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Long road to coroner courses for Whitelaw, Keough

November 17, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Ron Keough became a Franklin County coroner on New Year's Day in 1960 at the age of 23. All he started with was a 3-by-5-inch spiral notebook in his pocket. There he was, the youngest coroner in the state.

"And now I think I'm the oldest," he said.

Nearly six decades ago, Keough was elected as this area's county coroner to succeed Dr. Richard Blair of Saranac Lake. And at the time, Keough became a coroner for much the same reasons many of the coroners in counties around the state assumed the role: because he was born and raised in the death industry. His family business was renamed Keough and Son Funeral Home when he joined his father Eugene at work in 1957.

"Local people came to me and said, 'You're young,'" Keough recalled. "'You have the background. You are a licensed funeral director. Will you come and be our coroner?'

"Nobody else was interested," he continued, "I didn't want to leave the community without a coroner."

When Keough walked into the county offices in Malone on New Year's Day, 1960, he asked for his coroner "stuff."

"And there was no stuff," Keough said. "There was no protocol. No guidelines. No forms. Nothing. They told me, 'You're on your own. Don't spend any money. Don't make any waves. Don't get us sued.

"That was it."

So Keough went out with his tiny spiral notebook, asked a woman he knew at a local doctor's office to type up his coroner's reports and otherwise poured thousands of his own dollars into his position as county coroner, which paid $10 a day. It's the same exact compensation, he says, that had been provided to coroners when Franklin County was formed a century-and-a-half earlier. It only jumped to $70 last year.

"I went out and purchased every piece of research material I could lay my hands on," Keough said, "to back me up so I had some medical and legal information and guidelines to work from. I bought my own as I went."

Fast-forward 67 years, and Frank Whitelaw steps out of his shining white Chevy Tahoe, one with special license plates that say "coroner" beside the plate number. The vehicle, parked snug between white lines on Main Street in downtown Saranac Lake, is impeccable. Behind its tinted windows and emergency lights, the SUV harbors such new-fangled equipment as a Narcan kit to stifle opioid overdoses, several protective suits and a respirator. He's wearing a polo shirt with a badge stitched on that says "Essex County medico-legal death investigator."

At first glance, Whitelaw's setup seems like a logical progression in coroner equipment, commensurate with the almost seven decades of time, advances in technology and changes in causes of death since Keough first stepped into the Franklin County offices and asked for his "stuff."

But none of this is paid for by Essex County, for which Whitelaw works. Neither is the laundry list of courses he has chosen to attend, offered by the New York State Association of County Coroners and Medical Examiners, or NYSACCME, an organization with 150-plus members across the state.

And just like Keough in 1960, there's little mandated training to ensure Whitelaw is meeting standards to handle death investigations correctly.

"I've been accosted because someone thought I was using my government vehicle for my own use, but that is my vehicle," Whitelaw said. "Those plates, they are considered to be specialty plates that I purchased. I registered and insure it.

"There's no manual," he continued, "no policies or procedures, standards or practices. No training. You're told up front you're offered no training and will be given no equipment. That's all on you."

But come February, the expense to attend training may no longer be all on individuals such as Keough and Whitelaw.

In August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new law, passed by the state Legislature, that will require elected county coroners to complete medical investigation courses prior to taking office. His action makes New York the 17th state - of 30 that have a coroner system - to require training for coroners.

The state will not pay for it, however, so the question remains whether counties will leave the bill to coroners. Rather, the new law requires coroners to foot the bill for the courses themselves unless counties choose to reimburse. Whitelaw said fees for these kind of "Coroner 101" courses run about $600.

"Our government entities don't like spending a lot of money on death," Whitelaw said. "I don't know if they feel it's not that important. But I know death investigation is really important because a lot of time what appears to be one thing can often be something else. And that's why you need a competent group of investigators."

Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Preston, I-Wilmington, said that county has no problem paying. In Franklin County, Legislator Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, chairs a committee for the coroner system. Maroun has been involved with the coroner system at the county level for years, including two years ago when Keough got the county to hire him in a position he long advocated for: administrative department head for the county's four coroners. In the five-hour-a-month role, which pays him $3,000 annually, Keough effectively centralizes and makes uniform the protocols for him and the other coroners.

Speaking recently, Maroun said he feels the new training requirement is a good idea, though he was critical of the state for not financing it and imposing another mandate on counties while also requiring them to meet a 2 percent tax cap.

"Now the county will be stressed with that much more money," Maroun said. "Is it right? I don't think so. If it's going to be across the state, it should be a state expense, or raise the tax cap."

Whoever pays, this is a big step forward for coroners new and old - though the legislation especially hits home with Keough. Four decades ago in the mid-1970s, he was the one who formed NYSACCME with the help of his wife Peggy and the state's forensic medical examiners. His goal then was to draft legislation to require education for New York coroners, much like what Cuomo signed in August.

Keough did draft that legislation, but he said it stalled in the Assembly and Senate due to the question of who was going to pay. That holdup persisted well past when Keough stepped down as president of NYSACCME in 1979.

All these years later, Keough credits NYSACCME's current president, Scott Schmidt, with the breakthrough. In return, Schmidt credited Keough with getting the ball rolling "from Day One.

"Medical examiners have their own training curriculums," Schmidt said. "They have to be medical doctors, training in forensic pathology. We aren't worried about them. We are worried about the training of the coroners - not just on a whim they write in a name at election time and have that person in a position with no training whatsoever.

"Ron realized that early on."

As Keough approaches his seventh decade as a coroner, and as Whitelaw approaches his seventh year, both emphasize that more training and better equipment are worth the taxpayers' money. Keough has seen several cultural developments over the years that have changed the face of a coroner's job, such as more involvement from lawyers in the '70s, the advent of distracted driving due to cellphones, and the heroin and opioid crisis this decade.

He's worked thousands of cases with the core belief that his work determining how someone died can and should save other people's lives. It did when his autopsy results revealed that a man who was believed to have died from pneumonia actually had active tuberculosis.

As a result, a dozen children and rescue personnel got tested and were given shots. It did when another autopsy revealed that a man who drowned did so because he had coronary issues, which led Keough to suggest to the man's brothers that they be tested for that congenital defect. As it turned out, all three had it. And it did when Keough's autopsy didn't support the speculation around town on the reason behind three crib deaths of a local couple's newborns. After he did some homework, it turned out the parents were congenitally different.

"So I was able to talk to them and get them to a specialist in Rochester to fix the problem," Keough said. "And they now have a family.

"These are things a coroner can do."



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