A reflection on the life of John Seigenthaler

On 7/14/2014

   
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With the passing of legendary journalist and freedom of speech advocate John Seigenthaler in Nashville on July 11, the Lipscomb community lost a friend who was always eager to share his time with students, faculty and anyone who wanted to learn more about his experiences, courage and lessons learned throughout his illustrious life in politics and media.

Linda Peek Schacht, associate professor of communication and political science and founding director of the Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, counted Seigenthaler as a colleague and friend for many years. Below is her reflection on his life.

 

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No one called us to the better angels of our nature like John Seigenthaler.  He did it by example, taking positions and actions we hoped, but wondered, if we would have the courage to take. He sometimes did it with one particular sentence:  “you know what I think you should do.”

This past Friday night, as a remembrance to our current class of civic leadership students, I turned first to what he was doing when I met him—splitting his time between Nashville and Washington as the first editorial page editor of USA Today.

We both worked for Al Neuharth, which required me to regularly seek John’s guidance and wisdom in his office after the last of the editorials and columns were in and before he left for the evening. 

That first editorial and the format of the two pages that accompanied it were pure Seigenthaler—it emanated his belief that debate strengthened our democracy, that giving readers both sides of a single issue each day might lead to an informed electorate and that we should heed the voices from the past as well as the voices of the people from across the USA—every day.  The first editorial closed with this:

“The challenge for USA Today is to provide a daily forum where the free exchange of opinions will contribute to that understanding, where points of view can contest and clash and complement. Our goal: to offer an editorial page where people with diverse points of view can help establish, amid the chaos of personal agendas, a national agenda for America. For those who listen only to what they already believe speak only to themselves.”

While there will be argument on the success of USA Today’s goal as outlined in that editorial, no one can argue that Seig and his contemporaries rose above the chaos of personal agendas to set an agenda for Nashville that laid a foundation for the remarkable and still evolving city it is today. The belief in that spirit—that we can disagree but still develop and act on an agenda for the common good—is the foundation for the work we do in the same graduate program I was teaching a few hours after his death last Friday at Lipscomb’s Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership.

seigenthaler_2My decision to come back to Nashville six years ago was made sweeter by the chance to sit once again in his office and learn. As Lipscomb President Randy Lowry sought to turn Lipscomb and its programs more intentionally toward community impact, Seig was generous, as he was for other universities, with time and advice and in sharing his experiences for a new generation. That commitment to the future brought him to campus to launch Pizza and Politics, our community and student community forum started in 2008.  He marked Martin Luther King Day with us in a remarkable chapel conversation with the Vice Mayor Howard Gentry that was both sobering and celebratory. Tom Ingram, who worked as a reporter at the Tennessean in the early years of his career, turned the tables on his old boss in an interview for “now that you ask…”  When Sean Casey’s book on the role of religious leaders in The Making of a Catholic President came out, he was on campus for the Christian Scholars' Conference to lend his experience and point of view. His belief in the need for young journalists and young activists brought him to campus often, to political communication, journalism, and law justice and society classes and to welcome and interview experts who had learned from him like Alex Jones from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. His belief in the power of the past and its stories led him to moderate neighborhood leaders from across the city in a Metro at 50 event here. He was an eager and willing participant in our Nashville Model case study series.  At our last lunch in late March, he was both laudatory of the work our students in civic leadership were doing, and challenging on what he thought they, and I, should do next. To say his was unselfish in sharing his time, insight and unique mix of talents and passions, is to acknowledge only the beginning of his value as a teacher to today’s and tomorrow’s civic leaders.

Like hundreds of others, I will miss that advice and the challenge to be our best selves. Most of all I will miss the wisdom that always followed: “You know what I think you should do.”

 

Links to other articles about John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler remembered as a classic journalist (The Tennessean)

The last road trip: A Memory of my editor (Keel Hunt)

Seigenthaler the mentor (Tom Ingram)

Remembering a man who championed freedom (First Amendment Center)