Short take: John Cowles Jr.

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2012 - 9:00 PM

A champion of exceptionalism.

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John Cowles Jr., and wife, Sage, in 2011.

Photo: Sara Glassman, Star Tribune

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John Cowles Jr., who died Saturday, left active management of this newspaper in January 1983. But whenever his and my paths crossed thereafter, conversation would quickly turn to the latest developments at the Star Tribune. Cowles wanted to know what reporters -- his reporters -- were thinking about their stories and the paper that printed them. He never stopped caring about us and our work.

Like his father, who began buying and combining Minneapolis newspapers in 1935, Cowles had lofty ambitions for this city and the newspapers that served it. They saw Minneapolis as the economic and cultural heart of a great American region, the Upper Midwest -- a Cowlesian term that in their expansive vision extended south to the family's native Iowa and as far west as Montana. As newspaper owners, the father and son did much to make their vision of Minnesota exceptionalism a reality.

A gentle and gracious man, Cowles was not a fixture of the newsroom of my youth. He had too much respect for his editors to get in their way.

But he was a regular in hearing rooms at the Capitol in 1979, pushing for enactment of the bill that would authorize construction of the Metrodome. He was there to attest to how a new stadium would benefit downtown Minneapolis, not to gather news or influence coverage. He fretted that he might get in a young Tribune reporter's way. "Just pretend I'm not here," he whispered to me one day with endearing concern.

As a news executive, Cowles combined a commitment to high-quality modern journalism with the old-fashioned civic boosterism once expected of newspaper owners. His pride in this place outlasted his newspaper career and extended to a number of Minnesota arts organizations, including two that owe their existence to his leadership -- the Guthrie Theater and the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. Those organizations join this newspaper as his large legacy.

LORI STURDEVANT

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