Remembering John Seigenthaler

A national treasure is mourned

Ask a hundred people who ever worked for John Seigenthaler their favorite stories about the late editor and publisher of The Tennessean, and you’re likely to hear a thousand anecdotes. Maybe two thousand. And none the same. That’s the kind of boss he was. Boss, yes. Make no mistake about that. But mentor, friend, defender, advisor, supporter, teacher, counselor – and so many, many more descriptions – for this national treasure of a man.

A state funeral was held on Monday, July 14. The service at Cathedral of the Incarnation drew an overflow crowd – hundreds of family and friends ranging from politicians to colleagues, from social activists to those who shared his love of literature to those whose lives he had touched in one way or another.

The funeral service was a wonderful time of sharing, a mixture of tears and laughter – especially the healing words of son John Michael Seigenthaler and his 17-year-old grandson Jack, who already is a marvelous speaker in his own right and has a bright, bright future ahead of him. The Tennessean’s coverage of our leader was outstanding and can be found here.

2014-02-17 16.08.23Much has been written and said since his death of this Great Man on July 11, nothing embellished. Didn’t have to be. On Sunday night, following visitation at the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt campus, about a hundred of us who worked at The Tennessean during the Seigenthaler Era gathered at Sunset Grill to renew ties and pay our own tribute to John, who called everyone “Pal.” In a toast led by Frank Sutherland, his successor as Tennessean editor, we raised a glass to our “Pal.”

We all loved John in our own special way, and we loved his family for sharing him with us. It was an honor to work for him, and if you did a really good job, you would get a call or a note from him.

For me, the most treasured note is the one I received following my 2012 retirement from The Tennessean and took him a copy of my debut novel, Vendetta Stone.

John was the first person outside of family and close friends to read my book. If he’d said I was wasting my time, I probably would have chucked it in the garbage can. But I knew if it passed muster with him, then I might be onto something. That’s how much I valued his opinion. Instead, this is part of the note he sent me:

“Three points on your book to start:

1. Good story. Really good plot. Inventive, creative, ingenious, a grabber!

2. It needs work. A good deal of work. I’m not sure I’m the best person to define the work needed, but I’ll say what I think.

3. If you do the work, the book deserves to be published and will be read by anybody who likes a good yarn.”

It was his honest, encouraging assessment that pointed me in the right direction and opened doors to any success I’ve achieved.

I did the work. The book underwent a couple of major rewrites, and polishes. Finally, in August of 2013, I proudly took him a hot-off-the-presses copy of my book. He had me sign it, and we talked briefly about this new version, then he invited me to appear with him on “A Word on Words.”

2014-02-17 16.07.26We taped it on February 22 – my sister’s birthday – and I cannot begin to describe how special that time is forever etched in my mind.

John spent 43 years talking with authors – and loved every one of our works. Words were his passion. He was a master, and the praise he offered for my work is unmatched.

Sprinklings of John’s character (and others from my newspaper days) as well as some fictionalized incidents appear throughout the book and John enjoyed the way it explains how the media covers a major crime event.

He especially enjoyed the final showdown between protagonist Jackson Stone and the villainous Delmore Wolfe at one of Nashville’s iconic landmarks. I won’t say it here, but John reveals where that final showdown takes place during our taping. You can see it Sunday for yourself.

My appearance on ‘A Word on Words With John Seigenthaler’ aired Sunday, July 20, at 10:30 am on WNPT-Channel 8 in Nashville. I will always treasure this time with our national treasure.

Or as Frank and the rest of us said the other night at Sunset Grill:

Thanks, Pal.


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