Anne Keefe, whose smoky voice, inimitable style and consuming dedication to work made her one of the most important figures in television and radio for more than 50 years, has died. She was 90.
Ms. Keefe entered broadcast in Rochester, N.Y., in 1946 and established herself over nearly 30 years there as a versatile media personality, newswoman and bona fide celebrity. But in 1975, she led a fight with management over working conditions at WROC-TV.
After a long and bitter strike at the TV station, Ms. Keefe decided it was time to go. While passing through St. Louis on her way to an interview in Kansas City, she gave an audition tape to a salesman at KMOX Radio. He gave it to Bob Hyland.
The venerable general manager of KMOX, who was known for getting to work early, called Ms. Keefe at 6 a.m. He said they needed to talk and sent a limousine for her. The limo was stocked with orange juice, a Danish roll and coffee.
“I was still in bed,” she recalled years later during a KMOX interview. “He asked me if I was a good broadcaster, and I said ‘I’m the best!’”
She told Hyland that he could not afford her. He could and asked if she would go on the air that night. She did, becoming the station’s first woman interviewer, and there she remained for nearly two decades.
Ms. Keefe, who had been a longtime next-door-neighbor to a son, Christopher Keefe, in St. Louis, died of a heart attack on Tuesday (Dec. 29, 2015) in Webster, N.Y., at the home of her daughter, Mollie Keefe. She had returned to the Rochester area in 2011.
A broadcast giant
After graduating from the University of Rochester with a degree in English in 1945, Ms. Keefe went to work at WHAM Radio. She played bit parts in soap operas and did commercials. Soon, WHAM decided to delve into television, so Ms. Keefe entered that nascent arena.
She hosted kids’ shows and cooking shows; she co-hosted a do-it-yourself show with her first husband, Robert Keefe. When the first local news broadcast aired in 1957, she did the news. By the time WHAM-TV became WROC-TV in 1961, Ms. Keefe was known as “The First Lady of Rochester News.”
Despite her popularity, the strike at WROC caused Ms. Keefe to search for greener pastures. The search quickly ended in St. Louis.
In 1976, she joined KMOX and became the host of “At Your Service,” which had been named by its first host, Jack Buck. For a time, her dulcet tones were paired with the booming voice of the late Bruce Bradley.
She interviewed everybody who was anybody.
“Anne was a world-class interviewer, but with a style of her own,” wrote Ray Hartmann, whom she joined in 1988 at the raucous table called “Donnybrook,” the KETC Channel 9 show pioneered by the late Martin Duggan. “She could probe, challenge and show empathy simultaneously. She was magical.”
In a tribute to his friend, Hartmann said that he and Ms. Keefe were not equals.
“She sat alongside me and always made me feel like her peer, but let’s be clear: We weren’t peers,” Hartmann said. “Only one of us was a broadcast giant. Most assuredly, it wasn’t me.”
Not all of her endeavors were so erudite. Along with former Cardinals football player Dan Dierdorf and KMOX announcer Bob Costas, Ms. Keefe announced “professional” wrestling live from the old Arena. She called the matches wearing sequined gowns, said a daughter, Kitty Keefe.
Ms. Keefe retired from KMOX in 1993, after declaring that radio had changed too much for her.
“We got into a phase where we enjoyed humiliating people,” she told St. Louis Magazine in 2007. “That’s when I began to think I didn’t want to do this anymore.”
But until 1998, she did radio and TV commercials, continued as a “Donnybrook” panelist, and hosted other PBS shows, including “Healthy Living.”
She did not take the show’s title to heart, admitting that she ate bon bons, smoked, regularly drank Irish whiskey and abhorred exercise. She laughingly chalked it all up to good luck and great genes.
Anne Houlihan Keefe was born Feb. 12, 1925, in Oswego, N.Y., a tiny town near Lake Ontario. She was the only child of Alice O’Reilley and Claude Woodruff, both school teachers. She would later teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
She was divorced from Robert Keefe, who is deceased. She later married and divorced Willis Vanderschmidt.
Ms. Keefe raised six children, sometimes alone, which contributed to her becoming a phenomenal cook.
She never lost her love of radio, with public radio becoming her airwaves of choice.
Mary Edwards of St. Louis Public Radio said that Ms. Keefe gave testimonials for the station’s fund drives after retiring from KMOX.
She hated weekends because she couldn’t listen to some of her favorite NPR shows, particularly the political programming.
“She was so looking forward to this political season to see what the Republicans are going to do,” said her daughter Kitty Keefe.
To Ms. Keefe’s amazement, she recently began receiving calls from the campaign of Ben Carson, a Republican presidential hopeful.
She began by telling the caller she was a liberal Democrat (she was). By the third call, she was saying that she was a socialist.
Ms. Keefe donated her body to the University of Rochester. At her request, there will be no services.
She was preceded in death by her parents and a son, Peter Keefe, who died of cancer in 2010.
Among Ms. Keefe’s survivors are five children, Lisa Updaw of Webster, N.Y., Kitty Keefe (Bill Meyer) of Cleveland, Mollie Jones of Webster, N.Y., Tony (Mary) Keefe of Rochester, N.Y. and Christopher (Theresa) Keefe of St. Louis; nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.