Former Sacramento Union editor guided newspaper through tumultuous years

Ken Harvey
Ken Harvey Harvey family photo

A stint in the U.S. Air Force and a bout with tuberculosis led Ken Harvey, a high school dropout, to earn a degree at UC Berkeley and pursue a career in journalism, according to his family.

Harvey, an editor for 27 years with The Sacramento Union, died June 14 at age 86. He had recently been in declining health and died of heart failure after being hospitalized for several days, his son Sean Harvey said.

Friends and co-workers described Ken Harvey as a steady leader who guided the The Union’s editorial staff through tumultuous years that saw the newspaper change ownership several times before it ceased publication in January 1994. He was editor in chief during the newspaper’s final years.

“He was there at the end,” said Mike Fallon, an education reporter at The Union. “He thought up the banner headline ‘We’re history’ (for the final edition).”

Bob Carney, a former editor-in-chief at The Union, recalled that he and Harvey were hired in 1966 when San Diego-based Copley Newspapers bought the paper. Harvey, who previously worked at The Modesto Bee, was hired as the assistant city editor, and they were charged with putting together a staff.

“Ken was a marvelous editor and had great command of the troops. Everybody loved him,” Carney said. He recalled Harvey describing himself as the “overseer of a battalion of renegades.”

Harvey had been a bit of a renegade himself, his son said, noting that his father grew up poor in Berkeley and dropped out of Berkeley High School.

He was born Sept. 9, 1929, in San Francisco to Vera Ricketts. He never knew his father.

After leaving school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served as a cryptographer during the Korean War. Upon returning from Korea, he tested positive for tuberculosis and spent a year recuperating in a hospital. During that year, his son said, Ken Harvey became an avid reader and writer, tackling the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ernest Hemingway.

After release from the hospital, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he majored in English and journalism.

“After growing up in Berkeley very poor, I’m sure it felt like a dream come true going to Cal on the GI Bill,” his son said. His father remained a passionate fan of Cal football, and he and his family often attended games.

Ken Harvey and his wife, Barbara, raised four children: three sons and a daughter.

“He was a good man, very steady,” Sean Harvey said.

“He had a difficult upbringing,” his son said, reflecting that “he had no reason to be the great father that he was.”

Ken was a marvelous editor and had great command of the troops. Everybody loved him.

Bob Carney, former editor in chief of The Sacramento Union

Sacramento Bee reporter Loretta Kalb recalled working for Harvey as a young reporter at The Union. “He was the classic-style city editor: sometimes gruff, a smart aleck and funny,” she said.

He would often stand up in the newsroom and talk about something in the news that somebody had done that he thought was outrageous or funny, Kalb said. He also wrote columns, many of them about his family, she said.

Kalb recalled that Harvey was a great fan of Hemingway.

“I was a new reporter, and he loaned me his Hemingway books,” she said. “I read them all.”

Fallon said Harvey had a sardonic sense of humor.

“It was never directed at reporters but at something on the political scene or at management,” he said.

“He had a very supportive attitude toward his reporters,” Fallon said. “In many ways, he was the buffer between the news staff and management.”

Family and friends said Harvey’s last several years at The Union were stressful ones as the newspaper struggled financially and he had to lay off staff members.

“It was very disappointing,” Sean Harvey said, although he noted that The Union’s demise affected his father’s career less then many of its staffers because Ken Harvey had reached retirement age.

In retirement, the career newsman tried his hand at fiction. He wrote mostly for his own pleasure, rather than for publication, his son said. He also was an avid fan of crossword puzzles.

“He did The New York Times crossword puzzle every Sunday, in ink,” his son said.

In addition to his wife, Barbara, of Carmichael, and his son Sean, of Berkeley, Ken Harvey leaves sons Ken Harvey Jr., of San Francisco, and Chris Harvey, of Carmichael, and daughter Cydney Chambers, of Valley Springs. He also is survived by eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Sean Harvey said a wake and celebration of his father’s life is tentatively planned for the last weekend in August. Details will be announced at a later date.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy