A Journalism Giant Turns 80

John Seigenthaler has been a devoted champion of the First Amendment throughout his career.

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NASHVILLE—One of the nation's crusading newspaper editors at 32, and a devoted champion of the First Amendment throughout his career, turned 80 last weekend.

To celebrate the event, John Seigenthaler invited 400 of his closest friends to a festive party at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Fittingly, the building bears his name: the John Seigenthaler Center.

(Full disclosure: I am biased on this subject. I have known John for a half century. We met in 1957 at the American Press Institute at Columbia University. We were cub reporters, John at the Tennessean and I at the Dallas Morning News. In sports lingo, that two-week seminar convinced me that Seig was the complete package.)

When the Kennedy administration came to Washington, John took leave to serve as Robert F. Kennedy's administrative assistant in the Justice Department. Kennedy got to know him through John's work as an investigative reporter of the Teamsters in Tennessee.

During that turbulent time, Seigenthaler was clubbed over the head by a racist in Montgomery, Ala. John was only an observer of the Freedom Riders and was watching the violent demonstration at the bus station from a distance. He was there as the president's personal representative.

When he returned to Nashville to edit his hometown newspaper at that tender age, Seigenthaler was an inspiring presence. Along with the Atlanta Constitution in the South, the Tennessean courageously dealt with the civil rights issue. Almost all the other papers in the South took a hike.

Many reporters and editors came through the Tennessean to earn their bona fides. The list includes David Halberstam, Dick Harwood, Bill Kovach, Wendell (Sonny) Rawls Jr., and Jim Squires. Al Gore served there as a fledgling reporter before launching his political career.

Seigenthaler moved on to be publisher of his paper and then served as editorial page director of USA Today in its earliest days. He steered the opinion pages down the middle, neither liberal nor conservative.

There was no retirement for John in his 60s, as he joined the Freedom Forum to direct the First Amendment Center. Again, young reporters, especially minorities, came through the center to learn more about the rights and responsibilities of their craft.

As for the birthday party, current Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen saluted John and recalled to laughter that the paper opposed him when he first ran for mayor of Nashville, and John also turned him down for a job on the paper. Former Govs. Ned Ray WcWherter and now Sen. Lamar Alexander were there, along with former Sen. Jim Sasser.

But the politicians were a tiny number of the attendees. There were staffers from John's newspaper days, coworkers at the center, and a host of friends who have known him since grade school.

Dolores Watson Seigenthaler, his devoted wife of more than 50 years, and son John Michael, a TV anchor, and his family were honored too.

Seigenthaler noted that his professional life was a story of only-in-America lore. The cub reporter rose to the top at his paper, had a front-row seat in Washington in the Kennedy years, and is still active at the center that honors the First Amendment.

However, he will not take a breather. Expect him in the office today.