Willie Kee, KTVU-Oct. 2001

Veteran KTVU photojournalist Willie Kee, as well known as many of the newsmakers he covered, has died. He was a man with a distinctive style. At work, he always wore a black cowboy hat, black shirt and pants, and a Fu Manchu-style goatee. He had a bulldog, in-your-face personality that masked a caring, nurturing side away from work. Kee was often compared a bowling ball. He was compact and rotund. He got through crowds and past much taller colleagues to get a front-row view of events. That was a definite asset for an award-winning photojournalist whose job it was to capture news.

He had a 24-year career at Oakland television station KTVU before retiring in 1994. He covered the biggest stories of that era, including the kidnap of heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst, the Moscone-Milk assassinations, the Oakland Hills firestorm, the U.C. Berkeley campus riots, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, nine national political conventions, and interviews with seven U.S. presidents. Because of his tenacity, his gifted eye, and his ability to capture the essence of newsmakers and events, his peers recognized Kee with 12 Emmy Awards -- nine for photography, two for producing, and one for writing. He was proudest of his Emmy for a feature about the traveling Vietnam Veterans wall exhibition, which he taped, wrote and narrated. Kee was a proud Marine. Kee, 64, died Oct. 1, 2001 after a brief hospitalization. He is survived by his loving wife Jeanne of Fremont; his devoted mother Alice; brother-in-law Ronald Young; sister-in-law Shannon Young; nephews Jared and Ryan Young, all of Oakland; and many cousins. Kee was a native of Oakland's Chinatown and a graduate of Oakland Technical High School where he first discovered his love of photography, capturing campus life for the school newspaper and yearbook. After honing his skills as a Marine Corps photographer and writer, he returned to civilian life as a long-time still photographer for the Norton Pearl Photo Agency in San Mateo, which provided news photos for Peninsula newspapers. As a photographer in the 60's for the now defunct Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, Kee befriended many of the legends of show business, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Channing and the Smothers Brothers. He later served as a technical consultant on a Smothers Brothers film and as an extra in the cast of several feature films shot in the Bay Area. Kee never forgot his Chinatown roots. As a pioneer Asian American in media, he advocated fair, sensitive, accurate news coverage of Asian Pacific Americans. At KTVU, he shot and produced an investigative series, which later was turned into a half-hour documentary, on the realities that Chinese Americans faced as low-wage laborers in garment sweatshops and restaurants. The documentary challenged society's inaccurate stereotypes of Chinatown as a gilded and secret society; it helped put human faces to the harsh realities Chinese Americans faced day to day. In 1988, Kee and KTVU Community Affairs Director Rosy Chu lobbied the station to broadcast live coverage of the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade. Kee co-hosted the first two years of the parade telecast with news anchor Elaine Corral. The parade has now become a nationally televised event. Kee had a well-known love of food and cooking. He won the men's barbecue championship multiple times at the San Mateo County Fair. He was friend to internationally renowned chefs Paul Prudhomme and Ken Hom. He shot the photos for Hom's illustrated cookbook, "Chinese Technique." He also wrote a food column and reviewed restaurants for the "San Leandro Times." Kee was inducted into the distinguished Silver Circle of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The Asian American Journalists Association recognized him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The Oakland Public Schools honored him in 1984 with the Distinguished Alumnus Award for his work and commitment to students. He mentored dozens of aspiring photographers at Oakland High School's Visual Arts Academy Magnet Program. He was an inspiration and role model to hundreds of fellow Asian American journalists. Funeral services will be held Monday, Oct. 8, at 5:00 PM at Chapel of the Chimes, 32992 Mission Blvd., Hayward. A celebration of his life will be scheduled later for his many friends and colleagues. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the National Kidney Foundation of Northern California.

David.Louie@abc.com      

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