On June 19, 2021, the Knight Science Journalism Program lost a cherished alumnus. Kevin Begos, a member of the 2003-04 fellowship class, died at the age of 63 in Tallahassee, Florida. An award-winning journalist whose career included stints at the Winston-Salem Journal, the Tampa Tribune, and The Associated Press, Begos earned acclaim for an investigative series on forced sterilization in North Carolina — a series that helped secure a landmark reparations agreement for the program’s victims.
Elected mayor of the small town of Apalachicola, Florida, in 2019, Begos was remembered in his local newspaper for being a selfless leader who “wasted little time in taking the rudder of the city” and “was ahead of the curve during the coronavirus pandemic.”
KSJ director Deborah Blum, who partnered with Begos in science journalism training workshops from the state of Georgia to the country of Morocco, considered him one of the most talented, thoughtful — and generous — science journalists of her acquaintance.
“One of the things that made him such an outstanding investigative reporter was that people mattered to him,” she said. “You could see it in his work, such as the eugenics series, in which he stood for people who had so little power in their own lives. And you could see it every time he volunteered to share his knowledge and his passion for good science storytelling with others. He cared and it showed. He’ll be missed in so many ways.”
Below, former Knight Science Journalism Program director Boyce Rensberger and members of Begos’ 2003-04 fellowship cohort reflect on the journalist’s life and impact.
Kevin was a kind of Renaissance man — fine art publisher, journalist who made a difference (his expose of North Carolina’s eugenics program of forced sterilizations that continued into the 1970s), lighthouse keeper, seafood industry lobbyist, musician, acclaimed historian of wine (his widely acclaimed book Tasting the Past), politician who worked to rescue his financially troubled home town. And, as we of the class of 2004 know, a most good and decent man.
– Boyce Rensberger, KSJ director (1998-2008)
I remember him as a curious intellectual, thoughtful conversationalist, kind listener, and loyal friend. I was not surprised to learn he became a popular community leader as mayor. He had a kind of quiet yet strong presence and was humble about his achievements. He cared deeply about people. Our group was particularly close, and we feel the loss now and surely will again when we are able to reunite in the future.
– Pamela Ferdinand (’04)
Kevin had a warm heart and a great laugh. He was a good listener, and extremely smart. He will be missed.
– Debbie Ponchner (’04)
Kevin took his time with people, and his mind was a big and warm and inviting space. You wanted to talk to him, sit with him — you wanted to invite him into your home to understand your life, to explain your work to him and share your passions. He was interested in people and he was interested in what they were interested in. When he reflected on life and history and knowledge you could feel that he had made the effort to understand the complexities.
I thought it was brilliant that he was a mayor, and it also makes sense because he was so kind and so caring. He wanted to look after people. He was very kind to me. Kevin helped me a lot to feel safe in Cambridge.
– Rehana Dada (’04)
Kevin had a big heart and a curiosity about the world that were evident in his interactions with everyone from friends to strangers and in his wide variety of personal pursuits and interests. Kevin could talk to anyone, and mostly he would listen. No matter the sensitivity of the conversation, he put a person at ease. Kevin’s natural curiosity about people and his empathy were fundamental to his accomplishments as a journalist.
After the Knight Fellowship, Kevin and I worked together for many years — maybe close to a decade — on CR magazine (later renamed Cancer Today), for which he was a freelance contributing writer and the magazine’s podcaster, and I was his editor. Kevin merged this work into his life deftly with other full-time reporting positions and freelance work.
Kevin was talented at explaining science and medical issues to our magazine’s audience of cancer survivors and their families. But where he really stood out was in his ability to put profile subjects at ease and to listen to and understand their stories. His profiles were anything but routine, and he prided himself on conveying nuance and in accurately capturing the voices, challenges and goals of cancer patients and their loved ones. You could always count on Kevin to handle the most personal stories with sensitivity, detail, honesty and journalistic rigor.
Kevin was the sort of reporter who usually called on the phone, rather than emailing. He was a careful, thoughtful listener, and when he passed on personal advice to me—such as tips after I moved to a new country—it was always wise. I fondly recall our countless conversations about his magazine stories that often included an update on life events. I must have spent hours poring over his podcasts, listening to his familiar voice. We didn’t work together in the last few years, but I always assumed that one day we’d get to collaborate again, and those chats would go on.
When I learned about Kevin’s death, my first thought was how much the world is now missing out on Kevin’s unique gifts—and how we could all benefit from one more thoughtful conversation with this remarkable human being.
– Jessica Gorman (’04)
I can’t but subscribe to everything my friends have written, and there’s little I can add to do justice to Kevin. Thoughtful, yes, brilliant, definitely, someone always great to chat with, for sure – but what struck me most about him, even when we disagreed, was that he used to bring me peace of mind. Being with Kevin gave me hope in humankind. He had this genuine interest in people that made him such a great journalist. That interest would show up even in his list of subjects to take during the fellowship: he was always working on the border between science, technological development and human rights, something he had explored in his book about eugenics. While geeks like myself were interested in rocks and climate feedbacks during our winter break, Kevin and Rehana were traveling to Palestine. I was lucky to have met him.
– Claudio Angelo (’04)