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John “Bud” Pyatak, husband of Susan Keese for 38 years, spoke at his wife’s memorial gathering on March 13 at Williamsville Hall.

News

Coming together for a friend

Colleagues, neighbors, and family remember the life of Susan Keese

WILLIAMSVILLE—It was the type of event that Susan Keese loved to cover.

On Saturday afternoon, Williamsville Hall was filled with more than 200 people from all the worlds that she touched — as a reporter and columnist for the Rutland Herald, as editor of the alumni magazine at Marlboro College, as a writing teacher and coach, and, in her last big adventure, as a reporter for Vermont Public Radio.

They were all there for a memorial gathering for Keese, who died from complications from the flu at age 67 on March 7.

However, the memorial gathering was more like a cocktail party.

Friends, neighbors, and colleagues chatted, noshed from the well-supplied potluck table, and shared stories and memories of Keese for about two hours before finally getting around to a more traditional tribute to her life.

No one seemed to mind, since they were there to celebrate a woman who lived her life in a non-linear way, and rejoiced in the detours and roundabout routes.

Born in Philadelphia, Keese discovered the joys of writing, art, and making music at an early age. She graduated high school in 1965 and soon was swept up into the tumult of the 1960s. She ended up in California, epicenter for the counterculture.

After being in San Francisco with the Diggers, the community-action group based in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and at Black Bear Ranch, a seminal commune in northern California, she eventually landed in New Mexico, living alone in a remote cabin with no running water.

Keese’s daughter, Annie Faith Noonan, spoke Saturday of visiting that cabin as an adult with her mother, and understanding what attracted her to its beauty and solitude.

After Annie was born, Keese moved back east, this time to a commune in New Hampshire. It was there she met the love of her life, John “Bud” Pyatak.

In those days, he said, Pyatak was still an itinerant musician trying to build a career.

Ultimately, it was Pyatak who settled into a career as a lawyer while Keese pursued her muse as a writer.

“She taught us to take no moment for granted,” he said.

Keese, Pyatak, and their children, Annie and Christopher, would later move to Vermont, first in Brattleboro and later in South Newfane.

Susan Smallheer, longtime Southern Vermont Bureau chief for the Rutland Herald, remembers hiring her in 1982 as a Brattleboro correspondent.

“She was part-time, but worked a lot of hours for the paper,” said Smallheer. “But she insisted on making sure she was home at 3 o’clock to meet her kids when they got off the school bus.”

That desire for flexibility and time with her family is what led her to take a job in 1986 with Marlboro College as editor-in-chief of Potash Hill, its alumni magazine. It was also when she started leading creative writing workshops and being a coach and mentor to scores of writers around Windham County.

Keese left Marlboro College in 1993 as her freelance writing career started to flourish. Two years later, she began a long-running, award-winning Sunday column for the Herald, called “No Stone Unturned,” which allowed her free rein to everything from family life and gardening to culture and society for nearly a decade.

But the work that brought her the most recognition still lay ahead. She started as a correspondent with VPR in 2002 and was part of the team that launched “Vermont Edition,” the public radio network’s noontime public affairs program. She eventually got back into field reporting again.

VPR News Director John Dillion has said that Keese didn’t fit the classic mold of a hard news reporter, although she had more than her share of hard news stories, including memorable work covering Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Even though telephone and Internet service was cut off at her South Newfane home by the rampaging Rock River, Keese filed story after story about the storm, its aftermath, and the people affected by a historic disaster.

“She was an eloquent writer, and she worked so hard to get the voices of the people in her stories,” Dillon said Saturday.

Keese could handle the tough stories, too. Over the past couple of years, she covered the Vermont Yankee saga. Her last story, filed on Jan. 10, was a preview of a meeting on the decommissioning plans for the Vernon nuclear plant.

It was a sign of the regard she was held in that Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, was in attendance at Saturday’s memorial.

“There is a huge hole in our hearts right now,” said Dillon. “We just miss her.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #297 (Wednesday, March 18, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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