Obituaries: Otto Silha, 80, former Star Tribune publisher

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 1999 - 11:00 PM

Otto A. Silha, a champion of journalism ethics and one of Minnesota's most visionary thinkers, died Saturday of a heart attack in Edina. He was 80.

Silha was publisher and/or president of the Star and Tribune starting in 1968 and through most of the 1970s.

In 1979 he was named chairman of the board of Cowles Media Co., which owned the Star Tribune until 1998. He retired in 1984, ending a career that began in 1940 when he joined the Minneapolis Star as a copy editor.

Although his leadership at the newspaper made him well-known, it was Silha's passionate and varied interests in the community and in the field of journalism that brought him national prominence.

In 1984, he donated about a half-million dollars to establish the Otto and Helen Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, Silha's alma mater. The center, in which Silha remained active until he died, was the first academic center devoted to the study of the intersection of ethics and law in news coverage and achieved national and international recognition for its pioneering work.

Silha later gave the university $1 million to establish a professorship in media ethics and law. This year, he donated another $1 million to the center so it could continue and expand its work.

"He had a vital interest in the topic of media accountability," said the center's director, Bill Babcock. "He always thought that the media could do better and should do better."

During his career at the Minneapolis Star and what later became the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Silha embarked on what would be a lifelong interest in creative ways to improve urban life. In the 1960s, he headed the Minnesota Experimental City Project. The project, which proposed to build a new city of 250,000 in Aitkin County, attracted the interest of Henry Ford II and other national figures who recognized the possibilities of starting fresh on urban design.

Although the project was abandoned during the energy crisis in 1973, Silha was undaunted. He became one of the civic leaders in the development of the Nicollet Mall and the Metrodome.

After his retirement, he started City Innovation, a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving inner cities. The organization, which has its headquarters in in Minneapolis, has offices in New York and Chicago.

Silha, of Edina, founded the National Retiree Volunteer Coalition, an organization of retired people who wish to continue using their experience and skills to help others. He also was involved in numerous other civic organizations.

"He was a big thinker," said his son, Stephen. "He felt like people needed to not be limited in their thinking about anything. . . . He felt invigorated by being engaged in things that he thought were important. He couldn't stand the idea of wasting his energy or anybody else's.

"He was a great booster for the university, for Minnesota and for the future."

Former Minnesota Gov. Elmer L. Andersen agreed. The university, the state and journalism, he said, have lost a great friend and benefactor.

"He was a brilliant man who contributed a great deal to the culture and history of Minnesota," Andersen said. "He was a man who thought of generations and centuries ahead. This is a tremendous loss for the state."

Many of Minnesota's most prominent citizens called Silha a friend. Three former Minnesota governors attended his 80th birthday party, which was held this spring in Minneapolis. Family and former colleagues said Silha also was good friends with national politicians Jack Kemp and Lamar Alexander.

"He was just a friendly guy," said longtime Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan. "He had the ability to meet people, make friends, listen and solve problems."

Despite his varied interests, Silha was fiercely dedicated to the newspaper, according to his family and friends.

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