No joke of a writer: Todd Kleffman, longtime writer for The Advocate-Messenger, dies at 58
Published 8:19 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017
MIDDLEBURG — Todd Kleffman, a masterful writer well-known to long-time readers of The Advocate-Messenger and well-loved by current and former staff members of the newspaper, has died. He was 58.
“He was the love of my life and a brilliant writer,” said Sue Leathers-Kleffman, his wife, Tuesday. “I fell in love with his writing before we ever met.”
Kleffman, a Casey County native, worked for The Advocate-Messenger as a staff writer twice — once for about four years in the mid-1980s and again from 2004-2016. He had thousands of bylines in the paper over those years and won numerous awards from the Kentucky Press Association, many of them for his investigative reporting efforts.
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“I assigned him to the more difficult and investigative kinds of stories,” said John Nelson, former executive editor of the paper who hired Kleffman in 2004. “Todd was probably the most talented writer and reporter combined that I have worked with. He was very creative and he was fearless. He also, though, had a big heart. He was a very skilled journalist.”
Kleffman’s wife said he had been cutting hay with his younger brother, Troy, in a field off of Longbranch Road on Monday.
“About 6:30 (p.m.), Troy picked him up from the tractor and drove him to Todd’s truck. Troy left, but Todd never did,” she said. “I went to bed about 9, thinking he was still with Troy, jawing about the day or tinkering with one of the implements. But I woke at 12:30 and found him still gone.”
She called Troy, who went back to where he had left his brother and found him “slumped behind the wheel,” she said.
“Troy said Todd had told him earlier in the day that that field was his favorite one to mow,” she said.
Kleffman’s first byline in The Advocate-Messenger appeared on page A2 of the April 30, 1985, issue. His name was a regular occurrence in the paper through the end of 1988 as he covered a wide variety of stories, many of them in Mercer County. He spent a year of his first stint also writing a column titled “Tongue-In-Chic,” where his creative writing skills were on full display.
“This space will regularly be filled with as much opinionated and self-indulgent meandering as the editors will allow,” he wrote in the first installment of the once- to thrice-monthly column. “There are no rules here, nor any taboo topics, other than libelous material put forth maliciously and in poor taste. Other than that, it’s all the observation that fits and I’m open to having my eyes opened by new ideas that come my way.”
Kleffman went on to tell his readers about his “rock ‘n’ roll heart.”
“Not your everyday, sing-along-with-the-radio rock ‘n’ roll heart, but the reckless, irresponsible and big-bass drum kind,” he wrote. “The spend-the-rent-money-on-records kind. The drive-300-miles-for-a-song kind.”
After working at the Danville paper for four years, Kleffman spent time working in California and newspapers in the southern U.S. before returning, Nelson said.
“He came to see me a couple times about coming back to work in Danville,” Nelson said. “Finally, I went to Mary (Schurz, publisher at the time) and said, ‘you know, I think we need to hire him back.’ And she said, ‘OK.'”
Kleffman gained the most attention from the public for his deeply researched, hard-hitting courts and crime coverage, though Nelson noted he didn’t stay tied down to a single beat.
“He covered a little bit of everything from time to time,” he said. “… He could write features; he could write hard news and soft news — just about anything you gave him.”
Among the major headlines Kleffman covered were the murder trial of Jack Caldwell Jr. in 2007; the triple-homicide at ABC Gold Guns and More in 2014; and the death of 3-year-old Alexa Raley in 2014.
Asked which of Kleffman’s stories he remembers, Nelson pointed immediately to the 2010 story about a shared driveway dispute headlined “Fear and loathing at Third and Lexington.”
That lengthy exposé detailed numerous criminal complaints filed back and forth between Lexington Avenue neighbors and how police were handling the numerous calls and escalating tensions. To put the story together, Kleffman called prosecutors and law enforcement officials in numerous states, piecing together the prior criminal history of one of the people involved in the disputes. He interviewed Danville’s mayor and a mayoral candidate, both of whom had some level of connection to the situation. And he interviewed the neighbors at odds with each other, culminating with one of them taking his notebook and kicking him off the property. Police later retrieved the notebook and no charges were filed — but it all went into the story.
“Like most good journalists, he had his detractors, but when he was on a story, it was a good story,” Nelson said. “He always tried to be fair and thorough.”
Asked if Kleffman was among the best writers in the state, Nelson said “I don’t think there’s any question about it.”
“The only thing holding Todd back was Todd. He had to buy into a story, but once he bought into it, it was all his and he could make it riveting,” he said. “… We had our spats over editing and decisions that I made sometimes … You need somebody like that sometimes as an editor. You need somebody that will challenge you and be aggressive and challenge your decisions and make you think.”
Bobbie Curd, an editor at The Advocate-Messenger, worked with Kleffman for years.
“When I began working at the paper, I was the reporter on Saturdays while Todd was the editor. He infuriated me,” she said. “He was loud, aggressive, opinionated and the consummate smart aleck — he made an art out of it. We were a battle of wills at times. And I grew to love him for it.”
Curd said Kleffman had a “social conscience I deeply respected and admired.”
“We became friends outside of the office and I realized what kind of man he really was — with his family, his friends, with animals,” she said. “He wasn’t afraid to show his feelings about the people he cared about, and he was an incredibly kind soul.”
Other former Advocate employees also remember Kleffman fondly.
“Todd was hands-down the most talented writer I worked with in my time as a reporter or editor,” said David Brock, former Advocate editorial page editor and former editor of the Frankfort State Journal. “He had a rare combination of guts, gumption and intelligence … that set him apart as both a journalist and a person. He was fully alive and so was his work.”
Emily Toadvine, now with Wilderness Trail Distillery, worked with Kleffman at the paper in the 1980s and the 2000s.
“He worked on his craft until he had a good story,” she said. “He just really sunk his teeth into whatever he was writing about and I think he instilled that into others — to do your best work.”
Kleffman worked at the Advocate until 2016, when he wound up leaving during a downsizing.
“When he left the job, he was looking forward to being able to spend more time with his mom on the farm because he knew that she was very sick,” said Nelson, who noted Kleffman had lost both of his parents in recent years. “He was looking forward to having the time to spend with her.”
Kleffman leaves behind three children, Blayne, 30; Keaton, 23; and Kindle, 20. Blayne has two children — Kleffman’s grandchildren — Rylea, 9, and Holdyn, 16 months.
Those who knew him said he and his family are well-known for the inviting atmosphere they create on their Casey County farm.
“He lived on a large farm with family members, siblings and until last year, his parents,” Toadvine said. “Just a very tight-knit family. They always welcomed everyone to their place. It’s just a tragedy that he’s gone.”
SO YOU KNOW
A private burial for Todd Kleffman for family members will be held today. A memorial service will be 2 p.m. Saturday at Pana-Sea Ranch in Middleburg.