By LISA FITTERMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 19, 2018
No matter if it was smashing barriers as a female sportswriter in San Diego and Chicago, teaching journalism students at Concordia University in Montreal or playing the role of suburban mom, Linda Kay gave it her all.
The crash of a Boeing 727 with a smaller plane over a residential neighbourhood in San Diego on Sept. 25, 1978, marked Ms. Kay's coming of age in a world where bad things can happen fast. She was working at what was then called The San Diego Evening Tribune when she became part of a team that would later win the Pulitzer Prize for deadline reporting. The grisly scene, with 144 mangled bodies, black smoke and sharp-edged debris, shook her like nothing else before it, but still, she kept the focus on doing her job.
"That was my mom all over," said her daughter, Emily Kay-Rivest, a fourth-year resident in otolaryngology at the McGill University Health Centre. "I heard about how hard the story hit her from a friend, not from her."
Even as cancer was destroying her body, that sense of calm, combined with an insatiable curiosity and a prodigious work ethic, was Ms. Kay's hallmark. Through a career that included writing a column for the Montreal Gazette from 1994 to 1997, and authoring a book published in 2012 that celebrated the 16 female journalists who were catalysts for the creation of the Canadian Women's Press Club, she was indefatigable and decisive until the end.
While undergoing radiation for a sarcoma that started in her leg muscles, she took the metro, not a taxi, 14 stops from her apartment near Montreal's Jean Talon Market in Little Italy to the McGill University Health Centre; afterward, she'd hop a bus to go to work at Concordia's Loyola campus on the west side of the city, giving nary a hint to colleagues that she was ill.
And she exhorted her daughter to travel to Atlanta the weekend before she died for a previously scheduled interview for a fellowship at a hospital.
"This is about your future," the mother said decisively, leaving unspoken the sentiment that she'd had already had her own.
Surrounded by her family, Ms. Kay died in hospital in Montreal on Oct. 12, when her body couldn't fight the cancer any longer. She was 66.
Linda Merry Kupferstein was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 3, 1951, the eldest of Earl and Ceila Kupferstein's three daughters. About a year later, the father moved the family to Glen Rock, N.J., a tiny town where kids rode bicycles to their hearts' content and residents didn't lock their doors.
The parents worked hard - Earl owned a coat factory while Ceila was his full-time office manager - and they instilled that drive in their children. Linda paved the way, excelling as a student at Glen Rock Senior High while working after school and on weekends in the candy department at a local Bamberger's department store (the chain would later be absorbed into Macy's).
With a love of writing nurtured at her highschool newspaper, she graduated at the age of 17 and went straight into the journalism program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. It took her only three years to complete her bachelor's degree, after which she moved to Washington to work for several months as an investigative intern for Ralph Nader.
It was the summer of 1972, when the Watergate scandal broke, Jane Fonda travelled to North Vietnam and Ms. Magazine first rolled off the presses.
Ms. Kay (so she called herself, having deemed her real last name too much of a mouthful) worked hard, soaked up everything she could and, at the end of her contract, picked up stakes to report for the local newspaper in Paterson, N.J.
After three years there, she moved to San Diego, where she'd have her first experience in the sports department. In 1980, she picked up stakes yet again to become the first female sportswriter at The Chicago Tribune. It was a tough gig, but then, so was she. Of middling height, with blunt-cut hair and a no-nonsense air, she parried what sometimes were casually cruel, sexist comments with more questions.
Last year, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made fun of a female reporter's question, Ms. Kay told The Canadian Press, "It's always one step forward, two steps back."
"I started in the late seventies, early eighties, and that's the kind of reaction I got then," she said.
In 1984, while vacationing at a Club Med in Mexico, Ms. Kay met an air-traffic controller named Bernard Rivest. For the first few years, their relationship would be conducted long distance, but she didn't mind because it allowed her to focus on work.
"The way she described it, it sounded nice," Dr.
Kay-Rivest said. "When they were together, they really wanted to be."
In the end, though, she would give up her Chicago job to move, not to Montreal, but to neighbouring Laval, a family-oriented community of strip malls and green spaces. Mr. Rivest believed that children should grow up with a big backyard and he convinced Ms. Kay to give it a go. Although she found suburban living stifling, she threw herself into it, writing freelance when the couple's only child was at school, doing the pickups, shopping and meal preparation - and learning to speak French.
"It was always clear that she wanted to have a kid and so she moved for me," Dr. Kay-Rivest said. "She didn't like driving, but there she was, transporting me around in a minivan, with everyone speaking French around her."
After their daughter graduated from high school, the thinking was that the couple would finally move into Montreal. But change can be hard and, in the end, Ms. Kay went on her own, finding an apartment she loved in a converted church, close to the renowned Jean Talon Market and a host of restaurants, cafés and bars.
She started to teach at Concordia in 1990, getting superlative ratings from her students and plaudits from colleagues. Although she completed a master's, she bucked at the pressure to do a doctorate, usually a prerequisite to becoming a professor - a position she was finally named to in 2014.
Ms. Kay also spent three years as the department's chair (the first woman to hold the job), but she chafed at administrative duties because she much preferred to be in the classroom with her students or on the road.
"She was always fun, game and high-energy," said her close friend, Brian Gabrial, a professor emeritus in the department who currently holds a journalism chair at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. "Once, we were at a conference in Rio and she was doing research that meant going to a part of town the hotel concierge told us to avoid.
But there we were, with me terrified and Linda calmly taking pictures and doing what she had to."
The sarcoma was first diagnosed in 2016, after Ms. Kay noticed a bump on her leg that she thought was a bruise from doing lots of spinning on an uncomfortable stationary bicycle. Although it went into brief remission following radiation and surgery, it came back last winter with a vengeance.
"In the end," Dr. Kay-Rivest said, "she made sure to let us know she had no regrets."
Along with her daughter, Ms. Kay leaves her two sisters, Chari Magarelli and Tina Gelber, and her former husband, Mr. Rivest.
Linda Kay was part of a team at The San Diego Evening Tribune that won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a deadly plane collision over the city in 1978. Ms. Kay would later become The Chicago Tribune's first female sportswriter and serve as a columnist at the Montreal Gazette.