John Seigenthaler dies at 86

Towering media, community figure helped bring social change on many levels

John Seigenthaler, the legendary former editor and publisher of The Tennessean, succumbed this morning after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.

A lifelong Nashvillian, Seigenthaler rose through a star-studded Tennessean newsroom in the 1950s — one that included David Halberstam and Tom Wicker — to become the paper's editor in 1962, following a two-year stint working for Robert F. Kennedy in the Justice Department.

Under his leadership, The Tennessean gained a reputation for tough journalism, challenging the General Assembly's exclusion of reporters from public meetings. The newspaper's lawsuit successfully limited lawmakers' ability to conduct closed-door business.

Seigenthaler wrote unflinchingly from Vietnam in 1965 about the dangers of escalation. He also led the paper as it exposed abuse in the city's mental hospital, investigated Metro Council members for corruption and infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.

Seigenthaler became publisher in 1973. In 1982, he added the responsibilities of editorial director for the newly launched, Gannett-owned USA Today, which had purchased The Tennessean the decade before.

In 1991, he retired from the paper and founded the First Amendment Center, now housed in a building which bears his name on the Vanderbilt campus.

In addition to his work with newspapers, Seigenthaler hosted A Word on Words, a program devoted to books and authors, for more than 40 years on public television.

Most recently, Metro renamed the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge in his name.

Seigenthaler was a 1945 graduate of Father Ryan and served two years in the U.S. Air Force following World War II. He is survived by Dolores, his wife of 59 years, and his son John Michael, daughter-in-law Kerry Brock and grandson Jack.

"Today we lost an iconic figure in Nashville's history — a man who stood for inclusiveness long before it was synonymous with our city's culture," said Mayor Karl Dean. "As a journalist, John did much more than bear witness to political and community affairs; he helped shape Nashville's story, laying much of the groundwork for us to become the great city we are today. Personally, he has been an advisor and a friend. Our city will feel his absence. Anne and I extend our deepest condolences to Dolores, John Michael, Kerry and Jack, the apple of John’s eye."