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Archive for Friday, April 10, 2009

Journalist upheld fair reporting

April 10, 2009

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Before Capt. Dave Cobb retired last year from the Lawrence Police Department, he didn’t always look forward to seeing news reporters.

Mike Belt, a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World, was an exception.

“Belt always asked the right questions,” Cobb said. “He was a digger. He would dig until he found what he was after. Every time I worked with him, I was quoted accurately.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Terra Morehead knew Belt when she was a Wyandotte County assistant district attorney and Belt covered courts and law enforcement for the Kansas City Kansan. Unlike other reporters — who might call Morehead asking her to regurgitate the facts of a case — Belt would report the story firsthand.

“He was so fair, and he called it like it was,” she said.

Charles Michael “Mike” Belt, who was a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World since 2000, died Monday at his home. Services will be at 10 a.m. today at Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home in Lawrence.

Belt had turned 54 on Sunday. True to form, he had volunteered to work on his birthday, covering a discussion about Iraq and the military at the Dole Institute of Politics. In addition to police and courts stories, military stories were his passion. In fact, Belt named his big black cat Major, a cat he doted on, even once driving to Kansas City to find the cat’s favorite toy.

Belt’s journalism career started in his hometown of Columbus, where he was the trainer for the football and basketball teams. His two brothers, Brad and Kevin, said Mike always wanted to play, but a medical condition prevented that. So he wrote about the games for the Columbus Daily Advocate. And when he was a junior college student in Coffeyville, he wrote for the newspaper there. After he graduated in 1981 from Kansas State University, he joined the Osawatomie Graphic as a photographer and reporter. Three years later, he landed a job with the Kansas City Kansan. At the Journal-World, where he worked for nine years, Belt covered county government, law enforcement and, most recently, the economy.

Regardless of the story he was working, Belt prized accuracy. And compassion for the plights of others.

In 2007, Belt and Journal-World photographer Thad Allender worked on a series of stories about the toxic legacy mining had on communities in southeastern Kansas. Belt knew the area. He’d fished in some of the strip pits left behind by the mining.

Their work — “Mining’s Legacy: A scar on Kansas” — won several media awards, including the prestigious Associated Press Managing Editors’ Convergence Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The stories also prompted the Kansas delegation to propose bills in Congress to help clean up communities such as Treece.

“I’ll always remember the day when the mayor of Treece came to our office to talk with Mike after he and other townspeople had met with the governor in Topeka,” said Dennis Anderson, Journal-World managing editor. “The group was genuinely appreciative of Mike and his work. No one was paying attention to them until Mike told their story.

“That was the thing about Mike, his sources respected him and trusted him to do a solid job. He would print out every story he ever wrote and look for errors to correct before handing his work over to editors.”

He was as careful with friendships as he was with newspaper stories. Longtime friend Bob Friskel met Belt when they both worked at the Kansan. They kept in touch by e-mail, and got together for hamburgers and beer. The two talked about sports, mostly, and politics. They’d planned to take in a Royals game next week.

“We were good friends,” Friskel said. “I think everybody was his best friend.”

Friskel remembers the days that Belt covered trials in Wyandotte County.

“Pretty soon, the convicts in the trial would be coming over to talk with him,” Friskel said. “He’d made friends with them. He was making friends with the convicts.”

Crime intrigued Belt, as did history. So a 50-year-old murder story set in Wyandotte County that had ties to Lawrence piqued Belt’s interest. He began work on a book about Lowell Andrews, a Kansas University student who shot and killed his parents and older sister.

California resident Kathy Hernandez, who was a relative of Lowell Andrews, worked with Belt. During their three-year partnership, she also found a friend.

“We talked on the phone sometimes two and three times a week,” she said. Always on Sunday night. About the book they hoped to publish. About their lives.

“He was just one of those guys you thought would always be there,” she said. “He put one foot in front of another to get through life. He had a quiet sophistication that would surprise me sometimes, and such incredible depth. That’s a gift that most people don’t have. He was unfettered with ego. He didn’t have an ego. He was above that.”

Comments

Alia Ahmed 5 years, 8 months ago

My sympathy to Mr. Belt's friends, family and colleagues.

Joel 5 years, 8 months ago

Rest in peace, Mike. Beer and hotwings all around.

somebodynew 5 years, 8 months ago

My sympathies and thoughts to Mike's family and friends. I worked with him over the years and agree that he always sought the truth and was unbiased in his reporting. I wish I could say that for more people I have worked with in the media, but in my former profession you didn't run into many like him.

I know I will certainly miss him, and agree with Joel - I will toast him tonight.

Heartlander 5 years, 8 months ago

I am still in a state of disbelief--I'm not handling his passing very well. He would be disappointed in that. We were so close and yet some 1,500 some miles apart. Having him as a true-blue friend always just a phone call away was a rare blessing and certainly a life-changer for me. He always made me feel special. As far as our book-project is concerned, it's so far off my radar screen. Even though we worked on it diligently for three years--mostly him--I can't even begin to think about it. His recent e-mails are still in my inbox and I can't bear to remove them. --Kathy Hernandez, Palm Desert, California

somebodynew 5 years, 8 months ago

Kathy- My thoughts and prayers are with you (I hope that matters to you). Mike was someone I who I truly admired and trusted (not easy for me in the line of work I was in). I know you are way more affected, but hang in there.

somebodynew 5 years, 8 months ago

Also, Kathy - take the time you need to recover, but finish the book please, if you can. It can be a lasting tribute to Mike.

Bassetlover 5 years, 8 months ago

Well done, Caroline! Very poignant and a phenomenal tribute to a terrific reporter that is so richly deserved. The mining story was certainly Mike at his finest. Thanks for highlighting an outstanding career that ended much too soon.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 8 months ago

I only knew mike through his work on this paper. but through that, it was obvious he was an excellent reporter who cared about the people he covered.

LJWorld, would it perhaps be appropriate to put up a section one day soon of Mike's recent and most important work, all in one place?

Comfort to you guys at the ljworld, and Mike's family.

I gather his death was sudden and unexpected. the story doesn't address that, or how he died but I can appreciate that perhaps somebody may have asked for privacy.

deruble 5 years, 8 months ago

I worked with Mike at The Kansan. He was a journalist's journalist -- tough, accurate, fair ... and human. In more than three decades of reporting, I've never known anyone else to have the trust and respect of the people he covered that Mike did. It was a joy to see him blossom at the Journal-World; it's crushing to see that legacy end so soon.

disabledveterangvcptsd 5 years, 8 months ago

My family and I are in deep sorrow. I just found out now. I am devastated. I was lucky enough to have had lunch with him and it was a good conversation. Mike also wrote several blogs on me. He cared about the Disabled Veteran. He was our voice. He was an honest man. I am shocked just sitting here. He was a journalist with the utmost integrity. He helped my family and I find a way to put food on our table. I miss you Mike. I am sure glad I had the honor of knowing you. God Bless you always.

mlacey 5 years, 8 months ago

Very sad news about a super guy. I worked with him at the J-W and we had many assignments together. He was such a hard worker and so nice to everyone. He will be missed. Condolences to his family and all who knew him. Caroline, what a wonderful story--thank you. Melissa Lacey Nagy

Jonathan Kealing 5 years, 8 months ago

bearded_gnome-

All of Mike's recent work can be seen at http://www2.ljworld.com/staff/mike_belt/

It's a nice trip to see it all. And, if you go back far enough, you can see almost all the work he did here. Also, if you get a chance, check out the mining project:

http://www2.ljworld.com/news/mining/

Jonathan Kealing Online editor

Heartlander 5 years, 8 months ago

Mike would have been humbled and probably surprised by these responses. Not only was this gentle man kind to people, he loved animals, too. He cared tremendously for Major, his beloved cat which he selected from the LHS about a year ago. The Belt family made a great selection in a memorial to the Lawrence Humane Society. Mike respected Midge, the shelter director and spoke about her accomplishments. All that said, I gathered myself and just sent my check--no doubt the shelter needs help now more than ever. Place the name BELT on the memo line of the check and make it payable to: Lawrence Humane Society. Send it to Ramsey-Yost Funeral Home; PO Box 1260; Lawrence, Kansas 66004. A list of donor names will be provided to the family. In honor of my beloved two friends, Mike and Major.

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