The old-school Silver Fox with the rock’n'roll heart
Greg Kelton loved a cracking yarn and a thumping Shiraz. And he only went into journalism because he lacked the talent to be the lead guitarist in a rock band.
Greg was a consummate professional; a journalist who could pump out a splash or an opinion piece in a matter of minutes; who had no time for stupidity and all the time in the world to comb Budgets and Government reports, line by line.
He was old school; he had converted reams of shorthand into elegant and precise articles while the rest of us were just hitting stop on our tape recorders. He could do a dozen stories in a day and still have time for a long lunch. He was a master of the long lunch.
He was taciturn when you first met him. A bit scary, to be honest, at least until you shared your first bottle (or two) of Parliament House red with him.
He was an institution, a besotted husband, a quietly delighted father and grandfather, an utterly adored colleague, and a fearless investigator. And he was bloody funny.
He died at 65; too young. His prodigious brain, which had a better search function than Google, is an enormous loss. He remembered dates and gossip, ancient factional deals and electorate boundaries, a lifetime’s hoard of non-trivial trivia.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard described him yesterday as a political journalist “without peer” and a “mainstay” of political reporting.
Premier Jay Weatherill called him a “thorough gentleman”.
“(He was) great company over a glass of red, I will miss him and I share the sadness of his family and friends,” he said.
Former Prime Minister John Howard said he “always sought balance and accuracy”. Former Liberal Premier Steele Hall called him a friend who’d be “greatly missed”, and former Labor Premier John Bannon said he “could always dampen the political rhetoric or expose the humbug”.
Former Labor Premier Mike Rann said he knew more about rock music than anyone he’d ever met and that when he criticised people “you knew it was honest criticism”.
His close friend and colleague, Canberra journalist Mark Kenny, said he “was the finest, fastest, and fairest I’ve ever worked with”. “I’ll miss his counsel enormously,” he said.
People called Greg ‘honourable’, ‘honest’, ‘outstanding’.
We called him Kelts, and occasionally described him as a grumpy bugger. He had zero tolerance for fools and his legendary catchcry (too blue to write here) often echoed through the dank, windowless office at Parliament House.
We loved him.
Across Australia yesterday the diaspora of Kelton protégés wept at the news of his death. There are dozens of men and women who learned the craft of journalism under Greg, people who are now scattered far and wide, who will always remember him. When you hear the warm wit of the ABC’s Annabel Crabb or read a razor sharp column by David Penberthy; when you hear Press Gallery journos like Mark Kenny or Phil Coorey dissecting the latest Canberra drama, you’re listening to people who absorbed Greg’s wise words.
Kelts cranked out 47 years in journalism. He started as a proofreader’s assistant, straight out of school at 17, retired in September, and has a final review in today’s paper.
Many wouldn’t have guessed that the guy whose desk was always tidy and whose shirt and tie were always impeccable was a rock’n’roll guy underneath. The veteran reporter who covered the State Bank collapse and the standing down of Don Dunstan rated interviewing Paul McCartney in 1975 as a career highlight.
His desk, with neatly pinned contact lists, has been empty since he left. We’re hoping to convert it into a wine bar with The Who on repeat; it would be a fitting tribute.
Kelts did not go gently. He was full of vim and passion. At his retirement speech, he railed against the perceived demise of newsprint. He wanted all of us here in the office to fight to keep it going, to treasure papers, to keep writing good yarns. He loved journalism. He loved newspapers - and he also filed like a demon for online.
What really made him glow, though, was talking about his wife Margaret, who died of breast cancer in 2009. He never stopped missing her, or talking about her, or remembering trips they’d taken and meals they’d eaten, that cruise, that incredible little restaurant down an Italian lane.
Greg did countless fine, amazing, and important things. He mixed it up with politicians from Don Dunstan (his favourite) to Bob Hawke. But he would have thought – even if he might not have said it – that the greatest thing he did was bring his sons Matt, Nick and Sam into the world.
His three granddaughters - Georgia, Ashlee and Charli - will have a Kelton-sized hole in their lives and I hope they always remember how great their granddad was. His mum, Mary, will miss him.
Sam, his youngest son, followed Greg into journalism, and shares his mad love for music. ‘Baby Kelts’ always made Kelton Senior ridiculously proud.
Vale, Kelts. We’ll remember you with every guitar riff, every perfect lede, every cracking yarn, every Barossa Shiraz and every single long lunch. Vale.
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