A Beautiful Heart
Ken Smikle was a trailblazer, a consummate journalist, a lover of jazz and a savvy businessman who gave freely of himself to those in need. It’s easy to imagine that his life’s work and generous actions touched, inspired and brought a positive impact to the many people he met throughout his lifetime. On Sept. 12, 2018, Ken died of congestive heart failure but left an indelible imprint on a world that, by many accounts, he helped to make a better place.
One of the lives he enriched was that of his wife, Emmy Award-winning TV journalist and investigative reporter Renee Ferguson, with whom he spent 35 years of his life.
A Pairing of Powerful Proportions
As if by design, the pair, both members of the National Association of Black Journalists, met during the 1980s at the height of their careers. At the time, Renee had moved to Atlanta to work for CBS Networks’ Atlanta Bureau.
When they met, Ken, who was born in New York City, had already worked as a journalist and editor at various New York-based publications and, in 1988, launched Chicago- based Target Market News, a trade magazine and research firm that put The Buying Power of Black America, the firm’s annual report, on the trade publication landscape. The firm was the first organization of its kind to mine and provide data and marketing and advertising-related news that expounded the buying power of African-American consumers.
Renee matched Ken in many ways, including dedication and drive. An Oklahoma City native, she earned a journalism degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. She explored her career beginnings as a student intern at the Washington Post and later cut her professional teeth as a writer for the Indianapolis Star newspaper in Indianapolis. In 1977, Renee broke a glass ceiling when she joined Chicago’s WBBM-TV news team and became the first African-American woman to work as an investigative reporter in Chicago. In the early 1980s, she worked as a network news correspondent for CBS News in New York City and Atlanta and returned to Chicago in 1987 to join the UNIT 5 investigative team at NBC affiliate WMAQ-TV.
A Beautiful Heart
Renee and Ken shared a zest for life, a strong work ethic and love for journalism, and, over time, Ken became a friend and advisor to Renee.
“When I moved to New York, Ken showed me how to use the subway and taught me how to really connect with people because he was wonderful, and he was a journalist,” Renee said. “He understood my career and the challenges it had, so it was really good to just be able to talk to him. I learned so much from him. He was my best friend.”
Ken and Renee welcomed their only son, Jason Smikle, into the world in 1987 and married in 1989.
In 2009, the pair confronted a devastating reality with grace and courage. After Ken suffered a heart attack on an airplane, doctors said, given his condition, he had limited time to live.
“They gave him maybe two years,” Renee said. “Our mindset was to enjoy every minute, every day, every hour; don’t waste, don’t squander one second.” After no one gave Ken a chance, Renee believes it was through love that two years turned into 10.
A Beloved’s Plea
Throughout her career as an investigative journalist, Renee met and worked with Jack Lynch, Senior Advisor at Gift of Hope, on several news stories about the importance of organ and tissue donation. It was unimaginable to her at the time that the plea she’d made on behalf of others she would one day make on behalf of her beloved.
After 10 years, which Renee refers to as “a gift and borrowed time,” Ken’s heart was irreparably damaged, and he collapsed for the last time.
“I sat in the hospital room wondering what I could do,” Renee said. “I thought, ‘Well, he needs a heart transplant.’ I started a campaign to find a donor for my husband. I never thought that it would be something that I would ever ask for myself, and it felt a little weird, kind of selfish, but not really because I wanted him to stay around if he could.”
A heart was ultimately found for Ken, but it was too late. By then, his other vital organs had deteriorated, and Ken instructed his wife and doctors to give the heart to someone “who could make better use of it.” Ken’s other organs had declined to such a degree that it also made it impossible for him to become a donor despite being on the Illinois Organ/ Tissue Donor Registry.
On April 24, 2019, seven months after her husband’s death, Renee shared Ken’s donor in spirit story at Gift of Hope’s Third Annual Chicago Organ Summit in Chicago.
“It’s a pleasure and a privilege to help clarify the mythology and the negativity around donation,” Renee said at the summit. “It isn’t easy. I can understand people’s skepticism and fear. But we are all part of the family of man, of humanity. So, when this technology evolved so that you could perhaps keep someone else living at the time you die by donating, there is no more profound a gift. Life and death take their toll on us, but there is nothing better in the world to do than to give.”
Asked how others will remember her husband and what she most loved about him, Renee’s eyes filled with certainty as she said, “Ken was a real person, intellectual, funny and generous. To him, no one was a stranger. What I loved most about him? His heart, his beautiful heart.”