The passing of Tom Keith

There are a fair number of phonies in the media, possibly because there’s a certain amount of acting involved. But Tom Keith was not one of them. Tom collapsed at home and died last night and could not be revived, according to a spokesman for Prairie Home Companion. The cause is still being determined.

If you were a fan of The Morning Show on Minnesota Public Radio for the decades it was on the air, you probably knew the real Tom (as Jim Ed Poole) as well as anybody. He’d also love the irony of that sentence.

Keith was Garrison Keillor’s engineer when he did his early morning show in Saint Paul in the ’70s. Keillor created Keith’s character, Jim Ed Poole, and he continued it when Keillor left the program and Dale Connelly took over.

In October 2008, the two made their farewell announcement on The Current:

In an interview, along with Dale, on MPR’s Midday just before his retirement, Tom said he was just finding out in the last weeks of the show — people were sending letters — how big a part of people’s lives he had become.

Hundreds of people showed up at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul the day after that interview for The Morning Show’s final performance. An overflow crowd fill the church down the street.

And then it was over…

I recall watching Tom in those last minutes, thinking, “man, he’s a stone.” He showed no particular emotion as the years of work ended, except when it was time to recognize other people, like producer Mike Pengra. Otherwise, it seemed like just another day at work for him.

I asked Mike for a memory to share today. “I’m not sure where to start. Except every one of them ends with a laugh. And that’s a good thing, right?” he said. “He was such a pro. Dale would write a script in the studio while the Morning Show was on the air, and give it to Tom. Tom would then pre-read it…maybe once, quietly. He rarely had any questions, even when Dale had a ‘new’ character in mind. Tom assumed the role immediately. His face and body language would change with each role and his timing was spot on. He’s the best in the business.”

I’ve only seen him about once a year since that last show. Every year he’d show up for the annual fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota.

But just last week, Dale Connelly and Tom Keith were together for one last time, as it turned out, at St. Olaf. You can find video here.

This moment, from that last Morning Show program, is without equal at MPR — at least in the nearly 20 years I’ve been here. It’s an appropriate way to remember Tom Keith.

I wrote at the time:


Peter Ostroushko sang You Are My Sunshine, and a theater full of people in St. Paul, and — I’m guessing — hundreds of others in cars and kitchens throughout the country joined in.

It felt very much like people were comforting themselves and others, not only against the immediate sadness of the passing of a broadcast era, but against the steady drumbeat of bad news that we’re forced to endure.

We don’t have any information yet about services for Tom Keith. A memorial page will be set up at the Prairie Home Companion website later today. MPR’s Euan Kerr will have an extensive report on this evening’s All Things Considered.

  • ktfoley

    How very, very sad.

    That last passage with Peter Ostroushko made me cry in the car in 2008. The news makes me cry in the cube today.

    Tom’s family and friends are in my thoughts.

  • Dan Gjelten

    This is terribly sad news. I listened to Tom/Jim Ed from the earliest days and always admired his intelligence and wit and humility. He felt like part of my family for much of my life. My heart goes out to his own family and friends and all the public radio audience whose lives were enriched by his life.

  • Kat

    Tom/ Jim Ed is one of my fond memories of morning childhood car trips with Dad. I always waited for “Mr. Sports, Mr. Action, Mr. Jim Ed Poole,” and hoped the traffic would be slow enough for me to hear his bit.

    This is very sad news, and my heart goes out to his family and friends.

  • http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin Paul (@princejvstin)

    Our Aural experience is now less richer for it.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Keith.

  • Julie McCarthy

    This is sad news. We, too were big fans of the Morning Show. The kids and I could always tell whether or not we would be late to school by judging where on our morning commute we were when “Mr Sports, Mr Action..” would come over the air. And we would often model our conversations on Talk Like A Pirate Day after Captain Billy, ” Ain’t that right boys?”

    Our prayers go out to his family as we remember Tom fondly.

  • Mary Fischer

    Loved the character Jim Ed; used to wake up to the morning show when it first started and listened when I could all through the years. Met Tom once on a tour of KSJN and found him to be just like his character. Such sad news to lose a lovely man; he will be missed.

  • John P II

    Thanks for puling together a few memories Bob.

    The last time I saw Mr. Keith was at an MPR open house, and he was standing amidst a collection of antique radios on display. It seemed fitting but saddened me nonetheless.

  • Eric

    Great post, Bob. So sorry to hear of this. Tom Keith was a genius. I know he will be sorely missed.

  • Heather

    Thanks for posting that “You Are My Sunshine” clip again, Bob — I was heading over here to ask you for it.

    Thanks for taking all those crazy requests, Jim Ed Poole! I’ve never heard “Little Potato” anywhere else. Or Johnny Cash covers in German.

  • John F. Blackstone

    I began listening to the Morning Show in the early 1970s and faithfully through the last show in 2008. Some of my memories include the time Garrison went on vacation but interrupted Jim Ed’s reading of a novel he found under Pa Poole’s workbench by a phone call. I fondly recall the “Incredible Betty” series and many many more wonderful memories of the many many broadcasts on both the Morning Show and Prairie Home Companion. What a tremendous contribution starting with Curtis the Chicken. I sure miss those days of the Morning Show. Radio has not been the same since and the folks of MInnesota have lost a real home grown hero. John F. Blackstone, P.E.

  • Pauline Eichten

    I’m heartbroken to hear of Tom Keith’s death. He was a treasure. I loved listening to Dale Connelly and Jim Ed Poole and was so sad when the Morning Show ended. The show had such wit and intelligence and goofy humor, found nowhere else.

    My condolences to Tom’s family and friends.

  • Jamie

    I am so sad about this. I listened to his characters and his sound effects for about 30 years, always with admiration and even affection though I didn’t know him personally.

    Thanks for the really nice post about him Bob.

  • Bonnie Boese

    My introduction to the Morning Show was waking up in my sleeping bag in the basement of our new (old) house after a late night drive from southwestern Iowa to meet the moving van in Montevideo. Some crazy guys on the radio were singing about “Powdermilk Biscuits” and playing a medley of songs on the topic of polkas…or was it lutefisk…or cowboys?… I was hooked! He was such a wonderful straight man to Garrison’s wit!

  • Lorraine

    As a volunteer at the Fitzgerald Theater open house, I had a chance to speak with Tom. We talked about his career and when my husband came for our picture on the Prairie Home Companion porch, Bill chatted with Tom too. What a great guy. So unassuming. He along with the rest of the crew that day, signed the program and I will hold this piece of paper ever dear. We will miss Tom very much.

  • Lou Ambrose

    I am so sad that he is gone. Jim Ed was a wonderful companion in the mornings for so many years. Thank you so much for posting the link to the St Olaf appearance. I watched the whole thing and it was a real gift to see Jim Ed and Dale together. A great legacy.

  • John Markuson

    Thank you for this thoughtful post with so many examples of Tom’s fine, fine work. He was a master whose work filled our minds with wonder and appreciation.

    My heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

  • tim

    he was 64 years young. remember when 64 was real real old? then 50 started sounding like a pup and 65 was transformed to an early passing. how sad for us but how nice to leave a legacy of love and smiles that will be his forever.

    the morning show recollections are like an irish wake. sad but joyous. tom left too son but thank goodness he was here to make such a difference.

  • Randy Graham

    I was such a fan of The Morning Show that when I moved to Saudi Arabia for a while in the late 1970’s I taped as many shows as I could so I could listen to the recorded shows halfway around the world. It was what got me to work in the morning. I would frequently say that if the show ever went off the air, I would have to stop working.

    While I don’t recall the first time I heard Tom on the air, I remember the last. I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Fitzgerald Theatre on December 11, 2008 to see Jim Ed and Dale do their last show. Then it was over.

    But somehow, I did continue going to work. I’ve been filling my drive time with podcasts. It has not been the same. And now, ironically, two days from my retirement date, I have learned that Jim Ed has passed on. He always seemed like such a modest man. I wonder if he ever realized the effect he had on the lives of so many of us.

  • a former long-term MPR member

    Thanks, Bob, for your thoughtful article and links that bring back bittersweet memories.

    My thoughts are with Tom’s family and friends.

    The work that Tom and Dale did on the Morning Show was so excellent and so important.

    They helped me smile through tough times, and helped raise my son.

    It was a tragedy to lose the show that added so much richness to our lives, and now Tom Keith.

  • fred j hodges IV

    The Whippet star has gone up north to work on his delivery. Our loss is total.

  • Jim Barrett

    A Priaire Home Morning Show. And what a home it was.

    I had recently moved to the Twin Cities from Michigan and was living in a basement apartment in Shoreview.

    Every morning, while getting ready for work, Garrison and Jim Ed were my companions in the wee hours of the day. What a great symbiosis of talent! I hated leaving for work because I would miss the last half hour or so of this radio genius.

    Over the ensuing decades my appreciation of Tom Keith only increased. I’m not going to say that I liked every single one of his effects, but that’s the nature of comedy. Some work, some don’t. One needs, however, to consider the entire body of a performer’s work and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone…..anyone….could not appreciate and love this marvelous person. The enrichment he contributed to PHC is a fantastic legacy.

    I react to his passing the same way I reacted when John Lennon died. There is a visceral hurt, as in the loss of a friend. But, we will survive, and I invite everyone to cherish Tom Keith’s memory.