The Reis brothers, Ken and Jim, used to go hunting with their father, though the trips were something of a ruse.
The critters of Campbell County were safe so long as the Reis family was afield.
“We didn’t really hunt much,” Ken Reis told me Sunday afternoon. “Dad liked to wander through old barns and houses. We spent most of our time doing that.”
Something everlasting was born on those trips.
For Ken, it was an affection for local history. Jim got that, too, but he also got hooked on another kind of storytelling – journalism.
Jim Reis died Friday afternoon from the complications of Parkinson’s, a devastating disease that begins with tremors and then worsens.
During the last six months, it took his ability to speak, to feed himself, and, at times, even his sharp mind.
When he first noticed things weren’t right with his body 13 years ago, Jim visited a doctor who told him he either had a brain tumor, Lou Gehrig’s Disease or Parkinson’s.
“I sure hope it’s Parkinson’s,” Jim told his family, unaware of the terrible journey ahead. We all were.
I was Jim’s colleague for the better part of three decades at The Kentucky Post, which shut its doors on Dec. 31, 2007, leaving behind a legacy of affection among its readers. What they miss are the likes of Jim Reis, whose job each day was to produce a column of mini-stories about Northern Kentucky’s suburban cities.
In a metropolitan region dominated by bigger cities, the news out of Park Hills, Independence, Fort Wright, Union, and all of those many other towns were easily neglected. Jim made sure that didn’t happen.
His Suburban Wrap-Up was not the place where murders and mayhem were reported, but if your town was considering a zone change or tax hike, you knew about it first by reading Jim’s reporting.
If suburban tidbits were Jim’s job, his passion was local history. That gave birth to Pieces of the Past, a weekly historical essay that proved wildly popular. The columns were collected into four volumes, a set which is difficult to find today because of the popularity.
It took a lot of work and, for a stickler like Jim who hated even the slightest error, it meant extra hours at the Kenton County Public Library in Covington, where he did most of his research. The staff there saved any mail that came addressed to “occupant” and gave it to Jim as sort of running joke.
His affection for local history carried over into his private life, too. On Thanksgiving 1989, he and Ken began to discuss the upcoming 200th anniversary of Kentucky (founded in 1792) and of Campbell County (founded in 1794). The county seemed ill-prepared for these anniversaries, so Jim and Ken arrived at the idea of a Campbell County Historical Society, which would hold its first meeting in a room at the public library the following January. They placed a newspaper ad and drew eight or nine people. Today, there are 300 members.
Jim was made for the job he would grow up to have.
He had a paper route, delivering The Kentucky Post and dreaming of working there. He was a born storyteller, who as a boy wrote Christmas stories, the sharing of which was as much a Reis family tradition as decorating the tree or singing carols.
He went to Thomas More College knowing the career he intended but majored in English instead of journalism. English majors, he was advised, are better writers. He got himself hired as a copy boy at The Kentucky Post, running errands, but earned himself a reporting job and stuck around for 36 years.
Jim was everything people are saying about him as they reflect on his passing: unassuming, a first-class good guy.
But he was also a fine journalist, whose career speaks to the workaday nature of a profession sanctioned by constitutional mention but often prosaic in practice. To do it well requires what Jim had: humility, skill, the work ethic of a tradesman and an unwavering love of his calling.
Jim dedicated himself to telling our community’s story, past and present.
Never was the importance he placed on this cause more evident to me than in his final year at The Post, when his disease tried to incapacitate him.
Calming his shaking hands, he would clench a fist around two pencils and peck out the Suburban Wrap-Up.
No day was too tough after you saw Jim at work. He was quietly inspirational to our newsroom, not unlike how (and I don't intend hyperbole; it's just that this is real) Pope John Paul was inspirational to people of faith in those same years as he stood trembling but defiant through his disease.
A disease does not change who a person is. It often, however, illuminates who that person is. So it was with Parkinson's and Jim. We saw his strength. His heart. His passion. His love of life.
In the annals of journalism, colonial America had John Peter Zenger, whose newspaper unnerved a royal governor.
Today’s America has Megyn Kelly, whose debate question unnerved the 2016 Republican nominee. The intervening years brought us Horace Greeley but also Larry Flynt.
I mention this cast of characters, both the distinguished and the dubious, to underscore the point that when it comes to a free press, our heroes come in all varieties. I’d like to add to the roster Jim Reis, whose love of history and journalism place him in this pantheon – though, as those of us lucky enough to work with him know – he would prefer to be placed there without fanfare.
Mark Neikirk is the executive director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at Northern Kentucky University. He worked at The Kentucky Post and its companion publication, The Cincinnati Post, for 28 years, the last seven as the managing editor of both.