Obituary: Words meant the world to journalist Steve Riel

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2013 - 11:06 PM

He was the newspaper's resident expert on foreign affairs, and used his knowledge and mastery with words to share the news of the world

For almost 40 years, Star Tribune readers depended on wire editor Steve Riel to bring them the world.

As the newspaper's resident expert on foreign affairs, Riel used his deep knowledge about world leaders and the issues to collect copy from around the globe and weave it into compelling tales that captured intimate details of natural disasters, the atrocities of war and political actions.

Often, Riel topped stories with his signature, cleverly written headlines -- a hallmark of a career that spanned from the Cold War days to the war on terrorism.

"Most people never heard of Steve, but they benefited from his skills and judgment every day," said Roger Buoen, currently co-managing editor at the online news website MinnPost and Riel's supervisor when he worked at the Star Tribune. "He selected and edited the stories that captured what had happened and what it meant to the world. At a time when so much effort is put into entertaining readers, Steve was someone who cared about substance and who didn't patronize readers, but rather treated them as intelligent, thinking adults."

Riel kept readers abreast of such events as the hostage crisis in Iran, the Tiananmen Square massacre in the '80s, the Rwandan genocide and the Gulf War in the '90s, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 and the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Riel died of cancer on Sunday at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. He was 61.

Riel, who was born in Teaneck, N.J., graduated in 1969 from Shawnee Mission West High School in Kansas, where he was a straight-A student and a member of the school's debate team, said his brother, Jeff, of Mission, Kan.

With his nimble use of language and affinity for wordplay, Riel was born to be an editor, said Dennis Allen, a longtime friend and Riel's roommate at the University of Kansas.

"Nothing gave him more pleasure than a perfectly written headline: the exact number of characters that provided the best summary of the story," he said. "He was smart and very funny and might have been the wittiest person I've ever met."

During college, he had a number of editing roles for the Daily Kansan, the university's student newspaper, and was recognized with a National Observer Student Achievement Award.

With a journalism degree in hand, Riel began his career in 1973 as a business copy editor at the Kansas City Star. Within two years, he was appointed the newspaper's assistant copy chief and in 1976 served as copy chief of a special desk formed during the Republican National Convention in Kansas City.

He took a job at the Minneapolis Tribune in 1977 and during his tenure held a number of positions, including copy editor and wire editor on the business and national desks. He worked long hours, often on high-pressure deadlines, carefully sifting through reams of copy to assemble thoughtful, comprehensive reports and multi-page accounts on subjects ranging from presidential and foreign elections to the tsunami in Asia to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and, more recently, the uprisings in Arab nations.

As heavy as the news of the day could be, Riel always kept things light for his co-workers with his unrivaled ability to make a pun out of anything, said Courtnay Peifer, another Star Tribune wire editor. His wit showed up in headlines, such as this one from 1997 when an Iowa woman gave birth to septuplets: "It's a boy, girl, girl, girl, boy, boy, boy." A year later, he marked their first birthday with this headline: "And now we are 1: Happy birthday to you, you, you, you, you, you and you." Others included "Tub thieves make clean getaway" and "At car plant, Obama likely to blow his own horn."

Co-workers called his witty, wry remarks about news events "Magical Rielisms," and former wire team leader Sarah T. Williams compiled some of them in a booklet. For instance, when Riel heard that Colombian drug runners were building a submarine in the Andes, he quipped, "Twenty-thousand kilos under the sea!"

Said Star Tribune editor Nancy Barnes: "Steve was a gifted and passionate journalist. He had a deep understanding of national and international events and their importance to our readers in this ever-changing and complex world. He was a terrific wordsmith, and charmed his colleagues with his headline-writing skills. But more than anything, however, he was a part of our newsroom family, and he will be sorely missed."

Outside the newsroom, Riel liked to travel, and his passion for world events took him to Europe, Mexico, Egypt and beyond. He loved music, was an avid fan of the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera Company, and cherished the close circle of friends he met in college and kept in touch with for more than 40 years, those who knew him said.

"He was always there with a shoulder to cry on if you needed, or to share whatever joy was happening in your life," said friend Pat Nolan. "He was simply a terrific friend and a wonderfu man."

A private memorial service will be held in Overland Park, Kan. A celebration of his life will be held in Minneapolis at a later date, the family said.

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Steve Riel