By Kelci Hight
Jerry Heaster had a nose for news, real news.
In 2006, he became the fourth recipient of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers President’s Award for his longstanding commitment to excellence in business journalism.
Heaster served as the society’s president at a time when journalism, specifically business journalism, was struggling. He was given a roster of 150 members, but found that only a third were interested in being involved.
“SABEW owes him and our other early leaders a great debt for their vision to see the need of educating workers to our craft,” said Jonathan Lansner, former SABEW president.
Today, thanks to modern communication conveniences, the society has a roster of more than3,500 members, a number that would make Heaster proud. The organization was important to him for its sense of community.
He once said one reason he was attracted to SABEW was that business journalists had no place to learn the craft. “Business was a backwater in those days,” said Hester. “If you were the kind of person who wanted to do your job well, you had almost no place to turn for help. SABEW changed that.”
He was born as Gerald David Heaster in the traditional West Virginia home of Gerald and Virginia Heaster on May 10,1938. He graduated from South Charleston High School in 1956 and immediately enlisted in the Army.
While he was stationed in South Korea, Heaster worked for the Pacific Stars & Stripes. When he was honorably discharged, he chose to remain in the Far East and began working for the Okinawa Morning Star.
The Morning Star was the daily newspaper that English-speakers relied on in the Far East. Heaster held many positions there, ranging from news editor to out-on-the-town society columnist. After marrying and having two children in Okinawa, he returned to the United States and began working on the business desk at The Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio.
In 1979, he was hired as a business editor for the Kansas City Star. By 1990, he was writing his own column full-time.
Heaster was, as they say, a “consummate professional,” according to his Kansas City Star co-worker, Keith Chrostowski. “He was always even-keeled and polite to all his readers and colleagues.” Heaster had a broad following and kept each letter he received. Once a year at Christmas, he would publicly thank his readers.
Heaster elevated The Star’s business coverage at a crucial time for the newspaper. The Baby Boomer generation was maturing and paying closer attention to the economy.
Chrostowski says he most admired Heaster for always coming up with three columns a week. “Even when retreading familiar ground,” he said. “He was always able to provide fresh insights.”
Heaster thought of himself as a local reporter and was humbled that SABEW would honor his work, but many agreed that his column extended beyond Kansas.
“I have just loved this job, and working with the people in this business,” Heaster said when accepting his award in 2006. “I never did this for recognition, but SABEW’s decision to honor me is unexpected and wonderful.”
In his 27-year career, Heaster wrote 5,000 columns. He won both critics and fans for his unwavering support of the free market and conservative ideals, but he held disdain for the label. It was too simplistic.
Heaster is remembered for his willingness to listen and help educate others. “He was always ready to help less experienced business reporters decipher earnings reports or explain complex topics simply,” said Chrostowski.
He personally influenced Chrostowski by helping him to realize that business and economic coverage is a vital part of the newspaper and a worthy career path, something Heaster believed to his core.
Beyond business reporting, his interests included reading, drinking, listening to good country music and playing golf. In 2000, he published, “Jerry Heaster’s Guide to Kansas City Golf.”
He was a man who pursued his passions.
Heaster suffered a long illness that included esophageal cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He didn’t request a memorial service and in lieu flowers, the family suggested contributions to SABEW.
Randy Smith was Heaster’s boss and president of SABEW in 1992. He told the society that he remembers Jerry buried behind a newspaper, back in the days when everything was in print, the days before the Internet.
“Jerry represented an era that has since passed us by,” Smith said. “But he continues to inspire us.”
Kelci Hight is a native of Raleigh, N.C., and a broadcast and electronic journalism major in the Class of 2015 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.