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Journalist leaves lasting impression

Sept. 30, 2003

By Lacy Elwood, reporter

Jack Kelley should have been dead already.

As USA Today's foreign correspondent, Kelley's lived to write about

massacres, suicide bombings and interviews with some of the world's most notorious people. Most people have never heard of him, but once they hear him speak, they say they'll never forget his name. The same goes for student government leaders and journalism students, who heard Kelley speak Friday at the Big 12 Leadership Conference.

Kelley promises audiences he'll take them where he's been, including the streets of Baghdad, a Pakistani school, starving villages. His hands wave pictures from

Saddam Hussein's home and copies of pages from Al Qaeda training manuals.

He spends up to 10 months a year traveling abroad, sometimes more, fighting

to get the 'compelling story' in print.

'My goal is to hit you right between the eyes, wake you up,' he said. Kelley wants to tell Americans the story of what he sees happening in the rest of the world, simply 'reporting the way it was.'

Kelley said he feels like many Americans don't care about foreign news, and

that's why he strives to make it compelling.

His stories are endless. He's seen countless cries of help, from women

pointing to their stomachs seeking food to letters written in broken English hoping he can bring freedom.

'These are the things you have to live with,' he said. 'These are the things

journalism school doesn't teach you to deal with. What do you do? You write

stories, and people will respond.'

Kelley still has nightmares about some of the things he's seen. He said he

occasionally wakes up screaming from the sight of stepping over slaughtered

bodies at a massacre in Rwanda. He still vividly sees his brushes with death,

especially one outside a Sbarro pizzeria in the Middle East, where he ran into a

suicide bomber on his way out of the door in time to see the building blow up behind him.

He said he sometimes sneaks out of his hotel late at night for risky interviews and walks down empty foreign streets, 'thinking anytime, anytime at all' he could

be killed. Kelley said he's often not welcomed in the places he works.

'I hate you. I hate your president. I hate your country. I'm gonna get you. I'm

gonna get your children,' he recalls hearing.

'You can tell this man is a man of faith, and I think that protects him in

these evil situations,' Kate Almanza, a senior account manager for USA Today,

said. Kelley agrees, saying 'it's God who keeps me alive' during

opposition.

One student said she had never heard of Kelley before Friday, but after hearing him speak, her eyes were 'completely opened.'

Jessica Cahalen, a member of Oklahoma State University's student government and a journalism major, said Kelley made the worlds he reports on 'very real.'

'He definitely inspired me to stay honest and be objective,' Cahalen said.

But, even though there are those who oppose him and his nationality, Kelley

stresses that there are people overseas whose compassion and will are strong in

the midst of devastation. He strives to tell the world these compelling

stories, he said.

A band of young boys in Kuwait City, Kuwait, risked their lives to steal food and money for the elderly and poor. Soldiers would beat them, leaving the boys for dead, Kelley said. The boys' leader was brutally scarred but refused to tell the soldiers from where the stolen money came.

Then, there's the story of a Somalian boy, who Kelley and a colleague ran

across after a famine struck the village. He was the only one they found

breathing. They gave him the only food they had, which was a grapefruit. They followed him to watch as the young boy chewed up pieces of fruit, placed them in his starving brother's mouth and made his brother eat. The brother lived, the young boy died, and Kelley told the world about the 'importance of giving your life away.'

'I will never complain again,' Kelley said to students Friday. 'If you saw

these things, you would never complain again.'

His colleagues see Kelley's compassion for his work during his short returns

to the United States.

'He's so humble after all he's seen,' Tanya Bowen, USA Today's regional

marketing manager, said. 'When he comes home, he wants to give everything away

because he's so generous.'

Friday marked the second time Kelley spoke at Baylor. He spoke in Chapel two

years ago, and Bowen said he made enough of an effect here that she's been

working to bring him back. Then, Kelley said, he received about 200 letters and

e-mails from Baylor students.

Today, Kelley continues to stress the message he told Baylor students two

years ago; honesty, integrity and strong faith are key.

Kelley prays often, before interviews, before writing and any chance he can.

He admits he should have been dead already, but his passion for honesty keeps

him going back into the fire.

'I never let them know I'm scared,' Kelley said. 'Sometimes I'm shaking in

my boots, but I never let them know I'm scared.'