In the wake of his sudden death Saturday before last, dozens of travel-writing professionals have been hailing Keith Bellows as a giant in the industry: “brilliant, a creative genius,” “always scanning the horizon for the next great thing,” “a pusher, a dreamer, a doer, a man on a quest.” Well-known travel writer and TV host Rudy Maxa, who traveled extensively in Asia with Bellows, credits him with pioneering digital media and the concept of “authentic” travel. Actor/writer Andrew McCarthy, thanking Bellows for his whole writing career, wrote, “He had a grand vision and loathed the mundane.”
No one in the world had a resume much like Keith’s. Born in the Congo, he grew up in Montreal, but was educated in Scotland. He was always international in his perspective, a globe-trotting writer and editor, for years the man in charge of National Geographic Traveler, maybe the world’s best-regarded travel magazine.
So far, this fact hasn’t been mentioned much: In the middle of all that, he spent 15 vigorous years in Knoxville. And I think he had an effect on the place.
He was at one critical time very interested in this city and its downtown’s revival. For a dozen years he worked for Whittle Communications, as one of that organization’s most dynamic and creative editors. But he also had an uncommon interest in Knoxville itself, in pushing it beyond its perceived boundaries.
I should acknowledge that I might not be in journalism if not for Keith Bellows. At 27, I’d done some freelance writing, but my lack of a journalism degree kept me out of most jobs, even with the local daily. I’d washed out of J-school in two weeks, mainly due to my inability to get along with a demonic machine called the IBM Selectric II, the typewriter that I was told was de rigueur for modern journalism. I lapsed back into the ocean of liberal arts, where I was still allowed to use my manual.
The local publishing phenomenon at the time was a big magazine company called Whittle Communications. They hired hundreds from across the country. Everybody I heard of there had a J-school degree, and most of the staffers I knew about, even the low-level ones, had done an internship at a big national magazine.
I had not. But through friends of friends, I was told the guy to know was Keith Bellows, and he was known to think for himself, and make exceptions. I sent him my unconventional resume, and some clips. He wanted to talk to me.
Whittle was based in the Arnstein Building, overlooking Market Square, and Keith had a corner office. I think it was on the third floor.
Keith greeted me like a friendly lion. He moved around the room restlessly and talked fast, and everything he said was interesting. I was not used to people like that. He talked about hockey and Africa and the urgent importance of family journalism. He had the talent of making whomever he talked to feel as if they were, with him, smarter than everybody else, and part of some essential inner circle that was going to turn the world on its ear.
“We’ll get you in here somehow,” he said with his big conspiratorial grin. I never doubted him, every time I heard him say that over the next two years, as I took jobs proofreading trusts for lawyers or delivering jelly for the Fraternal Order of Police, getting turned down for work in insurance and motel management, as I was trying to pay for a new baby. Keith never forgot about me. I was about to be hired on one project, then a shoo-in for another. I finally got a toehold on a humor poster for laundromats.
For a guy who works with words, he had an extraordinary physical presence. He always struck me as an athlete trying to get used to street clothes. And he didn’t mind that those clothes were a decade or two out of style. I remember when Whittle was starting to rattle some national cages, one magazine article about the phenomenon made fun of Keith Bellows’ corduroy suit. He shook his head, grinned, and was quickly on to something more interesting.
He’d arrived here during the World’s Fair, when the former Dartmouth hockey player was best known as editor for a hockey magazine. At Whittle he worked on a few manly athletic projects, but, married and becoming a father himself, gravitated toward family and parenting concepts, notably Whittle’s most ambitious launch, Special Reports, which at its height produced 36 big glossy magazines a year, all aimed at doctors’ offices. Keith was in charge of that.
His friend Randall Duckett, who still lives here, recalls his style. “He shot from the hip, but he was remarkably accurate. He had a very acute editorial sense.” He adds, “He was bigger than life.”
At Whittle, Keith was in the upper echelons. In my six years there I never even got out of a carrel. Truth be told, in that extroverted, fast-paced, short-form, four-color world, I was never sure I belonged. Keith swam in it like a porpoise. But he always remembered me and stopped and talked, and I had the impression he sometimes wanted me to validate an idea of his, bounce something off me. He once sent me to New York just to listen to some rock ’n’ roll cassettes in the Seagram’s Building.
At the time, it was a common understanding that Knoxville was a second-rate city, and any efforts to improve it were, at best, quaint. Many who lived here seemed to like it that way. Most Whittle editors, who regularly traveled to Atlanta or New York for fun, were happy to accept Knoxvillians’ own assessments of their city’s mediocrity. Keith wouldn’t buy it. He saw potential in the place.
In the late 1980s, he was a partner, with Ashley Capps and a couple others, in an unprecedented subterranean nightclub called Ella Guru’s, bringing in big names for a small room. He was not involved in booking acts, but he may have been Knoxville’s most enthusiastic advocate for the place, and its lineup reminded me of his reputation at Whittle, getting big names in small magazines. After a couple of memorable years, Ella Guru’s turned out to be too much, too soon. But it raised our expectations of what we could hope to find in a Knoxville nightclub.
Keith kept trying. In fall, 1990, he was involved in an astonishing event called the Knoxville World Festival. It was something we’ve never seen before or since—a convention of kinetic little European circuses, held in tents on World’s Fair Park, plus musical performances, giant puppets, and the world premiere of a groundbreaking new play. It seemed to open a new door for Knoxville. He wanted to make it every year. Hundreds came, but not the hoped-for thousands. I’m not sure Knoxvillians knew what to do with a festival that didn’t involve corn dogs. A decade later, it would have become permanent.
He worked to get high-speed Internet cable—that was before Wi-Fi—to downtown Knoxville. He and Chris Whittle were both convinced by 1990 that the future belonged to the Internet. That day didn’t arrive fast enough for them.
He loved the area, and lived all over it: first in Seymour, then Island Home, then on Lyons Bend in a house made from a log cabin—then much father out, in a real cabin beside a creek in Happy Valley, in the foothills of the Smokies. He once hosted a small picnic there in honor of one of his favorite freelancers, Elizabeth Berg, before she was an Oprah-approved bestselling novelist.
He commuted to town in a red Mazda RX-7, with an unexplained, and unrepaired, bullet hole in it.
When Whittle finally crashed in ’94, many left, as soon as the job was done. Keith stuck around for a few years. His son Adam and ex-wife Shelley lived here, and he seemed especially interested in what seemed to be about to happen to Knoxville’s downtown. He co-founded a company called WestWorld Media, based in an office above the Blue Moon Bakery in an interesting old Victorian building on West Jackson Avenue, and by 1995 was working in national media and this new thing the Internet. One early project was the heavy-metal band Metallica’s first website. He got involved in Excite.com, one of the early search engines, and helped launch Baby Center, a California-based parenting website. He started another company with his colleague Randall Duckett, the Media Development Group, which still exists here, now run by Randall’s wife, Maryellen. In those days, MDG were creating a Sunday-paper insert for kids, sponsored by Disney.
It was always fun to run into Keith in the Old City; he was always off on some new venture, convinced, more than I was, that downtown was just about to bloom, with upscale residences and restaurants and nightclubs and independent high-tech media companies. Back in the early days of Metro Pulse, I felt lucky that Keith Bellows was still in town, years after Whittle’s collapse, still driving national media and pushing this interesting new Internet thing—and right around the corner from us.
But around ’97, he got offered a job nobody could turn down. National Geographic Traveler was an old-fashioned print magazine, but being its editor counts as one of the best jobs in the world. Downtown Knoxville did bloom, but Keith’s career was blooming elsewhere. In the job that he held for 17 years, Keith saw much of the world. As much fun as it was to have him here, the world was where he belonged. He lived an adventure, a life most young journalists aspire to live. He gave one of the early TED talks, naturally about an African adventure.
Although Keith had been suffering from liver disease, his death a few days ago was unexpected.
In a coincidence that can only be called bizarre, he died the same weekend his former wife Shelley Williams died. Shelley, who stayed in Knoxville, was a talented art director who worked for Whittle, too, and 25 years ago, they were a creative power couple. And they died the same weekend. You hear about such coincidences among long-married couples, but Keith and Shelley had been divorced and living apart for at least 20 years.
He was due to be here this week, for a rare return visit to see old friends and have a look around. I hadn’t talked to him in years, and was looking forward to catching up. I was interested to know what he thought of the place in 2015, now that downtown has become a legitimate travel destination, curious about whether Knoxville looks something like he pictured it would.
Photo by Rebecca Hale/National Geographic
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