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After Chicago journalist Ken Smikle’s death, wife renews plea for organ donors

Renee Ferguson and her husband, Ken Smikle, | Provided photo

Renee Ferguson and her husband, Ken Smikle, | Provided photo

Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News and husband of retired NBC5 investigative reporter Renee Ferguson, died Wednesday evening after his wife made a poignant plea for a donor heart.

Smikle, a well-known journalist who helmed the corporate marketing news firm here for 30 years, was 66.

Over more than three decades in TV news, Ferguson — a retired NBC5 investigative reporter — shared many stories on organ donation and transplant — even catapulting the story of unborn “Baby Quinn,” who needed a heart, to national attention in 1991.

Ferguson “proved pivotal in raising media attention and ensuring that the donor heart eventually got to Quinn,” the boy’s father, Dwain Kyles, said in an interview with the Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network, after Quinn was killed in 2014 in a car accident when he was 23.

But three weeks ago, Ferguson and her husband, also a well-known journalist, found themselves facing their own need for organ donation.

MORE: Funeral services scheduled for Chicago journalist Ken Smikle

Maudlyne Ihejirika

Smikle woke his wife on the morning of Aug. 20 after his heart defibrillator had gone off. Minutes later, he crumpled to the floor.

“After many news stories with and about people waiting for transplants, and the need for organ donation, I never in all those years thought I would be asking for a heart for my own husband,” Ferguson told the Sun-Times on Tuesday while outside her husband’s room in the Intensive Care Unit of University of Chicago Hospitals.

Facing congestive heart failure for the second time in 14 years, Smikle needed a heart transplant, doctors said. So Ferguson contacted Gift of Hope, which facilitates organ donorship in northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana, and this week issued her public plea for a donor heart.

Smikle — whose firm is considered a national authority on marketing, advertising and media directed at the African-American consumer — needed a miracle, his 69-year-old wife said. But her faith was strong because he’d been blessed once before — 14 years ago, on a plane.

Veteran journalist Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, with his wife retired NBC5 reporter Renee Ferguson  | Provided photo

“We were coming from vacation, and he said, ‘I don’t feel well.’ He had all the symptoms of a heart attack,” Ferguson recounted. “I tell the stewardess. The air marshal gives us a satellite phone. I call our doctor. She asks if there’s a doctor on board. There was. She told him what to do, told him to ask if anyone on the plane might have the drugs she needed. Turns out there was a pharmaceutical rep on the plane.”

He was able to walk off the plane three hours later. “They told us he had congestive heart failure, and maybe two to three years to live,” she said. “Ken never smoked, nor drank, so he went mostly on a vegetarian diet, lost weight. That was 14 years ago. And here we are.”

Ken Smikle and wife Renee Ferguson with their Kenwood neighbor, former President Barack Obama, who lives two blocks down. | Provided photo

Jack Lynch, director of community affairs for Gift of Hope — one of 58 nonprofit, federally designated organ procurement organizations nationwide — was with Ferguson at the hospital Tuesday.

Lynch, whose organization coordinates with donors, recipients and hospital transplant centers, had worked with Ferguson in the past on many news stories about others in need.

Smikle was a candidate for directed donation, a process through which another high-profile Chicagoan, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, recently received a new kidney, said Lynch. Johnson, who underwent the transplant on Aug. 30, 2017, is now an avid advocate for Gift of Hope and organ donorship.

“As a result of Supt. Johnson’s case being publicized, several hundred people came forward. But before anyone in the general public could designate that they wanted to provide him a kidney, his son stepped up,” Lynch said.

Directed donations can speed up the wait for an organ, which can be long. For kidneys, the wait is seven years, Lynch said.

On September 11, 2018, Renee Ferguson, retired TV journalist and investigative reporter and Jack Lynch, Director of Community Affairs, Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network discusses the need for a heart transplant to extend the life of veteran Chicago journalist Ken Smikle.

Renee Ferguson, retired TV journalist and investigative reporter and Jack Lynch, director of Community Affairs for Gift of Hope, on Sept. 11, 2018 | Maria de la Guardia for the Sun-Times

Nationally, more than 125,000 people are on the wait list for a donation of any type, including 5,000 in Illinois. Another person is added every 10 minutes. But the number one problem remains: a shortage of donors. An average of 22 people die daily while waiting. Meanwhile, one organ donor can save up to eight lives; a tissue donor, up to 50 lives.

Ferguson and her husband were longtime residents of the Kenwood neighborhood, and have one son, 32-year-old Jason.

Smikle founded Target Market News, a trade news source, in 1988. His expertise led to appearances on CNN, ABC “World News Tonight,” PBS, NPR and other programs. He was frequently quoted in Newsweek, Time, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, among other publications.

Prior to that, he’d been an editor and publisher at numerous publications — from arts editor of the Amsterdam News in his native Harlem, N.Y. in the ’70s, to senior editor at Black Enterprise magazine in the ’80s. His firm annually publishes the widely cited “The Buying Power of Black America” report, and hosts several annual conferences here, including the Marketing to African Americans with Excellence Summit, a two-day event for senior corporate executives. He also co-founded the African American Marketing and Media Association.

His wife, who was the first African-American woman investigative reporter on Chicago TV when she joined CBS2 in 1977, and won seven Emmys and numerous other awards over a career of 35-plus years at network and local affiliates in New York, Atlanta and Chicago, said she knew her husband would have wanted his transplant need to be used as a teaching moment.

“I would like a heart for my husband, yes. If someone is in a situation where their beloved loved one is gone, and they can designate a heart to be donated to my husband, I would be grateful,” Ferguson had said Tuesday.

“But this moment is not just a personal moment for me. It isn’t just my husband. People need organs everyday. It’s an opportunity to remind everyone to please consider organ donorship. Consider giving someone the gift of life and the gift of hope.”

On Wednesday, after Smikle died, his wife said: “He’s not suffering anymore.”

For more information: info@giftofhope.org

Retired NBC5 Investigative Reporter Renee Ferguson and husband Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, with their son Jason and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. | Provided photo