Russ Kick, ‘Rogue Transparency Activist,’ Is Dead at 52

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Working on his own, he used the Freedom of Information Act to publish suppressed documents, sometimes making front-page news.

 “I can’t focus completely on any one thing for too long. My personal brand is a mess.” 
Credit...Chris Richards

Katharine Q. Seelye

Oct. 14, 2021, 12:52 p.m. ET

On the eve of the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Pentagon banned media coverage of the return of the remains of dead soldiers to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

By November, as the death toll rose, Russ Kick, a self-taught expert at digging up information, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all the images of coffins arriving at Dover since the war began.

His request was rejected. The military said the ban was intended to protect the privacy of the dead; critics called it a political maneuver to sanitize the war.

True to form, Mr. Kick did not take no for an answer and filed an appeal. “I figured I was tilting at windmills,” he told The New York Times in 2004.

But in April 2004, by which time more than 830 Americans had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, his request was granted. Mr. Kick received hundreds of photographs, mostly of flag-draped coffins, which he posted on his website. They quickly found their way to television and to the front pages of newspapers around the world, bringing home the human cost of the conflict and touching off a national debate about the use of emotionally charged images in wartime.

Mr. Kick, a star in the world of activist researchers, was renowned for using the Freedom of Information Act to exquisite effect. He spent two decades publishing tens of thousands of pages of government files, court documents, corporate memos, scientific studies and covert action reports, all part of a lifelong mission to hold authorities and institutions accountable.

He died on Sept. 12 at his home in Tucson, Ariz., at 52. His sister, Ruth A. Kick, confirmed the death but declined to identify the cause.

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Credit...Associated Press

A self-described “rogue transparency activist” and “investigative archivist,” Mr. Kick worked on his own, without institutional support, and posted his findings on his website. He initially called the site the Memory Hole in honor of the disposal chute through which the authorities in George Orwell’s “1984” destroyed embarrassing documents; it ultimately became Altgov2.org.

One of his most notable postings involved an internal Justice Department report, written in 2002, that criticized departmental efforts at diversity hiring. Officials released a heavily redacted version; Mr. Kick downloaded the report, highlighted the black redaction bars and deleted them, making the original text instantly visible.

He was among the first to post documents in full, including all 16,000 pages of the F.B.I.’s file on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The agency had released only a fraction of them.)

“The work he was doing was phenomenal,” David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who studies government transparency and public-records access, said in an interview. “He showed that anybody in this country could get public records out of the government, even when the government didn’t want to give them out.”

But Mr. Kick’s life’s work went way beyond digging up documents.

Skeptical by nature and mistrustful of authority, he also produced guides and books that punctured myths, with in-your-face titles like “50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know” (2003) and “You Are Being Lied To” (2001), updated in 2009 as “You Are Still Being Lied To.”

Despite the aggressive nature of his work and the bold imperatives of his book titles, Mr. Kick in person was soft-spoken and introverted.

An intellectual, a bibliophile and a relentless seeker of knowledge, he was a writer and anthologist who immersed himself in classic literature, cuisine, quotations, the visual arts, mysticism, old-school daiquiris and, more recently, the treatment of animals.

“I can’t focus completely on any one thing for too long,” he wrote on his website. “My personal brand is a mess.”

His preferred format was the anthology, in which he could serve as curator and commentator. Perhaps his best-known work was the magisterial multipart “Graphic Canon” series. He started with the three-volume “The Graphic Canon: The World’s Great Literature as Comics and Visuals” (2012) and went on to produce “The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature” (2014) and “The Graphic Canon of Crime and Mystery” (2017), a second volume of which is to be published in December.

Instead of simply reproducing the full texts of these classics, he engaged in a collaborative process with hundreds of graphic artists, commissioning new material from some, like Molly Crabapple and Robert Berry, to illustrate excerpts from each piece. In other cases, he repurposed work by artists like Will Eisner and Robert Crumb that had already been published.

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“Kick’s preface to each piece introduces us to the artist and coaxes us along with enticing tidbits of unusual information about the original text,” Annie Weatherwax wrote in reviewing the first two volumes for The Times Book Review in 2012. “Every page sends you further down the rabbit hole, and before you know it, hours have passed.”

Ms. Crabapple, in a tribute posted after his death, called Mr. Kick “a punk-rock Virgil” whose own transgressive, subversive work had guided her through a difficult youth and “showed the possibilities of life.”

Mr. Kick, a rapacious reader, had absorbed many anthologies of poetry on an array of subjects, but he said he was unaware of any major compendium of verses about death. And so he produced his own. His “Death Poems: Classic, Contemporary, Witty, Serious, Tear-Jerking, Wise, Profound, Angry, Funny, Spiritual, Atheistic, Uncertain, Personal, Political, Mythic, Earthy, and Only Occasionally Morbid” was published in 2013.

“Time is always running out,” he wrote in the introduction, “and the poets know that this casts life in an entirely different light than if we were immortal.”

Russell Charles Kick III was born on July 20, 1969, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he spent his youth. His mother, Jane (Woody) Kick, was an executive assistant and later a homemaker. His father, Russell Charles Kick II, became chairman of the department of accounting and finance at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville; Russ enrolled there, majoring in psychology, and graduated in 1991.

A brief early marriage, to Kimberly Gannon, ended in divorce. Mr. Kick is survived by his sister and his mother.

As a youth, Mr. Kick vacuumed up information. His sister said in an interview that they grew up surrounded by books — including a dog-eared copy of “An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t” (1987), by William Wilson and Judy Jones — and played competitive rounds of Trivial Pursuit.

After college, he started a doctoral program in public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he received a full scholarship. But he lost interest and dropped out, enrolling instead at Nashville State Technical Institute, now Nashville State Community College, to study communication arts.

Attending the technical college, from which he graduated in 1995, was a turning point in his life, his sister said. The program developed his innate interests and taught him how to create websites and design books. While still a student, he produced his first book, “Outposts: A Catalog of Rare and Disturbing Alternative Information” (1995), which offered tidbits on topics like sex, drugs, censorship, and religious and cultural extremism.

“He was a true polymath,” Michael Ravnitzky, a public records researcher and a friend of Mr. Kick’s, said in an email.

Mr. Kick, he added, was “interested in every subject under the sun, hunting down factual information and fictional expression across the range of human existence.”

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