«RM75»«FC»COL205.PRB - RIP Harold Caseky, a remarkable legislator
Missouri lost on the first day of October one of the state's most influential legislators in decades -- Harold Caskey.
But few in the statehouse would apply to Caskey the term some of my journalism students privately used as a display of affection about him -- "teddy bear."
Realize how intimidating Caskey could be for a beginning student reporter with little background about the legislative process and the issues being debated.
Caskey was no lightweight. He helped lead the efforts to rewrite the state's school-funding law, to legalize concealed weapons and to raise the speed limits on state highways.
He had a reputation for being one of the toughest lawmakers in the state.
Caskey was a lawyer and former prosecutor. The assertiveness those professions require to be successful gave him an edge over the increasing number of non-lawyers in the General Assembly.
Indeed, Caskey could be tremendously intimidating if you were unprepared on an issue you were talking with him about -- whether it be an agency official or a reporter.
You did not bluff with the senator from Bates County, if you were unfamiliar about an issue. He could see right through you. Instead, if you just admitted your ignorance, Caskey would go to great lengths to help you understand.
That was one of the most important lessons he taught my journalism students.
My students' adoption of the affectionate term "teddy bear" arose after an incident in 1996 when Caskey was a leader in the successful efforts to raise highway speed limits and limit penalties for minor speeding violations.
In a private conversation, he joked with me that he was the only legislator who did not have a personal conflict of interest with the issue because he was legally blind and, thus, could not drive.
Good story, I thought. So I asked Caskey if I could have one of my reporters interview him about it. He agreed.
But when my reporter tried to interview Caskey, he challenged the reporter for making an issue about his physical disability.
When I went to Caskey to apologize for my misunderstanding, he said no apology was needed. He was willing to talk about the issue, but thought my reporter needed to be more assertive.
After I reported that back to my reporters, they learned to display more confidence when interviewing Caskey, as well as other sources.
And when they approached Caskey with confidence, they discovered one of the most cooperative and helpful members of the legislature.
After all, in the legislature he was a leader in improving education and expanding student scholarships. And over the years, I also began to realize that he also was a natural teacher.
As a former prosecutor, I sensed Caskey thought aggressiveness in questioning was an essential skill that journalism students needed to develop just like law students. He was absolutely correct.
From subsequent experiences of the tremendous assistance Caskey provided despite his sometimes intimidating presence, several of my journalism students adopted and passed on to future generations of students that affectionate term "teddy bear" about Harold Caskey.
After Harold Caskey's passing, I suspect few in the statehouse who would think of him as a "teddy bear."
Despite his legislative successes, he was not liked by some who came under his sometimes grilling inquiries -- as one former state official recently reminded me.
He was tough, sometimes stern and occasionally lived up to his reputation of being "cranky."
But for my students who adopted the term of "teddy bear" for Harold Caskey, they found a kind, gentle and helpful soul who taught them the importance of confidence.
Harold Caskey's death reminded me of how deeply I have missed the "teddy bear" for what he taught my students and what I learned from him about teaching journalists before he was forced out of office by term limits a decade ago.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]