It is with a heavy heart that we report that John Finnegan passed away early this morning after a long battle with cancer. John served on the MNA board of directors and was president of MNA in 1990. He has co-chaired the MNA Legislative Committee, as long as anyone here can remember. He tried to resign twice, but his resignation was rejected on both occasions.
“We would not even think of having an MNA meeting to discuss legislation without out calling Jack to come give his input,” said MNA Past President John Stone.
John was a recipient of MNA’s prestigious Al McIntosh Distinguished Service to Journalism award twice – in 1973 and again in 1995.
John was a champion of the First Amendment and worked tirelessly to keep government open and accountable. His contributions to MNA and to the Minnesota journalism industry are simply too numerous to mention. We will be forever indebted to him.
Upon learning of John’s death, fellow MNA Past President Tom West said, “The First Amendment has just lost one of its greatest defenders.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Our thoughts today are with the Finnegan family, and with all of those whose lives John touched.
OBITUARY: JOHN FINNEGAN, FORMER PIONEER PRESS EDITOR, PIONEER FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT
John “Jack” Finnegan, a former editor of the Pioneer Press and champion of open government, was 87.
He died about 2:40 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, after a long struggle with cancer, his son John Finnegan Jr. said.
Finnegan was nationally known as an advocate for open meetings and open-records laws. He not only won a string of awards for his efforts — he had one named after him, the Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, given by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
He was a celebrated newsman. When he became editor, he set out to win the newspaper’s first Pulitzer Prize — and the paper won two of them before he retired.
“He was a guy that everyone ought to know,” said Don Gemberling, an attorney who worked with Finnegan on various open-meeting laws. “He was really engaging, thoughtful, bright and in many ways modest.”
Finnegan was born in Walker, Minn. As a teenager, he spent summers at the family-owned resort on Leech Lake, called Chase on the Lake. During the Great Depression, young Finnegan served the lodge’s wealthy clients as a bellboy and fishing guide.
In World War II, he worked in communications for the Army Infantry at the Battle of the Bulge, a turning point in the war against Germany.
“He told a story about climbing a phone pole, and it felt like bees were around him,” said his son John Finnegan Jr., dean of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. The buzzing was the sound of snipers’ bullets whizzing past.
He returned to the U.S., married Norma Tompte and finished his degree in journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota.
His first job was as a reporter for the Robbinsdale Post. He then worked as a reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin and was hired by the Pioneer Press in 1951.
Finnegan rose through the ranks and worked as editor from 1970 to 1985. He served as assistant publisher until his retirement in 1988.
Lucy Dalglish recalls encountering Finnegan’s charm when she was an intern in 1979.
“He was a gentleman. You just knew he commanded respect,” said Dalglish, now the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
She worked as a Pioneer Press reporter in the 1980s with Finnegan. “He had a way of very respectfully standing up for a story, even when he knew it was going to offend people,” Dalglish said.
Sam Elrod is a retired reporter and editor who worked under Finnegan. “Oh, did he have a sense of humor. He always wore bright yellow socks with his suits,” Elrod said.
“He loved puns. In conversation, even if we were discussing a serious idea, he would make puns. We always groaned,” Elrod said.
“He was a happy Irishman. I never saw him in a bad mood.”
Finnegan’s passion was prying open the closed doors of government.
When he began his career, public officials were able to hide information from the public. Police routinely kept jail and arrest records secret. City councils could kick voters out of meetings merely by declaring the meetings confidential.
Finnegan believed that secrecy crippled democracy. He argued that officials were hiding facts — which voters needed to know to make their ballot-box decisions.
With a colleague, Finnegan drafted Minnesota’s first open meetings law in 1957. He co-wrote and helped lobby for passage of the state’s Data Practices Act in 1974 — which opened most Minnesota records to the public.
“Nobody shaped some of the good parts of the Data Practices Act more than John,” said attorney Gemberling. “Thanks to that law, people in this state had access to a lot more forms of information than people of other states.”
The lobbying was particularly tough because the law asked elected officials to surrender the power of determining what was public or private.
Recalled Gemberling: “John had to go toe-to-toe with some tough people, like Bill McCutcheon,” a former St. Paul Police chief and state senator.
Finnegan continued to fight for public access to records, meetings — or anything that would allow voters to judge the work of their elected officials.
“No one knew more about those issues than he did,” said Steve Dornfeld, former Pioneer Press reporter and editor, now the retired public affairs officer of the Metropolitan Council. “He provided great leadership for probably 30 years.”
Dornfeld said Finnegan’s battles benefitted reporters, who are paid to write news stories. But the laws gave no special privileges to the news media — they opened records and meetings for all voters.
In that way, crusading editors like Finnegan served as public advocates, said Dalglish.
“Jack understood that local news leaders have traditionally been the ones to stand up on behalf of the public in getting open meetings and record laws passed,” she said.
That’s why, with the decline of daily newspapers, “we are kind of in trouble right now,” she said.
After Finnegan retired, the kudos kept rolling in. Most recently, he was the 2011 inductee into the State Open Government Hall of Fame, an honor administered by the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“He literally has a trunkful of awards,” said John Finnegan Jr.
Finnegan is survived by his wife, Norma; sons John Jr. and James; daughters Roberta Deeney, Mary Maruska and Cara Finnegan; 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He was preceded in death by his son Joseph.
Bob Shaw can be reached at 651-228-5433. Follow him at twitter.com/BshawPP.