James S. Keat, a former Baltimore Sun assistant managing editor and foreign correspondent whose staunch advocacy of freedom of information became the keystone of a career spanning more than four decades, died Wednesday from cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.
The longtime Federal Hill resident was 86.
The benchmark of Mr. Keat's long and distinguished journalism career was his fight for freedom of information and open meetings for the news media and public.
"No one made open records and meetings such a passionate goal as Jim. To him it was a religion," said Ernest F. Imhoff, a longtime editor of The Evening Sun. "Jim hated Maryland government secrecy more than politicians adore self-promotion."
"He was a very dedicated newspaperman with a very healthy skepticism of government and politicians on the make," said Joseph R. L. Sterne, retired Sun editorial page editor. "He was an aggressive newspaperman who kept his eye on local politicians. He had a healthy skepticism of them."
For years, Mr. Keat and Tom Marquardt, former publisher of the Annapolis Capital, worked together to strengthen freedom of information laws through the Maryland, Delaware and District of Columbia Press Association.
In 2000, the MDDC named its annual Freedom of Information award for Mr. Keat, and in 2005, he was the second recipient of the MDDC Distinguished Service Award. He was inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 2005, Mr. Keat was a founder of the Maryland Foundation for Open Government.
"Newspaper people will forever be in Jim Keat's debt," Mr. Imhoff said.
The son of Harold E. "Hal" Keat, an accountant, and Ida S. Keat, a homemaker, James Sussman Keat was born Dec. 25, 1929, in New York City. He was raised there and in Providence, R.I., where he graduated from Hope High School.
A 1951 graduate of Brown University, Mr. Keat earned a master's degree in journalism in 1952 from Columbia University.
His entry into the world of journalism began during his student days at Brown.
"I accidentally got involved in journalism when I was at Brown. I sort of fell into it," recalled Mr. Keat in a recent interview. "The college paper was a daily and I started as a reporter and eventually became night editor. And then I was hooked."
After graduating from Columbia — where he was one of the top three students in his class — Mr. Keat joined The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter on the business desk.
"I wanted to study economics," Mr. Keat said.
From 1953 to 1956, he was a Ford Foundation Scholarship fellow and studied at Harvard University, then later at the University of Pennsylvania, where he learned to speak Hindi.
Mr. Keat conducted research in West Bengal from 1955 until October 1956, when he joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun.
In the early days of the civil rights struggle in Maryland in the 1960s, Mr. Keat covered the integration of restaurants along U.S. 40, many of which were not open to African-Americans.
Charles H. "Buck" Dorsey Jr., The Sun's managing editor, sent Mr. Keat to Mississippi in 1962 to cover the civil rights movement, and specifically the admittance of James Meredith as the first African-American student to enter the University of Mississippi.
Mr. Keat recalled those tense days. "Covering the civil rights movement was a real challenge because they were killing reporters there," he said.
He worked a year in The Sun's New Delhi bureau beginning in 1962, then returned to Baltimore as an Evening Sun editorial writer before resuming coverage of the civil rights movement and the Cambridge, Md., riots in 1963.
Mr. Keat returned to New Delhi as bureau chief in 1965. He covered the India-Pakistan war fought in Kashmir, the deteriorating relationship between India and China, and the Indian famine.
In 1968, he was named editor of Perspective, a commentary and analysis section published in The Sunday Sun.
"What was my favorite job on the paper? That's hard to say, but I think starting Perspective from scratch. I was given six months to do it and a generous budget," recalled Mr. Keat. "So, I had one foot in the newsroom and one on the road working with different people."
Sun managing editor Paul A. Banker named Mr. Keat foreign editor in 1969, and during the early 1970s he joined the Washington bureau covering the White House and State Department. He traveled to China in 1972 with President Richard M. Nixon.
"Jim had been a foreign correspondent himself and he knew how paranoid correspondents could get about their standing with editors back in Baltimore," said Anthony Barbieri Jr., a former foreign correspondent and managing editor of The Sun. "So whenever I screwed up, I would always send a back-channel cable to Jim asking how bad the damage was, and he would try to make me feel better."
From 1975 to 1991, Mr. Keat was an assistant managing editor overseeing foreign, national and metropolitan news and the newspaper's library. All the while, he pressed for reporters to insist that public officials and agencies remain accessible and open.
"Jim did it all. He was a superb reporter and editor," said Barry L. Rascovar, former editorial-page director of The Sun. "He was a strong advocate of journalistic ethics and openness and journalists' ability to get official documents. He was adamant about the people's right to know what government was doing and have their voices heard."
For the last four years of his career before retiring in 1995, he was The Sun's editorial page coordinator. In addition to handling letters to the editor, he'd write occasional editorials and columns.
After retiring, Mr. Keat grew a beard and became a South Baltimore activist, leading campaigns against developers who wanted to obscure harbor views with buildings along Key Highway.
"He became the 'Watchdog of South Baltimore' in his retirement, and that was good for the city," Mr. Sterne said.
Mr. Keat never lost his bustling, hurried New York demeanor — nor his accent despite having lived in Baltimore for 60 years.
"He came from New York and Rhode Island and was more a Baltimorean than a born Baltimorean," said Mr. Sterne.
In addition to enjoying informed and lively conversation, Mr. Keat appreciated good food, wine and beer that had to be served at room temperature.
"I have traveled the world admonishing bartenders that I do not want my beer served in an ice-cold glass," Mr. Keat said recently with a laugh.
He and Mr. Imhoff often traveled together across the country attending job fairs.
"Jim had a gourmet's palate. On a trip, I'd walk across the street to get a hamburger or a hot dog. Jim would rather drive 50 miles into the wilds of New Jersey or some other God-forsaken place to get a good meal," Mr. Imhoff said.
Mr. Keat also liked listening to classical and bagpipe music.
Plans for a memorial service to be held in the fall are incomplete.
Mr. Keat is survived by his wife of 30 years, the former Christine Swan Thompson; a stepdaughter, Christine Rene Barbour of Rockville; and two grandchildren. A first marriage ended in divorce.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.