Longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane, who stirred the pot on race and its impact on Milwaukee’s African American community and the central city, was found dead in his east side apartment Thursday, April 16, 2020; he was 63.
No foul play was suspected; the medical examiner conducted testing for COVID-19 over the weekend but the results returned negative Monday morning.
Kane, who never married and didn’t have any children, graduated from Temple University and moved from Philadelphia to Milwaukee in September 1984 to work for the Milwaukee Journal, then the city’s evening newspaper.
He covered a number of beats before becoming best known for his award-winning column “Raising Kane” in the Journal Sentinel. The column consistently challenged readers to deal with race as a force in politics, culture, business and the media.
“Eugene was a passionate journalist and wonderful writer who cared deeply about justice. As a columnist, he encouraged the people of Milwaukee and America to listen to our better angels, to confront our failures and to not surrender to accepting racial injustices and inequities. He urged us all, including himself, to be better,” said George Stanley, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and regional editor of USA TODAY-Wisconsin.
Quiet, even shy, by nature, Kane was willing to tackle touchy subjects head-on, and wasn’t afraid to make readers uncomfortable. He was known in the newsroom for talking and listening to even the most angry callers, and responding to emails and letters, even if they crossed the line of civility.
For one column that demonstrated his commitment to try to understand people whose opinions differed from his own, Kane invited James Fendry, president of the Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement, to watch “Bowling for Columbine” together. The movie explores the proliferation of guns in America leading up to the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The headline of Kane’s column: “My date with the gun guy.”
Mikel Holt, a columnist for the Milwaukee Community Journal, called Kane an “old school tree shaker.”
“He was proud to be a black journalist when a lot of folks didn’t want to be reduced to that title,” he said.
Kane was entrusted to tell the struggles of the underserved community to a mostly white audience, Holt said.
“He wasn’t just a black journalist. He was one of us. He said the things that needed to be said and heard by a wider audience,” Holt said.
During their private conversations, Kane told Holt that he never went a week without receiving a hate letter.
“But he took that for us,” Holt said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called Kane a gifted writer who was passionate about justice in our society.
“I knew him for decades. There were times we worked closely together. There were times when he challenged me and challenged the city. And, every time that he challenged us I took it very seriously because I knew that he was speaking from a place of wanting to do what’s right for the people of this community,” Barrett said.
Columns won many national awards
While working at the Journal Sentinel, Kane earned a prestigious Knight Fellowship at Stanford University for the 1992-’93 academic year. He hosted the Milwaukee Public Television show “Black Nouveau” from 2002 to 2006. He lectured at both Marquette University and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And he served as the president of the Wisconsin Black Media Association in 2002.
Marty Kaiser, former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, called Kane one of the most important voices in the history of Wisconsin journalism.
“His columns were ‘must reads’ to understand issues in Milwaukee that had been too often ignored,” Kaiser said.
Kane earned numerous accolades for his work. He was a two-time National Headliner Award winner for Best Local Column; a National Association of Black Journalists award winner for Best Commentary; and a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner from the Society of Professional Journalists for Best General Column.
Kane left the Journal Sentinel in 2012, after a 28-year career. On his last day, just before heading out, he brought the house down by standing in the center of the newsroom and belting out “Moon River.”
In 2014, Kane was inducted into both the Wisconsin Media Hall of Fame and the Milwaukee Press Club Hall of Fame.
In February 2017, Kane was honored along with WTMJ- TV Channel 4’s Carole Meekins by the Wisconsin Black Media Association in an event entitled “Honoring Our Own,” at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.
Over the past five years, Kane faced a number of health issues.
While driving to visit his sister’s home near Washington, D.C., in 2015,he suffered a stroke.
He was in a medically induced coma after doctors determined he suffered a diabetic seizure, which led to the stroke. In an essay after the ordeal, he said he was saved by a real life angel, a highway employee who came upon his car on the highway. He urged people to take to heart the warning signs of diabetes, which disproportionately affect African American men.
In the essay for the Journal Sentinel, Kane closed by writing:
“I have a new appreciation when a medical condition is called ‘a silent killer.’ I was almost a victim of this particular killer, but now consider myself a survivor who briefly crossed over to the other side, yet managed to return and stand in the light.
“I vow to cherish each new day as a mark of success over that darkness, and to make sure the people in my life know how much I cherish them — and how much I want them to take care of themselves.
“And if you’re reading this, that means you.”