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Eulogies for John Finnegan Sr.

“Nobody in the history of Minnesota Journalism was ever so devoted to open government as Jack Finnegan,” said Bob Shaw, longtime manager of the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

The Twin Cities lost a much-admired journalist on Oct. 2, when retired newspaper editor John R. Finnegan Sr. died. The following are condensed versions of two eulogies that were delivered at the Oct. 5 funeral Mass for Finnegan at St. Thomas More Catholic Community, St. Paul. The first one is by his son, John Finnegan Jr.

John Finnegan, Sr.
John Finnegan, Sr.

Good morning. My name is John Finnegan Jr. On behalf of our family, I welcome all of you to this celebration of Jack Finnegan’s remarkable life. 

To begin with: Jack Finnegan – husband of Norma for 64 years, father of six, grandfather of 11, great-grandfather of one (so far), and professional journalist for nearly 70 of his 87 years – Jack Finnegan had a wonderful life.  We, his family and friends, thank him for it. His wonderful life, as all wonderful lives, was the product of partnership. He would be the first to tell you that his would not have been possible without our mother, Norma. And they, together, made a wonderful life for us children.

Growing up in Jack and Norma’s house was to be engaged with the world. It was to be interested and curious about all things “life”: current events, history and politics. We learned the value of public service, to be concerned about the truth; to think critically and skeptically; to work hard, to read, to learn, to grow, and to have fun and to laugh a lot. We learned also to have compassion. We also learned that in life – no matter what you think – it is not all about you. In a family of six, it is the rare child that grows up thinking it is all about you.  The Finnegan household prized negotiation skills.  

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Some of my earliest memories as a kid in the 1950s are, believe it or not, news events. Newspapers, magazines and books rolled into the house like boxcars every day. I knew from Mom and Dad’s expressions that each one brought a cargo of great import, even though I could barely read. But it looked important. Television amplified the news further in our household. We were early adopters of most new technology and had a TV set by about 1954.

In the house of a progressive newsman married to an unreconstructed Roosevelt Democrat (my mom), the world was an important place. Our ethnic heritage was important and treasured too. My mother the genealogist tracked and documented the lines of the family well back into antiquity. It was important to know that you were part of something greater. Your ancestors throughout history struggled to make the world a better place if not for themselves then perhaps for their children and grandchildren. From Dad and Mom I early understood that the world could be a better place, but only if you worked at it in your particular part of it. “To whom much is given, from whom much is expected.” I first heard that in our family.

Dad’s part of improving the world was the telling of stories about it through the news for solitary purpose: to create an informed citizenry without which a democratic republic cannot sustain itself. He learned a lot of this in his formal journalism training in the era of Ed Gerald and Ed Emery at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism. He believed in Gerald’s “Social Responsibility of the Press,” another now almost quaint idea from the 20th century. But these ideas stuck with him lifelong and are part of our legacy even if it’s easy to forget them sometimes in our culture today.

My dad was one of those lucky people who very early in life learned the “color of his parachute.” It was while he was in grade school at St. Stephen’s in Minneapolis that he discovered his calling: He wanted to be a newspaperman. He wrote stories through grade school, middle school and in the student press at Central High and upon graduation at the ripe old age of 18, he went to work for the Robbinsdale Post as editor, reporter and occasional backroom printer. It was his first professional job in the newspaper business almost 70 years ago. About three months into the job – it was 1943 – the Army came calling and he was drafted. In service, his unit saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, at Hurtgen Forest and the Bridge at Remagen as the Allies pushed into the heart of Germany to end the War. Of course, he wrote about it. He started a battalion newspaper and became his unit’s historian. 

He made it home in 1946, renewed his relationship with Norma while in at the University and knocked off a BA in journalism with a minor in political science in two years. In 1948 – almost 64 years ago, they married on Thanksgiving Day. The years at the Rochester Post Bulletin followed for Dad and at the Mayo Clinic for Mom. Bobbi and I were born. The rest of the six kids born in Richfield and St Paul rounded out with Cara in 1969. Dad got hired by the St. Paul newspapers in 1951, and worked for them the rest of his professional life.

The Finnegan sense of humor: There was always laughter in the House of Jack and Norma. It grew in volume and raucousness as the number of family members grew. Good stories – from the sublime to the absurd – many self-deprecating – always told and re-told. Did I mention the puns?  Oh, goodness, the puns – or “groaners,” if you prefer. I always blamed it on the copy desk experience. People who work on the copy desk are constantly playing with words. They look for the lean synonym that will fit a headline or homonyms that will catch your ear with a clever rhyme.

By the way, the Finnegan sense of humor was in full swing even during Jack’s last illness. He knew of the gravity of his health about a year and a half ago. He opted not to have more serious surgery for a gastrointestinal tumor but to opt for “watchful waiting” and quality-of-life in whatever time remained. Around Labor Day this year, his health worsened and he availed himself of some palliative procedures and then moved into hospice care at home. It was exactly what he wanted. Family surrounded him every day with good cheer and support in this difficult time.  Family of mine, you are remarkable people and dad knew it and said so repeatedly.

One day in the hospital we talked about funeral ceremonies and music. He said to me: “You have to welcome people to Finnegan’s Wake.” 

“Ok,” I said. So consider yourselves welcomed. By the way, do you know what he named his bass boat? Yes — Finnegan’s Wake. It’s painted there in big letters on the stern. Think about it. 

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The Finnegan Sense of Community Service: Important things were always going on in the House of Jack and Norma: Catholic study club, Newpaper Guild meetings, League of Women Voters, Joint Media Committee meetings and Fellows of the World Press Institute come to stay with us during their Minnesota sojourn. Home was also a platform for making the world outside a better place. I recall that about 1957, the Newspaper Guild struck the St Paul Newspapers. Dad was Guild president at the time and their house in Richfield served as a strategy planning camp. This was impressive to a 7-year-old. 

Later, Dad would serve on the original Metropolitan Planning Commission, forerunner of today’s Metropolitan Council. He was a committed member of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the APME, ASNE, SPJ, and the Joint Media Committee. These were the platforms for his best work in advocating for open government, open meetings and open records. We learned that, yes, you can surely make a difference. It’s about leadership, organization, and teams of the willing and committed.

What remarkable lessons for children to see in action!

John Finnegan Jr. is the dean of the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

The following eulogy, condensed here, is by Albert R. Tims:

Jack Finnegan was an extraordinary man with a remarkable career and legacy.  For me, and I believe for many others, he is a hero. 

Universally admired for his professional courage, his leadership, his high ethical standards, his wisdom, his humor, his heart and his unwavering commitments to great journalism, open government and service to his community. His enduring influence on journalism in Minnesota is without peer. 

Jack applied to enter the University of Minnesota to study journalism in September 1946. Asked [on his application] how certain he was about his choice of major, he answered, “Very Certain.” Asked his purpose in coming to the University he answered, “To find out how much I don’t know.”

Asked if he could do as he wished, what would he be doing 10 or 15 years from now, he answered,“Editing a newspaper.” And indeed his got that wish.

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Jack graduated in 1948, magna cum laude, with a major in journalism and minor in political science.

[In 1951] he joined the St. Paul Dispatch (later the Pioneer Press). Jack stayed at the paper the remainder of his storied career — until 1989 — rising from night general assignment reporter to editorial writer, associate editor of the editorial page, executive editor and senior vice president and assistant publisher. He amassed a trove of professional awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure at editor, the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award and countless community accolades and citations along the way.

By 1956 Jack had enrolled in the journalism school’s MA degree program, as he later reports, because he had an idea that he might want to go into teaching some day. About the same time, he helped draft Minnesota’s first open-meeting law and made the professional transition from reporting to editorial writing. He completed his MA degree in journalism in 1965.

Jack helped launch the Urban Journalism Workshop to serve low-income and minority students in 1971, long before the rest of the industry focused on diversity in the newsroom.

In 1974 he co-wrote and helped lobby for passage of the Data Practices Act providing public access to many government records in Minnesota. In 1980 he was awarded the Freedom of Information top prize presented by the Associated Press Managing Editors Association for his local, state and national leadership in support of freedom of information and for his Sunday editor’s notebook columns to inform the public of its First Amendment rights. In 1985 he became chairman of the World Press Institute, sharing his love of press freedom with journalists from around the world.

Between 1988 and 2004 John launched his second career – this time as an adjunct professor in the school of journalism.  He taught a course on the management of media organizations in the School of Journalism for 16 years.

Jack served as president [of the] Minnesota Newspaper Association in 1990 and received the MNA’s Distinguished Service to Journalism Award in 1995. He was heralded for his “Uncompromising insistence on openness.” Bob Shaw, longtime manager of the Minnesota Newspaper Association noted, “Nobody in the history of Minnesota Journalism was ever so devoted to open government as Jack Finnegan.”

Jack also co-authored “Mass Communications Law in Minnesota” – a comprehensive review of Minnesota laws regarding libel, advertising, access to government information and information distribution.

In 1999 when the University of Minnesota’s journalism school was seeking supplemental funding from the Legislature for a building renovation and had ambitious capital campaign goals, John stepped forward to help secure legislative support and to co-chair the capital campaign.  He was directly responsible for helping secure many millions in new endowment support. 

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In 2011 The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) and the Society of Professional Journalists selected Jack to receive their joint Heroes of the 50 States: The State Open Government Hall of Fame award for 2011. This national award recognized his lifetime commitment to citizen access, open government and freedom of information. His colleagues noted that Jack was “fighting for government transparency long before such issues became fashionable. His sustained and lasting contribution to open government sets a standard for us all.”

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland and past executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, noted, “Jack had remarkable credibility with lawmakers because he was prepared, he was articulate, he was passionate, he was a gentleman and he was right. And you’ll never in your life meet a nicer man.”

Jack soared as a senior statesman, a patriot, as a mentor to so many of us and as a man to be admired and loved. Yes, a hero. Without question, Jack achieved his hope of doing some good for humanity – and in no small way.

Albert R. Tims is the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.


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