A journalism giant passes - Ken Allen, whose voice and reason commanded attention, praised for mentoring many
Ken Allen, the journalism giant whose probing mind, searing wit, and stentorian voice were hallmarks of a near-seven-decade career at The Gleaner, passed away at the University Hospital of the West Indies on Sunday after a long ailment.
He was 87.
Allen rose through the ranks from the humble calling of a subeditor when he was hired in 1952 after responding to an advertisement in The Gleaner.
The Cornwall College alumnus, who started out writing for a college newspaper, cut his teeth on the streets and climbed the rungs to take the editorial helm of one of the Western Hemisphere’s most vintage newspapers.
Despite his stentorian voice, Allen is revered for his discipleship of emerging journalists in the tenets of the profession.
Allen first worked as a subeditor before being dispatched to the streets as a reporter to cover a wide range of subjects, including crime, court, Parliament, and politics.
Among those who recall his illustrious career is Ben Brodie, who described Allen as a journalist’s journalist.
“He was thorough, dedicated, and always willing to help young journalists. I worked with him my entire tenure at The Gleaner, and I found him mild, but firm,” said Brodie.
He said that Allen exhibited a kind of humaneness rarely seen in today’s worker-manager relationship.
“He was a great journalist. He was the consummate professional. He took young journalists under his wings and taught them everything he could. He was the one you turned to when you needed advice,” said Brodie.
Garfield Grandison, who came under the tutelage of Allen in his own rise from rural correspondent to editor-in-chief of The Gleaner, lauded the late journalist as one of the best produced in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
“Ken Allen contributed tremendously to the development and advancement of the profession. He provided training and guidance to many,” said Grandison, who is now general manager of the multimedia company.
Connie Witter also remembers him as a master mentor.
“He made a great contribution to journalism in Jamaica. Many young journalists who entered the profession during his time at the Gleaner emerged as better reporters,” she said.
Allen was described as a one-man bureau, characterising his deployment as a young reporter to Portland and St Thomas as the most enjoyable period at the newspaper.
“You were left to your own devices and were your own boss. I had some exciting times covering the countryside,” Allen said.
In 1955, Gleaner Editor-in-Chief Theodore Sealy dispatched him on his first overseas assignment to cover the Eighth World Scout Jamboree in Toronto, Canada. A year later, Allen won the first Inter-American Press Association scholarship awarded to a Caribbean journalist and was admitted into the master’s programme at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York although not having a first degree.
When he rejoined The Gleaner after five years of study, he was assigned to cover Parliament and the political and labour beat.
Allen was later promoted to associate editor in the early 1970s, a tempestuous era when the forces of socialism and capitalism collided in Jamaica in the shadows of the Cold War marked by ideological strife. He gained renown for his avuncular yet firm supervision of an under-fire reporter corps and assumed responsibility for the vetting of editorials and columns at a time when The Gleaner’s opinion writers agitated against the Manley government’s dalliance with pro-communism administrations.
After his appointment as editor-in-chief of The Gleaner in 1992, Allen sought to lift professional standards by employing teachers of English but was frustrated by what he viewed as the general malaise in the education system.
Two years into his stint, he went on early retirement but re-emerged as opinion page editor on contract, his acid pen producing the newspaper’s editorials and casting an eagle eye over columns and letters to the editor.
Wilton Dyer, a retired journalist and foreign ministry liaison who worked with Ken Allen at The Gleaner decades ago, said Allen was a true professional.
“Ken was unflappable, competent, and someone to turn to for advice as a young journalist,” said Dyer told The Gleaner on Sunday.
He said that he leaned on Ken for advice, especially when he was unsure he was making the right decision.
“He was always available to us and was never too busy to help,” he said.
Yvonne Nicholson credits Allen as the main person who guided her career.
“He was tough, but a true professional. He was fair and did whatever he could to help,” Nicholson told The Gleaner on Sunday.
Nicholson noted that on many occasions after submitting a story, she would hide in the restroom waiting for that familiar bellowing voice as he edited her work.
“He would teach a lesson from what was not written well. I have fond memories working with him,” she said.
Wyvolyn Gager, who succeeded Allen as editor-in-chief at The Old Lady of North Street, a historic first, cast him as one of the most decent persons she has ever met.
“When I took over from him, he was very supportive, fair, and helpful. He was a man of integrity,” said Gager, who is happy that she was able to visit him in 2020.
Allen was inducted into the Order of Distinction, Commander class, in 1988. In 2002, half a century after his baptism into the profession, he was honoured by the Press Association of Jamaica for “outstanding service to Jamaican journalism”.