BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A former reporter and editor of Daily Democrat sports will be duckin’ the puck at the Stanley Cup games in St. Louis next week.
Keith Gillett, 69, of St. Louis, is a regional photographer for Icon Sportswire, a division of XML Team Solutions, Inc, and was selected to be one of the company’s two photographers allowed to shoot the NHL Championships beginning next week when the Boston Bruins come to St. Louis on June 1.
Gillett, originally from Fort Madison, worked for the Fort Madison Daily Democrat during his high school days after turning 16 and was given the title of sports editor since the paper didn’t have one at the time.
He stayed with the paper throughout high school, and during the summers while he attended the University of Iowa.
“The Democrat needed a proof reader when I was 16. The sports editor quit, so I covered every single high school game the entire time I was in high school. They had no regular sports guy. I was it,” Gillett said.
“I even voted in the AP poll and helped Fort Madison finish 4th in the state in football in 1966. I was the defacto sports editor.”
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Gillett was a member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corp (R.O.T.C.) and when he graduated he told then-Evening Democrat publisher George Fisher he probably wouldn’t be called to active duty because the Vietnam War was coming to a close.
“So they tapped me to be city editor and it wasn’t two weeks later…uh.oh.. I was going active duty. George wasn’t very happy about that. But if I’d stayed I probably would have been at the Democrat for a while.”
Gillett said he didn’t have any particular attraction to photography, it was just part of the job. In the Air Force he used a point-and-shoot as a public affairs officer and did basic photography.
But it wasn’t until he retired from the Air Force in 1992 that he began to find a niche as a journalist and shutterbug.
“After I got out of the Air Force, it was few years later I got into a weekly paper as editor in O’Fallon, Illinois and I had to take pictures. I realized I wasn’t too bad at it,” Gillett said.
He moved around to a few papers before landing in Mascoutah, Illinois where was named what he described as the ‘do-everything-editor with no staff’.
He said he liked to enter contests competing with other photographers and realized his photography stacked up against some of the best in his division.
“One of the proudest moments I’ve had is I was sitting at the table in Springfield, right with the Chicago Tribune staff and my stack (of awards) was a big as theirs,” he said.
When he retired at the age of 62, he found he enjoyed shooting sports pictures and got on with Icon Sportswire. He said it took a while – about a year – before he could get any traction with the company.
Now after seven years with the company at age 69 he’s found something he loves that he keeps him busy. And he’s Icon’s principal photographer in St. Louis.
“It’s a third career. And I’m not doing because I need any support. I have a military pension, social security and some investments that are paying the bills. I’m doing it because I like to do it, it keeps me busy and I love photographing sports. I just love it.”
Keith makes regular trips back to Fort Madison from St. Louis to check on his 96-year-old father who still lives on his own on the city’s north side.
Compensation for his work comes directly from sale of his pictures that are uploaded to the Icon Sportswire website. He said he makes enough to pay for gas and overnight lodging, about $8,000 to $10,000 per year.
His work has been featured in Forbes Magazine, ESPN, USA Today, National Hockey Magazine and other national publications. A story he likes to tell is about a balloonfest in Arizona where he uploaded 100 pictures and sold about 15 to the Smithsonian Magazine.
“It’s enough to make it a nice lucrative ‘advanced’ hobby for me. You’re not going to make a full-time living out of sports photography anymore unless your a star with a big agency or publication,” Gillett said.
“This is a fun advanced hobby for me. Right now there’s only about a dozen of us in St. Louis that are accredited in town. We’ll have more at the Stanley Cup because we’ll have all the big shots in town.”
Gillett sticks mainly to Nikon cameras and was showing a backup pack he carries with a severely dinged up lens.
“Wanna know how those dings got in there,” he asked. “Hockey pucks.”
Getting hit covering games isn’t necessarily a common occurrence for him, but the only time he was ever injured was when he was in a wall hole at a hockey game and the lens was out just far enough for a body check to send the camera back into the bridge of his nose, sending him to the arena first-aid room.
As Sports Editor of the Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa campus newspaper, in the 70s, Gillett was the first to win the William R. Reed award for the top Big Ten Journalist. Reed was the Big Ten Commissioner from 1961 to 1971 and helped create the award to recognize top sports journalists covering the Big Ten. Gillett split the honor with a reporter from Michigan State University.
He’s also had interviews with Nile Kinnick’s mother prior to the University renaming the football stadium after her Heismann Award winning son. He also served as an aid to Commander Norman Schwartzkopf during the Desert Storm operation.
Now, he’s planning on shooting pictures for another three to five years and the possible retiring, again, back to Fort Madison.
“I’ll do it as long as it’s still good to me. But I’ve had some good moments.”