Mike McGraw, Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter and ‘real-life legend,’ dies

January 06, 2018 By Judy L. Thomas, Laura Bauer And Matt Campbell The Kansas City Star

Mike McGraw, a longtime Kansas City Star reporter whose insatiable quest to expose wrongdoing spanned four decades, prompted congressional investigations and prodded changes in government policies, died Saturday evening of cancer.

McGraw, who was 69, retired from The Star in April 2014 after a 30-year career, mostly as an investigative reporter. He then joined KCPT as a projects reporter for the Hale Center for Journalism. He also covered Midwestern agriculture and agribusiness for NPR and KCUR’s Harvest Public Media.

His projects and occasional columns continued to appear in The Star.“Mick was perhaps the best reporter in the history of The Star, and that’s really saying something when you consider all the exceptional journalists who have worked here,” said Mike Fannin, The Star’s editor and vice president. “This I can say for sure: He was a hero to many people in this newsroom, myself included.”

The Kansas City area native, whom many affectionately called Mick, died in hospice care, surrounded by family. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Ruth, their two sons, Andy and John, and four grandsons.

McGraw was a true professional and “real-life legend,” said Mark Zieman, vice president of operations for the McClatchy Co. and former editor and publisher of The Star.

“He could investigate you, expose your secret wrongdoings, have you arrested and sent to jail, ruin your life, and you’d still take his phone call,” Zieman said. “His reporting won nearly every major award our industry bestows. But more important, his investigations bettered the lives of thousands of people, in Kansas City and across America — people who in many cases were victims and voiceless and had no hope for justice until Mick came along.”

From early in his career, McGraw made it known to those throughout the building — even front-desk security guards — that he wanted them to send any mail or visitors his way that others might be skeptical of. As McGraw saw it, everyone had a story worth telling.

“He said every so often that is the way he got a great tip,” said Brant Houston, a former colleague at The Star and past executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalism organization based at the University of Missouri. “Talking with someone no one else would talk to.”

Throughout his career, McGraw covered some of the region’s biggest crimes and investigated many of its biggest institutions. He often spent years peeling away at a topic, garnering numerous journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and two George Polk Awards.

McGraw would remark that he was happiest with a stack of documents to comb through. Indeed, he would say it was like Christmas morning every time a box arrived in the mail.

He began his 45 years in journalism in 1972. He worked for The Star as a reporter, editor and bureau chief, joining the newspaper’s special projects desk in 1989. He also worked as a business and labor writer for The Des Moines Register and as labor editor for The Hartford Courant.

At The Star, he and reporter Jeff Taylor shared the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their series “Failing the Grade: Betrayals and Blunders at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” The seven-part project, which included the work of Michael Mansur, Gregory Reeves and photographer Tammy Ljungblad, sparked congressional investigations and reforms after exposing waste and flawed policy-making in USDA programs set up to distribute farm payments, inspect and label meat, protect the environment and serve minority farmers.

One story told of Kristel Love, a 6-year-old girl born with cerebral palsy who died after eating tainted beef served at a Salt Lake City group home. The beef had been inspected and distributed by the USDA.

A 2009 investigation into human trafficking and modern slavery that McGraw conducted with two other Star reporters won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and a top award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

McGraw also spent years investigating the convictions of five people for a 1988 explosion in south Kansas City that killed six firefighters. He spotlighted inconsistencies in informants’ testimony and interviewed witnesses who said they had been coerced by authorities. The Department of Justice revisited the case as a result of his work.

In March 2017, Bryan Sheppard, the youngest of the five convicted, was released from prison. He had been granted a new sentencing hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles without first taking into account their individual characteristics and life history.

Sheppard was 17 at the time of the explosion. The new sentencing hearing led a judge to cut his life sentence to 20 years.

“This was a big accomplishment for him — to see me face to face, free,” Sheppard said of McGraw, who had become family to him. “He had fought for so long to go after the truth. He was like a bulldog when it came to the investigative part of the story. He went from state to state tracking people down.”

A year before Sheppard’s release, McGraw’s reporting on the case was adapted for a stage play, “Justice in the Embers.”

Cynthia Short, Sheppard’s attorney, said McGraw approached her early on to make sure that what happened on stage wouldn’t affect Sheppard’s case. She attended every Kansas City performance and said she learned a great deal about McGraw.

“I saw the thoughtfulness of which he approached his subject and his tenacity of never giving up,” Short said. “He attended so greatly to detail. He really read people well and approached his stories with a really open perspective to find, ‘Where is the truth really going to lead me?’ 

As recently as Christmas Eve, a piece that included his investigation into the firefighters case was rebroadcast nationwide on the public radio program Reveal. Called “Trial by Fire,” it reexamined the cases of those convicted in the explosion.

During McGraw’s hospital stay in November, Sheppard gave him a painting he’d recently completed in an art class. McGraw immediately hung the canvas in his room.

“He was so proud to tell everyone about that painting,” Short said. “You could tell how much that meant to him. Mike had a twinkle in his eye about it. The only thing hanging in his room was that painting.”

McGraw went home but returned to the hospital last month, and Sheppard said McGraw wanted his family to bring the painting along.

Joe Stephens, who was on The Star’s projects desk with McGraw, said he’d always looked at his friend and colleague “as a kind of real-life Superman, fighting for truth, justice and the American Way.”

“He mentored a generation that went on to cover the Midwest, and the world, for The Star as well as for publications like The Washington Post,” said Stephens, now Ferris professor of journalism in residence at Princeton University. “He was courted by the big East Coast newspapers as well, but he made a conscious choice to remain in the city he loved, serving the folks he knew best.”

McGraw’s most valuable lessons came by example, Stephens said: “Be a force for good. Take care of the people around you. Tell the truth without fear or favor. And, most importantly, don’t get too full of yourself.”

In fact, when people praised his work, he often gave credit to others — especially his wife, Ruth, who he insisted kept him humble and focused on doing work that mattered.

Unlike many investigative reporters, Stephens said, McGraw was funny. “Laugh-till-you-cry funny,” Stephens said.

One tale he told at journalism conferences around the country, Stephens said, was about a time he was investigating a suspected con artist and used open records laws to request documents about the man’s dealings with the government. A bureaucrat in Texas accidentally included a highly confidential FBI report in the records he sent McGraw.

“The documents were still rolling out of McGraw’s fax machine when the phone rang,” Stephens said. “The agency’s general counsel was on the other end, demanding that McGraw immediately fax the report back. McGraw would pause in his retelling, waiting as a murmur built among the audience. He would smile a trace and conclude his talk simply: ‘I complied.’ 

Throughout his career, McGraw was passionate about helping aspiring journalists. He was a former member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors board and contributed to its Reporter’s Handbook. He also taught investigative reporting at the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas and as a Ferris professor in residence at Princeton University.

“His joy in doing journalism was boundless and contagious,” said Houston, the former IRE director. “Mike gave back so much to the field. He volunteered his time on journalism boards and spent hours mentoring young journalists, but he also served as the conscience of the profession, always reminding us of the great responsibilities we have as investigative journalists to make sure our stories are fair to all.”

Stephens said McGraw loved being a journalist so much that he never stopped reporting — even to the very end.

In October 2015, Mike McGraw read his parents’ correspondence from World War II as part of a theatrical production at the National World War I Museum. File photo by Allison Long

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