Archive for Friday, April 10, 2009

Journalist upheld fair reporting

April 10, 2009

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. He also contributed to the Baldwin City Signal.

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.”

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