of Merit), has led a high-profile life, collaborating with Pat Dreizler on Redondo Beach 1880-1930, a book that illustrates the city’s history via old postcards. She served as a historical commissioner for Redondo, was on the oversight committee for the El Camino College bond issue, a member of the Beach Cities Symphony Board, and on and on.

Not one to be stopped by her current physical impairment, she’s currently writing a novel about corruption in the California community college system. Truth be Told (the working title) revolves around the murder of a “member of the board of trustees of a mythical college,” said Keating, who has completed five chapters.

Although fiction, the book is “loosely based” on reality, she said with a sly grin.

“Lying in the hospital, staring at the ceiling, I put it all together in my mind. All I’ve got to do now is sit down at the computer and write the darn thing.” It’s the same writing-in-her-head method she used when driving back to the Times after a city council meeting.

Frances Pullara November 14, 2012 at 12:01 AM
Mary Ann was my mentor at El Camino College as well as a friend. This is a beautifully written story about her. I'm just about to call her and tell her you did a great job writing--and MAK can be a tough critic.
Burton Fletcher November 19, 2012 at 12:49 PM
I enjoyed reading about Ms. Keating's life. The story was entertaining and she has lived a full life. Well done! Prof. Burton Fletcher (Ret.) JD, MBA, Attorney Valdosta, GA

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