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AP Indianapolis newsman Ken Kusmer dies at 65 after a short illness

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Ken Kusmer, whose long award-winning career with The Associated Press included exposing flaws in efforts to privatize Indiana’s welfare system, died Thursday at his Indianapolis home after a short illness. He was 65.

Kenneth Doyle Kusmer began his AP career as a reporter and writer in Indianapolis in August 1984.

He was the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2010 Indiana Journalist of the Year for his 2009 coverage of Indiana’s botched attempt to privatize and automate the processing of the state’s applications for food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits through a $1.3 billion contract with IBM Corp. and other companies. Under the weight of bad publicity, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels canceled the contract in October 2009.

In 2000, Kusmer earned the AP’s Dale W. Burgess award for outstanding performance by an Indiana AP staffer. He led AP’s coverage of Eli Lilly & Co.’s legal battle to block generic competition for its antidepressant Prozac. He had also covered the Indianapolis Baptist Temple’s fight against the Internal Revenue Service over its refusal to withhold federal income taxes from its staff.

“He was a great storyteller and also a persistent interview,” said his former wife, Jodi Perras. “He epitomized the value of a free and independent media. He pursued the truth about leaders in government and business and religion who were accused of violating the public trust.”

Kusmer in recent years had his news eyes at night on stories from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, and at times elsewhere in the U.S. In March, those eyes were on tornadoes striking southern and eastern Indiana.

“I saw media reports of three deaths. But they had less than reliable sourcing,” said Roger Schneider, assistant news director for AP’s Great Lakes region. “Ken checked them out quickly, stayed calm and ultimately verified no deaths. His attention to detail and accuracy made all the difference.”

Kusmer, a devoted fan of the Green Bay Packers and Neil Young, was able to get interviews with people faced with not-so-positive stories. “They would talk to him knowing he would treat them fairly,” said Perras, a former AP reporter.

“He was just a real social being, quick with the one-liner,” she said. “He was the kind of guy you wanted to have a beer with and he had a lot of beer with a lot of people.”

Kusmer “was a sharp editor with a love of baseball, music, and good writing,” said John Strauss, a former news editor for the AP in Indianapolis. “Ken was unflappable on the busy Indianapolis news desk, handling everything from breaking national news to hectic Friday night prep sports.”

“He had a love of a good line,” Strauss added. “Sometimes at the end of a shift, when we were all saying good night, he would grab a line from somewhere — including a favorite of his from Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” ‘Well,’ Ken would say. ‘Time for my boot heels to be wanderin’.”

“Ken trained me on the overnight shift when I began in the Indianapolis bureau,” said Chris Grygiel, AP deputy director of U.S. text production. “He was very patient showing a rookie the ropes on what was then a very complicated routine. He helped many staffers hone their skills and was always ready to talk football with friends.”

In 2001, Kusmer took a sabbatical to attend Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, where he earned a master’s degree in Theological Studies.

“There was a time when he considered becoming a deacon in the Catholic church,” Perras said. “He grew up Catholic. He was deeply interested in theology.”

Kusmer was born on Aug. 31, 1958, to Doyle and Marian (Mayle) Kusmer in Fremont, Ohio. He worked in his father’s corner grocery story as a boy and graduated from Fremont St. Joseph High School in 1976.

He studied at Ohio University and worked at The Post, the school’s independent student newspaper. During the summer, he worked at the Fremont Foundry to help pay for his education. Kusmer dropped out of school briefly in 1979-80 to work for the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun, covering the police and fire beat until an uncle persuaded him to return to college.

He graduated in 1981 from Ohio University with a degree in journalism and English, winning a fellowship to work for the AP in Tel Aviv, Perras said.

A short-term assignment there turned into a two-year stint after Israel invaded Lebanon and the AP needed extra help. While in Israel, Kusmer spent time on a kibbutz, covered Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem and witnessed Palestinian protests in the West Bank.

Kusmer’s survivors include his son, Kevin, and daughter-in-law, Alyssa, of Carmel, Indiana. His parents preceded him in death.

Funeral services were incomplete Friday.

By COREY WILLIAMS
Associated Press

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