Remembering an iconic editor, John Seigenthaler

Video credit: Newseum.

All young Americans should study the life of crusading newspaper editor John Seigenthaler, who died Friday at age 86. It had more facets than the Hope Diamond; its lessons flash bright. Here are just four of them:

His courage: As a young journalist, Seigenthaler climbed out on a bridge to save a suicidal man. When he worked for the Justice Department, he jumped into a racist mob to defend a Freedom Rider and was smashed over the head with a lead pipe. Later, as an editor in the South, he directed Nashville Tennessean exposes of the Ku Klux Klan and union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He fought forces in his own community to campaign for civil rights. 

His skills: The man could tell a story. He was eloquent, accurate, authentic. His television program, “A Word on Words,” always closed with the words “Keep reading.”  When he protested, Wikipedia improved its editing rules. He changed the lives of countless young people, including a fledgling reporter who would become vice president, Al Gore.

His vision: As founding editorial director of USA Today, he could see the bigger picture, crystalizing from daily headlines the telling issues and ideas. In retirement, when many do less, he did more, launching the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center and teaching millions about the power of the freedom that makes quality news possible.

His ideals: Seigenthaler was an honest man, an honorable man, a gentleman. The way he lived his life – loving community, friends, faith and his family, including a wife and a son who himself became an award-winning journalist – left a legacy of motive as much as action. He did what he did because it was right.

The thing about legends is they do not act like they are. In 20 years, I never heard John claim to be particularly brave, or say he possessed superior insight, or was a leader, or an American original or for that matter even a good writer. Yet he was. People who saw the Seigenthaler glow were drawn to its light.

When he called, I always answered, even from a hospital bed. Once, it was to plan a conference on journalism education reform. He had learned that reporters no longer covered federal courts in Nashville. Before long, students from Middle Tennessee State were filling that void.

Seig made us feel lucky we walked the earth with him, as though with him we were on the right path, like the guy in the song written by another Nashville dweller, John Anderson:

Hey I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond some day I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue pure perfect I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face”

His funeral is today. But any day is a good day to remember John Seigenthaler.

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