FREDERICK, Md. – One of Kate Leckie’s favorite places in the world was the Frederick County Courthouse, whether it was covering a trial in Courtroom No. 1 with its incredibly uncomfortable seats, grabbing a quick lunch from the basement vending machine and running into sources with information ripe for a story, or asking about the family of one of the administrative assistants as she picked up case dockets for the coming week.
Leckie, the police and courts reporter at The Frederick News-Post for the past 17 years, died Sunday morning at her childhood home in Chester, Va., where she had been residing since her diagnosis last August of esophageal cancer. She was 50.
Leckie spent her entire working life in newspapers, including stints at The Richmond (Va.) Times–Dispatch and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin before joining The News-Post in 1995, first as a nighttime police reporter and later covering the courthouse beat.
She was an “old school” reporter, hitting the streets and talking to people face-to-face rather than simply relying on emails and faxes. Leckie could also work the phone during a breaking story, using unlisted numbers that police officers, lawyers and judges gladly gave to her and nobody else. Her stories shed light on some of society’s greatest ills, such as drunken driving, child abuse and domestic violence, but she was also adept at telling the stories of life’s positive moments. Sometimes the two intertwined, as in the story she did on a man stealing from churches to support a drug habit, later telling readers about his successful graduation from a drug rehabilitation program.
Leckie believed that everyone, whether they were elected officials or the courthouse custodian, had a story worth telling.
“She was aggressive. She wanted to get it all and get it first,” Frederick City Police Chief Kim Dine said Monday. “But the huge other side of her was that humanity. … She never lost that sense” of people being the most important part, both in the story and in her dealings with people as she gathered information.
Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, spokeswoman for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, said Monday she could expect that when Leckie called, “she always had 10 or 12 questions” as she sought to get the most complete story. Bailey said in her line of work she doesn’t ask favors of the media, “only fairness, and Kate was always fair. You could be talking to her and when you said you were going to say something ‘off the record’ her pen would go down. But if she was interviewing you, you better know she was taking notes.”
Many who came in contact with Leckie were quick to notice her smile and brilliant blue eyes. Colleagues often kidded her about the dimpled smile being left over from her days as a cheerleader and homecoming queen. She spoke in a soft southern drawl and had an infectious laugh.
“She was so well-liked by everybody. Her personality transcended her position as a reporter,” Frederick County States Attorney Charlie Smith said Monday. “There was a reason she was so successful in her work. You looked at her first as a friend. But the great thing was that it never compromised her as a professional. Her reporting was the most accurate they had. She was very meticulous.”
Frederick County Circuit Court Judge Theresa Adams said Sunday she also admired Leckie’s professionalism, recalling a murder trial where a witness from the department of corrections was testifying. A group sat in the back of the courtroom menacingly holding up Bic lighters as a symbol that “they were going to burn him for what he said.” Adams said she excused the jury and announced that no one in the courtroom would be allowed to hold anything in his or her hands.
“Katie looked at me and held up the notebook in her hand,” Adams recalled, which said to her that Leckie didn’t automatically assume she was excluded in the ban. “She had a total respect for the courtroom. She was dignified.” The judge also appreciated the reporter’s accuracy. “I never read anything in her stories that was inconsistent with what went on in the courtroom.”
Adams said she considered Leckie a friend. “She was so gracious and pretty,” and they often joked outside the courtroom about shopping for clothes on QVC or talked about their children that were around the same ages. “I respected her as a professional and loved her as a friend,” she said.
Neil Crowner, another former news editor, said Leckie was “one of those rare people in the business. You were either a good reporter or a good writer and she was both.” He said she was protective of her stories, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t open to editing. However, “if you didn’t tell her you were making changes and the story came out wrong, you’d better be ready for her.”
Crowner remembered Leckie bringing her young sons, John and James, into the newsroom when she needed to come back to work and make one last phone call. “She would tell them to be quiet and they would listen,” he said. “You’d be busy and all of a sudden feel something around your feet and it was the boys playing commando.
“She loved those boys,” Crowner said. Leckie had been looking forward to her sons graduating in May from the University of Maryland, each of them carrying dual majors.
Friend and former News-Post colleague Gina Gallucci-White said Sunday that Leckie’s “mother vibe” extended to her being the “mamma bear” and a mentor to young reporters like her.
“I remember one time listening to her on the phone after a robbery at a hotel. A woman had put the stolen money in her purse. She asked the police, ‘Well, what color was the purse?’ I was just awestruck. What a great question. A small detail, but it added so much to the story that the robber left with the money in a hot pink purse,” Gallucci-White said.
The two were often lunch buddies and Gallucci-White said she was impressed with the way Leckie treated people.
“She was honestly interested in everyone. I remember the cashier at Roy Rogers would always light up when he saw her because she would ask him how his day was. I bet no one else asked him all day, but she did.”
If the courthouse was Leckie’s favorite place during her working hours, the Victorian house in Adamstown that she lovingly restored was where she liked to be the rest of the time. In addition to her children, the house was filled with several cats and a miniature beagle named Lucy. It was a place for going away parties for colleagues who were moving on, or grand celebrations when each of the boys graduated from high school. It was also the place where a steady stream of the newspaper’s summer interns bunked and Leckie’s friends could find a temporary home in her basement apartment. During football season the television was always turned to games involving her beloved Virginia Tech Hokies, usually watched with a glass of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay within reach.
News-Post Sports Editor Josh Smith said the two of them initially bonded over the Hokies, but he soon realized her other facets.
“If there’s one thing I’ll remember it’s her sweetness. You could be having a really bad day and you always felt better after talking to her.” Smith said he was constantly amazed at her positive manner, even after just coming in the door from covering a heinous court case or being at the scene of a gruesome accident. “She was just an amazing person.”
On Sunday, Smith placed orange and red roses — Virginia Tech’s colors — on Leckie’s desk in the newsroom.