Friday, December 13, 2013

Karen Klinger

Jersey Girl, science journalist--Go hug a friend. You may find yourself writing their obituary one day.

Karen Klinger, former science writer for the San Jose Mercury News from 1978 to 1987 and a NASW member, died Dec. 16 of cancer. She was 66.

Klinger grew up in New Jersey. She was very bright, with an undergraduate degree from Penn and a master’s from Stanford. Fluent in French, she once served on the copy desk at Agence France Presse.

She was tall and trim. Her Irish genes were expressed in dark hair she wore over her shoulder, a fair complexion, and startling light blue eyes.

She was adventurous and courageous, traveling the world usually alone. One year she camped in the Serengeti and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. She came back with an amazingly efficient parasite that made her the queen of several departments at the Stanford Medical Center for weeks.

She went sky diving. When I asked her why she would jump out of an airplane at 6,000 feet, I got the same stupid answer you get from mountain climbers.

Most of all, she was a superb science writer. She always did her homework and you could see subjects relax early in the interview when it was obvious she knew what the hell she was doing. The scientists at Stanford--not an easy crowd--trusted her and fed her stories.

It was in the editing that things often fell apart. Sometime during the process the Jersey Girl in Klinger came out. She was pathologically incapable of walking quietly into compromise and she could cry on cue. As one editor kindly put it, editing Klinger was “trying.”

But in the end the stories were first class.

She was one of the first to report on the AIDs epidemic in San Francisco, even before it had a name. 

She was indefatigable. She covered the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in 1980 on crutches after knee surgery (she slid into third base in a softball game), convincing her editors they were a mere inconvenience. Her stories were extraordinary.

When major stories broke, the Merc editors were wise enough to turn her loose. They also sometimes teamed her with Elias Castillo, a general assignment reporter.

Castillo was a preternatural reporter; Klinger a splendid writer. Since they also had something of a love-hate relationship, they were a perfect team on breaking non-science news.

Outside the office Castillo, his wife Cathy, and Klinger became seemingly inseparable friends. I eventually made it a quartet.

We spent many evenings in the Castillo’s hot tub, Chardonnay in hand, lamenting the decline of American journalism (we were ahead of our time) and the editors we thought were idiots, who to Klinger, was most of those she knew.

Once, when my two young sons were visiting from Philadelphia, the four of us took them camping in Yosemite, at a lake in Tuolomne Meadows. The two, now grown men, still talk about the trip.

There was a dark side. She had an alcohol problem not then properly addressed. And she was capable of getting into predictably disastrous love affairs.

She won a Vaneevar Bush fellowship to MIT in 1985, and when it was over, stayed in Massachusetts, no doubt to the relief of her editors in San Jose.
She freelanced for several years and became a community organizer and a volunteer at the Cambridge Community Television Network, winning several awards.

One day, about 10 years after she left California, she walked into the press room at an AAAS meeting in Boston. I had not seen her in that time. She had filled out some, the angles of her face softened and rounded. She seemed happy. She had become a beautiful middle-aged woman.

I never saw her again. None of her friends from her California days knew she was sick, and we only found out she died months afterward when I stumbled on a brief obit on the Internet.

I feel badly about that.