On Nov. 22, longtime journalist and former CityBeat columnist Kathy Y. Wilson died at University of Cincinnati Medical Center at just 57 years old. Since her death, I have spoken to many who have personally benefitted from Kathy’s raw observations, wit and wisdom in her many roles, from provocative columnist to scrupulous teacher.
At CityBeat, Kathy wrote the column "Your Negro Tour Guide," where she discussed issues of race, urban living, scandal, trends and humanity with her profound perspective and razor-sharp wit. Kathy was also an educator, teaching journalism at the University of Cincinnati, and in 2014, she was the first writer-in-residence at the Cincinnati Public Library.
Though I did not personally benefit from Kathy’s unique gifts, I can at least attest to the legacy Kathy left behind. Even years after her departure from CityBeat, many current and former staff members and contributors still recount stories of Kathy with a certain sparkle in their eyes. Ahead, current and former CityBeat staffers and contributors share hilarious stories, heartfelt prose and insightful teaching moments that bring Kathy’s legacy into sharper focus. She meant something to a lot of people, and she always knew just what to say to motivate each person — and that fact comes through in these tributes.
Rest in power, Kathy.
We send our deepest condolences to all who knew and loved Kathy. She was a brilliant journalist - hilarious and honest. Her writings will live on and inspire for generations to come. (Tony Frank, CityBeat’s publisher)
If you were lucky enough to have Kathy Y. Wilson as a writing teacher, you’d have your work cut out for you. To have learned from someone who accomplished as much as Wilson is a heavy burden, it means you’ve been given every chance to hone your craft. If your writing is shit after leaving Wilson’s classroom it’s always going to be shit. You’ve learned from the best and if Kathy Y. Wilson can’t help you then no one can. Wilson gave the sharpest criticism and when she praised your writing it was like winning the lottery. Wilson was an essential voice for Cincinnati CityBeat and so many other platforms and she will be fondly remembered for her sincerity, wit and biting sense of humor. Her writing remains some of the best to have come out of the Queen City. (Sean M. Peters, CityBeat’s calendar editor and former student of Wilson’s)
Kathy was an incredible teacher. She knew how to engage her students and make the whole class laugh, but also when to be tough and push you to do better. You knew when you did a bad job on an assignment – she had no problem telling you. But the way she told you made you want to do better next time. She used to make students read at least one of their assignments out loud in front of the whole class and when it was my turn, she didn’t hold back on why it sucked. And it did suck. So I tried harder on the next one, and I remember turning it thinking, “She’s going to hate this one too.” But the class after that, she smiled at me and asked if she could read it out loud to everyone. I was so proud of that assignment, I still have it tucked away somewhere. Because Kathy knew how to push you just enough to get your writing to shine. I still think about her and that moment all the time. (Katherine Barrier, CityBeat’s digital content editor and former student of Wilson’s)
Kathy taught us that we should never hold something back from a story if it would benefit the piece. Even if it meant hurting the feelings of friends or loved ones, if it benefitted the story (and, by extension, our audience) we were beholden to include it. This advice has taken me years to appreciate: that the story must be uncompromising in vision and tone, with nothing held back. These are words that only Kathy could say because she didn’t just teach it, she lived it, every single day. I, for one, am eternally thankful that she did. She also taught brevity; I didn’t learn that lesson quite as well… (Nick Grever, CityBeat freelancer and former student of Wilson’s)
I was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor in 1999 when Kathy joined the staff. The calm of journalists toiling away was routinely disrupted whenever Kathy explosively landed. She overflowed with boisterous opinions and frank observations and often drew a crowd around her desk. During one audience, peppered with questions, she hollered, “I am not your negro tour guide.” A verbal thunderclap — and the birth of her column. Kathy was a fountain of words, angry, passionate, insightful. I provided the punctuation she largely disdained. I was honored to be her editor for a half-dozen years. I can still hear her raucous laughter. (Rick Pender, former CityBeat arts & entertainment editor, current theater critic)
I started at CityBeat as an intern in the fall of 2000. I became a full-time staffer soon thereafter, moving through pretty much every editorial title long-time publisher and editor John Fox could think of over the next 11 years: copy editor, listings editor, literary editor, arts and entertainment editor and, eventually, managing editor. It was the best job I’ve ever had, a fascinating rollercoaster ride wherein I was able to write and edit stories about topics no other Cincinnati publication would touch or even think to explore — from lefty politics and hot-button cultural issues to adventurous artists and just plain weirdos.
But my favorite part of working at CityBeat was Kathy Y. Wilson, a big-hearted, sometimes difficult and routinely hilarious woman who also happened to be a prodigiously gifted writer. We worked together for seven years — first at CityBeat’s cramped, labyrinthine space on the corner of Seventh and Vine streets, followed by the current Race Street location. She showed up at the office a couple times a week, always a whirlwind. I was often the first person after Fox to read — I hesitate to say edit, because rarely a word needed altering — her weekly column, and I was consistently amazed by what I encountered — visceral, often acutely personal pieces that never shied from her truth.
We became good friends. I helped her move into the home she turned into a work of art, and she signed my copy of Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White with the following: “JG — You’re the dopest Italian I know! Seriously, thanks for taking the body blows of all my intra-office roasts. Nice ass, by the way. P.S. How ’bout you, hot shot?” I hadn’t read those words since she wrote them in 2004, her handwriting now a bittersweet remanent. I can’t recall the last time I saw Kathy in person. But no one is as easy to conjure in my mind.(Jason Gargano, CityBeat’s former managing editor, current freelancer)
Kathy Y. Wilson told everyone what they needed to hear, all the time, every time, no matter what. She did it with a refined sharpness only her voice could achieve. She had style. Her clever sass and striking wisdom were unmistakable. She taught timeless lessons and the value of her work is immeasurable. She was the best teacher I’ve ever had. She set the standard and never sunk below it. Even without her physical presence, her impression will remain. We were lucky to have her. (Katie Griffith, current CityBeat freelancer and former student of Wilson’s)
Kathy Y. Wilson's legacy will be her incendiary prose and her giant heart. At a CityBeat staff party, we first discussed collecting her "Your Negro Tour Guide" columns as a book, a wild ride that taught us about trust and troublemaking. I witnessed her wit, warmth and righteous indignation which she kept banked like coals in a wood furnace, then she'd throw on some breaking news as kindling and her fire would blaze. Her laugh still rings in my ears, her words still sizzle on the page. Cincinnati is lesser without her magnificence; every KYW conversation/email/voicemail glittered. (Richard Hunt, former CityBeat staffer)
As usual, Kathy Y. Wilson said it best herself: “Google my name [when I die] and there ain’t going to be no bullshit on there.”
I met Kathy in 2017, for a cover story about her collection of Black art and the mammies, Sambos and lawn jockey she had “liberated.” Pieces were showcased in the Weston Art Gallery exhibition Sanctuary: Kathy Y. Wilson Living in a Colored Museum.
Kathy remains one of my favorite interviews, chiefly because she was so profane, direct and funny. Before I wrote a word of the article, I sought my editors’ assurance that I could “let Kathy be Kathy.” Any “f-bomb” or “n-word” that she uttered would stay in.
After her death, I retrieved my transcript of our conversation and discovered her prediction about her online legacy, plus other gems.
She was my Negro tour guide, and a guide to the art of writing and living honestly. Long before meeting her, I had clipped CityBeat headlines with our shared name, pretending they were about me. One read, “More Kathy, Please.” She’s gone now, but here are some final takeaways:
“Living isn’t in the things,” she told me. “Living is how you treat other people. Living is your moral center. Call me [a name], and I come back with something harsh. That’s living!
“All this art, it just makes it more beautiful and sumptuous. And I’ve worked hard at that, making it beautiful and sumptuous. This is how I always wanted to live.” (Kathy Schwartz, former CityBeat contributor)
What’m I gonna say? I wondered when I felt her Big Deal laugh shake the floor. An electric energy tilt. A legend. Don’t say anything stupid. Tell her you loved her column; it scared you to scratch it with a pen. Don’t say I love you. Or maybe do? Definitely don’t. There she was then, smiling. At me? An easy shoulder shove, a ticket inside. Telling me I’m silly. I’m brave. I make decent coffee. I have potential. What’m I gonna do when she goes away and it’s quiet again? I never even thought to wonder. (Hannah Purnell, former CityBeat reporter)
Kathy Wilson was an iconic voice, both locally and nationally. Her column for CityBeat was revolutionary, as was her wit and insight. She was a beloved friend, mentor and professor to many, and she made an impact on everyone she met. She was truly one-of-a-kind and her loss will be felt for a long time. (Maija Zummo, former CityBeat editor-in chief)
Character. Legend. OG. Kathy was all of those and a vibrant soul that can never be replaced. In both her writing and actions it was clear that she was passionate about helping the next generation figure out their place in the world, for which I am eternally grateful.
Her words, wit and wisdom will forever echo through my life. Without a doubt the most important lesson I learned from Kathy is that the truth is like the corner dope boy, always there. (Zachary Breedlove, former student of Kathy Y. Wilson)
I am heartbroken by Kathy's death. She is such a vibrant presence and a caustic truthful commentator on life on the Black side. I wrote to her after she did a column about visiting Amsterdam and specifically the Anne Frank house. She wrote a beautiful column, sensitive and she responded to me with appreciation and warmth. I'll never forget that. The photo (included below) is of Kathy and Betty Daniels Rosemond, taken at ensemble theater after a performance of I Shall Not Be Moved/Your Negro Tour Guide last April. I reminded her about the column and my response and she said yes, that was a great note. ‘You're very thoughtful.’ Oh, no, Kathy. You were. Rest in power and keep guiding us. (Anne Arenstein, current CityBeat contributor)
Twenty years ago, our advertising and editorial departments were on separate floors. Kathy rarely ventured to our space, so if you wanted some Kathy Y. Wilson time you needed to enter her domain amidst the CityBeat scribes. On those occasions, the elevator doors would often open to the raucous sound of her holding court on the local issues of the day. Her hearty…and sometimes haughty…laughter would command your attention. Her very presence was undeniable.
I did not know her well personally, but I had the utmost respect for her talent ad skills as a unique storyteller. Her columns would often “push the envelope” demanding contemplation from her audience – myself included.
Her writing helped put CityBeat on the map in the community. I would go as far to state that she defined the CityBeat brand. Afflict the comfortable, question authority, and give voice to those in desperate need of one…largely in a humorous, provocative and irreverent manner.
She was the voice of many in Cincinnati and certainly a prominent voice of CityBeat.
I’m grateful to have known her as a colleague and will miss her. (Dan Bockrath, CityBeat co-founder and former co-publisher)
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