John Seigenthaler, Journalist And First Amendment Advocate, Dies

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John Seigenthaler, Journalist And First Amendment Advocate, Dies

CREATED Jul 12, 2014
by Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- John Seigenthaler, longtime editor and publisher of The Tennessean, has died.

Seigenthaler passed away peacefully at his Nashville home Friday morning surrounded by family. The 86-year-old died following a long battle with cancer.

"We thank his many friends across the country for their love and support," his son, John Michael Seigenthaler, said in a statement.

"Like them, we will miss him dearly. He was proud of his hometown, Nashville, and grateful for the opportunity to share his energy and passion with this community. We celebrate his life, his devotion to social justice, his advocacy of human rights, and his enduring loyalty to friends and family."

PHOTOS: John Seigenthaler (1927-2014)

Visitation was set for 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the John Seigenthaler Center on Vanderbilt University's campus. A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on West End Avenue. It will be open to the public.

Following the news of his death, many prominent people in Nashville who knew Seigenthaler expressed their condolences to his family. Read those here.

The Nashville native spent a lifetime defending America - its people, its rights, its freedoms. He worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher; served time in the Kennedy administration and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

A 1945 graduate of Father Ryan High School, he first enlisted in the Air Force.

When his tour ended, he came home and landed his first job with the hometown newspaper, The Tennessean. He quickly developed a nose for news.

"I'd be out there on the firing line and there would be something I thought ought to be covered," Seigenthaler remembered during a 2007 interview. "I'd go to the editors, and the editors would say 'go.'"

In 1953, Seigenthaler investigated a man who had disappeared from Nashville 22 years earlier and found him living in Texas.

And his stories about corruption inside the Teamster's Union led to congressional hearings and the impeachment of a Tennessee judge.

It was during that time that Seigenthaler met a beautiful singer. Dolores Watson would become his beloved wife and mother of a future journalist, John Michael Seigenthaler.

"I knew that our lives were different from a very early age," recalled the younger Seigenthaler, a former weekend anchor for NBC News and now with Al Jazeera America. "I knew that it was different because, in part, every night at the dinner table we would discuss what was going to be in the morning paper."

But his father heard the call for public service, going to work in the early 60's for Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.

In 1961, President Kennedy sent Seigenthaler to join the Freedom Riders through Alabama.

In Montgomery, when an angry mob turned violent, Seigenthaler was struck behind the ear with a pipe, knocking him unconscious.

"I had never been knocked out in my life and I was out for 25 minutes. They kicked me under the car," he recalled.

Still, Seigenthaler's calling in life was journalism. He returned to Nashville as editor of  The Tennessean, later becoming publisher. He and his reporters tackled serious stories, changing laws and making a difference.

"He's almost an absolutist in the public's right to know and have information so that they can make wise choices and decisions about public officials or about laws or about anything else that affects their lives," said Wendell "Sonny" Rawls, a Tennessean reporter who would later go on to the New York Times.

In 1982, Seigenthaler took on additional duties as the first editorial director for USA Today.

After retiring from the newspaper business, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center, becoming a vocal defender of our country's most basic freedoms.

"I think the First Amendment Center does reflect a lot of what I hope I was about -- free and open and reliable information, protected by the First Amendment," he said.

Phil Williams worked for Seigenthaler at The Tennessean. He was part of a team, under Seigenthaler's direction, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.