NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Seigenthaler, a legendary Tennessee journalist, intimate confidant to two near-presidents and fierce advocate for racial equality, died Friday.
He was 86.
Seigenthaler passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by family.
"We celebrate his life — his devotion to social justice, his advocacy of human rights, and his enduring loyalty to friends and family," said his son, John Michael Seigenthaler. "He was proud of his hometown, Nashville, and grateful for the opportunity to share his energy and passion with this community."
As a reporter for The Tennessean, Seigenthaler once saved a suicidal man's life on a bridge over the Cumberland River — a bridge eventually named after him. As the newspaper's longtime editor, he led coverage of the civil rights movement when most Southern newspapers, including the rival Nashville Banner, ignored the growing resistance to racial segregation in the South.
Seigenthaler also exposed corruption in the Teamsters union, grave deficiencies in the state's mental health system and illicit activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee. And he inspired several generations of journalists to greatness.
But that would not have happened if gunshots had not ricocheted across a California hotel kitchen on June 5, 1968. Seigenthaler acknowledged in an interview before his death that if Bobby Kennedy had lived, and gone on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, Seigenthaler would have left journalism and gone to work for his dear friend in the White House.
"I'm afraid I would," he said in a lengthy interview. "Truthfully, I would not have wanted to. But you can't say no to someone like that."
But Seigenthaler, described by author Thurston Clarke as one of a small group of people known as "honorary Kennedys," was emphatic that it all turned out just right.
"I think journalism was the most important thing I could have done with my life," he said. "I just can't think of anything I could have done with my life that would have been more meaningful."
That view is shared by countless thousands of friends and admirers whose lives were shaped by his work and who survive to mourn his passing.
"John Seigenthaler was not just an amazing student of history, he made history," said Phil Currie, retired senior vice president/news of Gannett Co. Inc.
"Throughout his life, John led the way as a journalist, as an editor and publisher at The Tennessean, as a vital member of and adviser in the Kennedy administration, as founding editor of the USA TODAY editorial pages, as an author, as a civil rights advocate and historical expert, as the creator of the First Amendment Center, and as an expert proponent of the First Amendment, emphasizing its importance to everyone.
"He was a great teacher, storyteller, inspiration and friend. John will be painfully missed, but his ideals and his enthusiasm for them will live on in hundreds of people who benefited from knowing and learning from him."
A humble upbringing
The young John Lawrence Seigenthaler Jr., who once won a $25 war bond in a Father Ryan High School speech contest and who dutifully attended Catholic Mass, had no aspirations to be a world-renowned newspaper editor or to work for famous politicians. He wanted to be a teacher.
He was born July 27, 1927, to Mary Brew and John L. Seigenthaler, the oldest of eight siblings, four boys and four girls. They had a modest but comfortable upbringing in Nashville.
Seigenthaler played softball, baseball and tennis in Centennial Park as a boy, recalling in a 1984 article that the park was also the go-to place for family picnics, feeding the ducks and where he experienced his first sorrow: "My first dead duck, slain by some mean kid with a B.B. gun."
His siblings reported that at age 10, he would come home and read Shakespeare under the covers until 2 a.m.
In a nod to his future, he worked as editor-in-chief of The Panther, the school paper at Father Ryan, and on the yearbook staff.
Seigenthaler served three years in the Air Force, and when he returned home in the spring of 1949, his father was dying of lung cancer.
His father, a building contractor, died later that year. (His mother, a state employee, died in 1989.)
Seigenthaler attended George Peabody College for Teachers but never graduated. Instead he got a job from his uncle, Walter Seigenthaler, who was circulation director for The Nashville Tennessean and The Nashville Banner, as The Tennessean's lowest-paid reporter.
Like all cub reporters, the young John Seigenthaler covered his share of routine police beat stories, Christmas parades, house fires and obituaries.
On a hot June day in 1953, he begrudgingly headed to Centennial Park to write a story about a concert being held there. On stage was a young and very pretty blonde named Dolores Watson, a classy big band singer.
"It was Father's Day, as a matter of fact, and I was singing a silly song," she recalled. "The song was called 'Daddy,' and he made some silly comment on it in the newspaper."
The two were married in 1955.
Dolores Seigenthaler gave up her singing career when son John Michael was born, even though she was featured on national radio and television shows, singing with a bevy of big stars. But she took great pride in her husband's work.
"I think (John) made such a difference in so many lives," she often said. "He helps them. It's wonderful. If he says he's going to do something, he does it."
Local author Alice Randall, who wrote "The Wind Done Gone," said it was a marriage for the ages.
"The John and Dolores show, the John and Dolores reality, the John and Dolores love seemed miraculous," Randall said. "He still called her 'baby.' There was still so much feistiness and glamour, and she didn't put up with anything from him. He saw family as the center — being a husband, being a father, being a grandfather."
A journalist and a prankster
When Seigenthaler began his journalism career, the South was experiencing the first hint of the movements to secure civil rights for black Americans and careers for women. The Tennessean had a newsroom full of talent, mostly men, loyal to one another and extremely competitive.
Not only were they competing to win the lead story on the front page, they tried to out-prank one another. Seigenthaler was known as the master. He penned fake memos that looked as if they came from the editor, knowing which reporters would sneak a peek. He substituted raw eggs for boiled ones in the lunches of colleagues, a prank repeated for decades in the newsroom.
He also quickly became known as a guy who could get the story. He and a photographer tracked down a man and his wife who had faked their own deaths to flee with the insurance money. He won a national Headliner Award for that.
At least once Seigenthaler became part of the story: He pulled a suicidal man from a bridge over the Cumberland River. Although the man vowed never to forgive him, after spending time in a mental health ward, he thanked Seigenthaler and the two became friends. Earlier this year, that bridge was named for Seigenthaler.
In 1959, after a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, he returned to Nashville and was promoted to the job of assistant city editor, then city editor and special assignment reporter.
Flirting with politics
During much of that period, Seigenthaler was flirting with a career in politics, not journalism. For two years, he moved in and out of The Tennessean newsroom, taking leaves to work with the Kennedy family in various positions, then returning.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, there was much speculation about who would become his attorney general. JFK and his father wanted JFK's brother Bobby to do it. Bobby didn't want to. Seigenthaler was at breakfast at Ethel and Bobby Kennedy's house when the decision was made.
"Snow on the ground. House in Georgetown. Cold, cold, cold," he recalled. "Reporters parked out front. The president reaches out and touches me on the hand, and talks to me for about 10 minutes, saying, 'I'm going to have a circle of advisers and I'm not going to know them. Here I am going to be dealing with great problems of great magnitude. I've got to have someone who has my best interests.' And when he gets through, it's really clear."
The president-elect got the coffee pot and refilled Seigenthaler's cup but not Bobby's. Then he said, "That's it, general. Let's grab our balls and go." The group went out into the snow to talk to reporters. The president, Seigenthaler recalled, said, "Bobby, you know there are photographers out there. Comb your hair."
And so Seigenthaler became a member of the Kennedy inner circle. As attorney general, Bobby wanted loyal people next to him, too. He made Seigenthaler his administrative assistant in the U.S. Justice Department in 1961.
In February 1962, while Seigenthaler was still on Bobby Kennedy's staff, a fake story citing an anonymous source was planted in Washington and picked up by The Tennessean: John Seigenthaler was going to resign from Kennedy's staff to become the new Democratic National Committee chairman. Seigenthaler was traveling around the world with Kennedy when the "news" broke and so was not reached for comment.
Whether it was bait set by Seigenthaler's supporters to lure him back to Nashville, or simply an ill-reported rumor, no one has ever revealed where it came from. The rumor ended March 21 of that year when Seigenthaler was named editor of The Tennessean at age 34.
"For 12 years, The Tennessean was my life," Seigenthaler said after the announcement. "And now it is again."
Under his leadership, The Tennessean entered a renowned time. Journalists Seigenthaler either hired or worked with included author David Halberstam; Bill Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune; Tom Wicker, former New York Times columnist; and author David Vise of the Washington Post.
Halberstam, in an 1994 article, wrote: "If there was a dominant figure on the paper in those days it was John Seigenthaler, who seemed to connect both cultures to each other. He was a local boy, son of a building contractor who had died young, and he was the oldest of eight children. There were Seigenthaler brothers and sisters placed all over Nashville, placed there, it seemed to me, for no other reason than to help him on stories."
Seigenthaler sent a reporter undercover into Central State, Nashville's mental health hospital, to expose the abysmal conditions there.
He assigned reporters to probe conditions in the city workhouse, in nursing homes and migrant worker camps. He sent a reporter to live undercover for 18 months in the Ku Klux Klan. And he fought for open government records and meetings. Seigenthaler would never back off, no matter how many lawyers threatened him or how many times the newspaper was sued.
Reporters never had to learn the same lesson twice from Seigenthaler. If they did, they didn't last long.
"Early in my editorial-writing days, I wrote a piece about an accident in downtown Nashville," recalled Sandra Roberts, retired Tennessean opinion editor. "I obviously thought the accident was particularly tragic, because I used that adjective three times in an 8-inch editorial. I was in John's office as he read it, and my redundancy — or laziness — didn't escape him.
"He read aloud, 'Tragic … tragic … tragic.' He then reached behind his desk to a bookshelf, grabbed a thesaurus and tossed it to me. I didn't make that particular mistake again."
The Kennedy connection
Seigenthaler was not with Bobby Kennedy, his best friend and political hero, in Los Angeles when he was assassinated. He was 347 miles north with Kennedy's brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, waiting for election returns in a Masonic Temple.
He had met Bobby Kennedy in 1957. That they became friends is not really that surprising. Here were two men, separated by two years in age, born to large Catholic families. They were of like mind politically and believed they were smart enough to change the world. Both believed social justice was worth the fight.
Kennedy met Seigenthaler because the young reporter had written a number of news stories about growing corruption in the organized labor movements, particularly involving Jimmy Hoffa and his Teamsters union. The next year, Kennedy was chief counsel for the Senate labor rackets committee, which investigated "labor goon squad activity in Tennessee," according to one news report of the day.
Hoffa was indicted and tried, but the jury was hopelessly deadlocked.
Seigenthaler got a tip that a Chattanooga judge was taking bribes from Teamsters union members. The story led to the judge's impeachment, trial and conviction by the state legislature.
It also led to a new federal grand jury, which indicted Hoffa and six others on charges of jury tampering. That case was tried in Chattanooga.
Kennedy recognized Seigenthaler's talent and in 1959 asked him to edit his book about the Teamsters, called The Enemy Within. Seigenthaler took a leave of absence from The Tennessean to do that, having just completed his Nieman Fellowship.
As attorney general, Kennedy wanted loyal people next to him. Seigenthaler became his point man in dealing with developing hysteria over civil rights.
After Seigenthaler was named editor of The Tennessean, his relationship with the Kennedys didn't falter. Their story picks up again in 1968. Bobby Kennedy had resigned as attorney general and won a New York Senate seat by then. He traveled widely, and Seigenthaler sometimes went with him — to Vietnam and India, most notably, writing about his experiences.
In early 1968, rumbles began about whether Kennedy should run for president. Seigenthaler did not want him to, and told him so. He was afraid Kennedy couldn't beat then-President Lyndon Johnson, but Kennedy said he felt a moral imperative. He entered the race and asked Seigenthaler to run his campaign in Northern California.
That's where Seigenthaler was during the California Primary on June 4, 1968.
'How the hell could this happen twice?'
The primary was key for Kennedy to win the Democratic nomination. Returns were four hours slow to come in that night, and the parties in L.A. and San Francisco, where Seigenthaler had opted to stay, were dragging.
Seigenthaler's wife, Dolores, also was there. So was their then-12-year-old son.
"It was a typical San Francisco crowd," Seigenthaler recalled. "Ted made one hell of a speech. Bobby died while Ted was speaking."
There was no Twitter to spread the word. No cellphones. Television reports of the shooting not long after midnight were coming in, and word spread through the crowd in San Francisco like a tsunami.
"It was chaos," Seigenthaler recalled. "By the time I got back to the hotel, Ted had contacted the airport. Dolores rushed upstairs and packed."
An airplane was chartered. A helicopter took them to the hospital. Bobby Kennedy was on life support, and he was given last rites.
"You don't think you're a witness to history, because you're caught up in it," Seigenthaler said later. "Sure, I thought what everyone in the country was thinking: How the hell could this happen twice? You want to say something, but there's not a damn thing you can say."
Seigenthaler said he had no regrets. And, yes, he would have left journalism to become one of the president's men had things turned out differently. Instead, he painfully recounted what happened. The moment when "victor was victim, promise and presumption had perished, dreams were shattered."
The assassination, he said, made him feel like "the world had collapsed."
He remembered how calm and kind Ted Kennedy was to him, knowing how much Seigenthaler revered his brother. And he remembered the long train ride across the country.
"It was an Irish wake on a train," Seigenthaler said later. "Miles of wall-to-wall people. Children saluting. Veterans. People waving flags."
And on the train, dozens of grieving people, mostly men, drinking and wandering from car to car to share stories of their fallen hero, the man they were certain would have changed the world.
Seigenthaler was a pallbearer at Robert Kennedy's funeral. He recalled when they arrived at Arlington National Cemetery and pulled the coffin out of the hearse:
"We stop. And suddenly they are singing, 'This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine,' " he said, tears streaming down his face. "And we got lost going up that hill. And the undertaker says, 'That was very good, gentlemen. But you went the wrong way.' "
The fight for civil rights
Seigenthaler championed racial equality, both as a journalist and in his job in the Kennedy administration.
The Tennessean and its staff became crusaders for civil rights early on. A Texas liberal named Silliman Evans bought the newspaper out of receivership in the 1930s. His views formed the political core that would remain there until John Seigenthaler's retirement.
With a newsroom full of cocky young egos spoiling for a good story, secure finances and family owners willing to take chances, it became one of the only Southern newspapers to aggressively cover the fight to end segregation. That was not always popular with hometown readers, particularly the old Southern guard.
The Tennessean covered the downtown lunch counter sit-ins and other stories, when other newspapers wouldn't, as the civil rights movement swept through the South.
For Seigenthaler, it was a learned passion. He was not proud that he ignored a lesson right under his nose as a youth. As he explained to an audience at Lipscomb University in 2009, he remembered his family's black maid as practically being his "surrogate mother."
Yet when he would walk to the bus stop with her — he to go to a movie downtown and she to go to her North Nashville home — he didn't notice that she went to the back of the bus, while he sat up front.
"I grew up in that environment without seeing it. I never saw the injustice of their lives," he said.
That contrast between holding progressive social views in a segregated world where they were living quite comfortably was something he and Bobby Kennedy had in common. When Seigenthaler went to work for Kennedy, race riots and violence were becoming widespread.
Groups of Freedom Riders were boarding buses at Southern universities to spread the nonviolent protest message they were using to desegregate lunch counters. They would drive to a city's bus station, go inside and try to use the segregated restrooms and buy food. In May 1961, it wasn't going well at all.
The first group of Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., and made it to Anniston, Ala., before they were mobbed by Klan members. Their buses were burned. In Birmingham, Freedom Riders were jailed. Bobby Kennedy got word that another group, including Fisk and Peabody students, planned to leave from Nashville the next weekend.
Kennedy asked Seigenthaler to try to talk them out of it, but to no avail. So Seigenthaler, at Kennedy's direction, negotiated a deal with then-Alabama Gov. John Patterson that state troopers would protect the group between Birmingham and Montgomery. Local police were supposed to take over from there.
Seigenthaler traveled to Birmingham from New Orleans, following the bus in a rental car with Justice Department attorney John Doar. There were troopers in cars guarding the bus, helicopters in the air and men with guns on the roadside. Seigenthaler said he believed it would be a "walk in the park," with no problems.
"John and I stopped for breakfast, thinking the bus was not due for 45 minutes," Seigenthaler said later.
But the bus driver was terrified and "made it an express run." Instead of stopping to allow challenges at lunch counters and bathrooms along the route, he drove straight to Montgomery. When Seigenthaler and Doar pulled into town, they noticed there were no police to be seen. Later, all local law enforcement and every ambulance driver would swear they were "on call" and unavailable.
Doar and Seigenthaler pulled up near the bus station, rolled down the car windows, and "you can hear the screaming. I can see baggage being tossed," Seigenthaler remembered. "It's going to be bad. It is a teeming anthill of violence. These kids were just getting the hell beat out of them. The screams and shouts — you've never heard anything like it. They were wild. I almost ran over some black student. I'm in shock. I'm thinking, 'What in the hell am I going to tell Bob?' "
Seigenthaler saw two black girls get in a cab, but the black driver would not let their white friend get in. As Seigenthaler rushed down the sidewalk, he saw a man with a cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve.
"As she backs away, he punches her in the face. As she turns, I see she is bleeding from the mouth. I thought, 'I can get them out,' " Seigenthaler said.
But the girl said, "Please, mister, I can handle it. I'm trained for this."
Seigenthaler was kicked in the ribs and fell to the ground. That's all he remembered, thanks to the lead pipe used to crack him on the head.
"I was out for 25 minutes," he said. "I never felt any pain. Never felt the blow. I didn't come to until I was in the front seat of the car."
He had borrowed a clean white dress shirt from Doar that morning.
"The first thing I saw was this shirt drenched in blood," Seigenthaler said. "My first thought was, 'Doar's going to get pissed off.' "
Kennedy sent 400 federal marshals to Montgomery, while Seigenthaler was taken to a hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness.
A week later, more students headed out on the Freedom Rides, including 14 from Tennessee State University. Tennessee's governor expelled them, and they never graduated. In 2008, Seigenthaler helped Congressman John Lewis, himself a Freedom Rider, lobby to get those 14 students honorary degrees from TSU.
It was a sweet victory and one of his proudest accomplishments.
"They risked their lives to change the law," he said at the time.
A newspaper's legacy
The Tennessean turned 100 in 2007, and Seigenthaler captured the essence of his agenda as its editor and publisher — a position he assumed in 1989 — in a piece he wrote for the commemorative edition. Beginning in 1938, the paper pushed an editorial agenda designed to enrich the quality of life for the Midstate region, he wrote, presenting on the editorial pages each day a list of prioritized challenges identified for extensive news coverage and editorial support.
That agenda changed over the years but included strong and integrated public schools, merging city and county governments, smog (from the days of coal burning to new EPA regulations), development of the Tennessee Valley Authority, recreational opportunities, interstate highways and organized labor. And, always, an involvement in elections and politics.
Roberts, the retired opinion editor, said Seigenthaler had a commitment to a vital and involved editorial page. No matter how busy he was, "He made the time to go over editorials, line by line, to have the editorials read to him when he was out of town, to work with the editorial board on crafting positions, to write many editorials himself, even to quibble about the use of specific words," she said. "He believed in the power of ideas, and he believed that the editorial page had a responsibility to use that power to influence public debate."
His influence on issues, from key tax hikes to education reform, was unsurpassed by any other newspaper in the state. But Seigenthaler also changed the lives of individuals, time after time.
Former Mayor and Congressman Richard Fulton owed his first election to The Tennessean's dogged investigation of a corrupt ballot box scam.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander was the first Republican whom Seigenthaler ever endorsed, in the 1982 governor's race.
"I thought he was the better candidate, so I supported him," Seigenthaler said at the time.
Role in Gore's political career
Probably no one else living today has seen their life change more than Albert Gore Jr., who came to work as a reporter at The Tennessean in 1971.
"He was one of the most important teachers and mentors and role models in my life," said Gore, the former U.S. vice president. "He had a passion for seeking the truth that pulled him and everyone working for him in an extremely powerful way toward the core truths about whatever subject was under investigation or being reported."
Gore, from Carthage, Tenn., was the son of U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. and his wife, Pauline. He was disgusted by politics after seeing his father lose his 1970 re-election campaign because he voted against the Vietnam War.
"When I went to Vietnam in the Army, I felt that politics would be the very last thing that I ever did with my life," Gore recalled. "When I came from Vietnam, I actually had absolutely no idea what I was going to do."
His wife, Tipper Gore, was working as a photographer at The Tennessean. She showed Seigenthaler some articles Gore had written while serving in the Army, which led to a reporting job offer.
"I loved it," Gore said. "In the process, I began to see politics and public service through a completely different lens. Some of the things that had earlier caused me to feel disillusioned began to appear in my mind as things that needed to be exposed and fixed. It was because of John Seigenthaler that I really came back to thinking that maybe I had some contribution to make in that field."
Gore began writing editorials and taking classes at divinity and law school. Seigenthaler didn't mention politics to him until 1976.
"John called me at home on the phone and said, 'There's going to be a story in the paper that Joe Evins is going to announce his retirement after 30 years representing the old Fourth Congressional District,' which included Carthage. 'And I thought you'd want to know about that, and for what it's worth, I think you ought to run,' " Gore said.
"I said thanks and put the telephone down and turned to Tipper and said, 'I think I'm going to run for Congress.' And she said, 'What?' I got all my friends together the next day, which was a Saturday, and I said I think I'm going to run for Congress, and they said, 'What?' And one or two days later, I walked out on the steps of the Smith County Courthouse and made my first speech running for Congress.
"He was that central to my life's trajectory. And he was that influential to me because of the respect he commanded and because of the force for good he represented."
Love of books
Along with being a newspaper writer and editor, Seigenthaler also authored four books: A Search for Justice (1971), with former Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires, Frank Ritter and John Hemphill of The New York Times; An Honorable Profession, co-edited with others; The Year Called Watergate; and, in 2003, James K. Polk"
He had a deep and abiding relationship with other writers that led to a weekly public television show for Nashville Public Television called A Word on Words.
It began in 1972, when A Search for Justice was released. The book, about the trials of three assassins including Sirhan Sirhan, who shot Bobby Kennedy, was the subject of a public television interview. After Seigenthaler's appearance, he was asked if he would like to do a weekly show interviewing local and nationally known authors.
He jumped at the chance. Seigenthaler interviewed the famous and not-so-famous: Halberstam, John Lewis, Will Campbell, Marshall Chapman, Carol Higgins Clark and John Updike, to name a few.
He read every book. That's why, wife Dolores said, their bedsheets were stained with ink marks — he brought a book to bed almost every night, making notes about his upcoming interview.
Seigenthaler may have slowed down in recent years, but not by much. He traveled routinely to Connecticut to see his son, daughter-in-law Kerry Brock and especially his beloved grandson. In fact, when Jack starred in a school production of Bye Bye Birdie, his grandparents flew up to see every single show.
On the political front, Seigenthaler led the presidential debate panels during the last election and maintained an office at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University until his death. He hosted panels and discussion groups. He led the effort to raise money to restore Centennial Park and worked on the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence at Middle Tennessee State University.
Once a brutally competitive tennis player, Seigenthaler had to quit because of a knee injury, so instead, he played golf every day the weather and his health were decent.
For years Seigenthaler made fun of newspaper chains, proudly bragging that he worked for a family-owned newspaper. But when Gannett Co. bought The Tennessean in 1979, he glibly quipped that he had "been sold into chains."
He turned it into a new life experience and challenge, insisting that the chain leave The Tennessean alone editorially and operationally. For many years, he would urge reporters to spend freely when they traveled. His belief was that, at budget time, it was best to show how much it cost to do things his way, rather than cut corners to make the bean-counters happy.
When Gannett CEO Al Neuharth decided to launch a new national paper called USA TODAY in 1982, it was John Seigenthaler he asked to create a unique style of editorial page. There, he met John J. Curley, the paper's editor.
For a decade, Seigenthaler did the unthinkable: Monday through Thursday or so, he was in Washington, D.C., supervising a new back-and-forth-style editorial page that featured not just "experts" and what the paper's editors believed, but real voices from the community.
Then, he would fly home to Nashville and run The Tennessean. He was on the phone with both constantly, Dolores and secretaries on both ends spending endless hours making scheduling arrangements.
Somehow, he made it all work.
"I was honored to work closely with John Seigenthaler during the planning and start-up days of USA TODAY. Since we had offices next to each other, I saw a lot of him and listened to the editorial page discussions on issues, which he moderated. Seig was effective in getting all of the participants to think through their positions and reach a logical conclusion," said Curley, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Gannett Co. "He was able to do first-rate work at USA TODAY and effectively run The Tennessean. Seig was a great editor, great publisher and great person and an effective advocate for the First Amendment.
Seigenthaler retired as publisher, chairman and CEO of The Tennessean, and from USA TODAY, in 1991.
At retirement, he called being a newspaper editor "the greatest job in American journalism."
But he didn't really retire. He founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University that same year, some say with a push from his wife so he wouldn't drive her nuts. He created a presentation on the First Amendment that he used as he traveled. A $3 million First Amendment Studies chair was created in his name at Middle Tennessee State University.
A brilliant storyteller, Seigenthaler accumulated many in his lifetime. He once danced with Tina Turner, had a bit part in Shakespeare's Othello, and counted the late Johnny Cash as a confidant. Those who knew him well loved him both as a journalist and a mentor — and their feelings ran deep.
"John was an advocacy newsman, but he reported every story fairly," said Tom Ingram, a GOP political operative and public relations guru, and also one of Seigenthaler's closest friends. Ingram worked as a reporter at The Tennessean from 1965 to 1972.
"He changed my life. This guy is my mentor, my hero, my friend. He is why I am who I am."
How perfect, then, that Seigenthaler's favorite quote from his own friend and mentor, Bobby Kennedy, was this one:
"Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change small events, and those acts can write the history of our generation."
Mourners can pay their respects for Seigenthaler on Sunday at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt University campus. Funeral services will take place Monday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.