The passing of Tom Keith

There are a fair number of phonies in the media, possibly because there’s a certain amount of acting involved. But Tom Keith was not one of them. Tom collapsed at home and died last night and could not be revived, according to a spokesman for Prairie Home Companion. The cause is still being determined.

If you were a fan of The Morning Show on Minnesota Public Radio for the decades it was on the air, you probably knew the real Tom (as Jim Ed Poole) as well as anybody. He’d also love the irony of that sentence.

Keith was Garrison Keillor’s engineer when he did his early morning show in Saint Paul in the ’70s. Keillor created Keith’s character, Jim Ed Poole, and he continued it when Keillor left the program and Dale Connelly took over.

In October 2008, the two made their farewell announcement on The Current:

In an interview, along with Dale, on MPR’s Midday just before his retirement, Tom said he was just finding out in the last weeks of the show — people were sending letters — how big a part of people’s lives he had become.

Hundreds of people showed up at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul the day after that interview for The Morning Show’s final performance. An overflow crowd fill the church down the street.

And then it was over…

I recall watching Tom in those last minutes, thinking, “man, he’s a stone.” He showed no particular emotion as the years of work ended, except when it was time to recognize other people, like producer Mike Pengra. Otherwise, it seemed like just another day at work for him.

I asked Mike for a memory to share today. “I’m not sure where to start. Except every one of them ends with a laugh. And that’s a good thing, right?” he said. “He was such a pro. Dale would write a script in the studio while the Morning Show was on the air, and give it to Tom. Tom would then pre-read it…maybe once, quietly. He rarely had any questions, even when Dale had a ‘new’ character in mind. Tom assumed the role immediately. His face and body language would change with each role and his timing was spot on. He’s the best in the business.”

I’ve only seen him about once a year since that last show. Every year he’d show up for the annual fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota.

But just last week, Dale Connelly and Tom Keith were together for one last time, as it turned out, at St. Olaf. You can find video here.

This moment, from that last Morning Show program, is without equal at MPR — at least in the nearly 20 years I’ve been here. It’s an appropriate way to remember Tom Keith.

I wrote at the time:

Peter Ostroushko sang You Are My Sunshine, and a theater full of people in St. Paul, and — I’m guessing — hundreds of others in cars and kitchens throughout the country joined in.

It felt very much like people were comforting themselves and others, not only against the immediate sadness of the passing of a broadcast era, but against the steady drumbeat of bad news that we’re forced to endure.

We don’t have any information yet about services for Tom Keith. A memorial page will be set up at the Prairie Home Companion website later today. MPR’s Euan Kerr will have an extensive report on this evening’s All Things Considered.