John Cowles Jr., whose family ran Minneapolis newspapers for most of the 20th century, has died at 82.
Cowles, who had suffered from lung cancer, died shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday in his Minneapolis home overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge. "He died peacefully at sunset, surrounded by loving family," his family said in a statement. "His courage, deliberate style, wisdom and love of community were some of the special qualities that gave us all joy and will continue to be an influence in our lives."
Cowles was defined by his sense of responsibility to community, business and family. His personal style mixed grand vision, meticulous detail, curiosity and confidence.
As publisher and chairman of the Star and Tribune newspapers and later as a philanthropic visionary, he helped to shape the civic and cultural landscape of the Twin Cities. In the early 1960s, he courted Tyrone Guthrie to establish a regional theater here; 20 years later, he advocated for the Metrodome; last fall the Cowles Center for Dance was dedicated in Minneapolis.
"John Cowles is one of the most important civic figures in Minneapolis in the last half-century," said Mayor R.T. Rybak. "The scope of his work was overshadowed only by the humility that was at his core."
Author George Plimpton was his Harvard roommate, and Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham was a longtime friend, as was world-renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cowles and his wife, Sage, complemented each other for 60 years -- he reserved, she voluble. They found in each other a visionary free spirit.
"He had a great partner in Sage," said Wheelock Whitney, the retired business leader and politician, who was a lifelong friend.
Another friend, former Vice President Walter Mondale, called Cowles a "giant" in politics.
"He was always a person who fought for civility and reason and a sense of progress and caring in the community," Mondale said. "He was never a person who wanted credit. He was always one step behind those who he wanted to receive it."
Current Star Tribune Publisher Mike Klingensmith remarked that Cowles' contributions to the newspaper and the community were immeasurable. "All of us at the Star Tribune mourn his loss," he said.
David Cox, former CEO of Cowles Media, described Cowles as "one of those people who created this unique, civic-minded, philanthropic community that makes the Twin Cities so special."
Scion of a distinguished newspaper publishing family, Cowles, perhaps, found greater freedom after leaving active management of the newspaper in 1982. He danced with a national touring company, studied agricultural economics, taught aerobics and was an eminent philanthropist -- particularly after Cowles Media was sold to the McClatchy Co. for $1.4 billion in 1998.
"I wonder if he had been born in a different time, would he have struck out in a more adventurous way?" said Margaret Wurtele, Cowles' colleague on the Guthrie board and daughter of his longtime friend Philip von Blon.
Cub reporter to chairman
His grandfather was a banker who bought the Des Moines Register and began a media empire in 1903. Cowles was 6 when his father, John Sr., and uncle bought the Minneapolis Star in 1935. The family moved to Minneapolis from Des Moines in 1938, and within three years John Sr. controlled all of the city's newspapers.
John Jr. joined the newspaper as a police reporter in 1953, after graduation from Harvard and a stint in the Army.
"I worked with John as a young reporter," said columnist Barbara Flanagan. "Everyone said, 'Oh my gosh, it's John Cowles Jr., and he's coming to work on the police beat.'"
Cowles succeeded his father as editor of the morning Tribune and the evening Star in 1961, as president in 1968 and editorial chairman a year later. During this tenure he deepened the newspapers' progressive philosophy through editorials that promoted civil rights and liberal causes, helping to organize the Urban Coalition in the late 1960s.
Donald Fraser, former Minneapolis mayor and U.S. representative, said he was impressed with the caliber of the reporters the Cowles family hired. "I'm convinced this is what made the Star Tribune a national model of progressive journalism," he said.
John Jr., aloof and intelligent, shared his father's voracious inquisitiveness and instinct for journalism. But where politics, world affairs and business fascinated John Sr., his son's ideas ranged into broad philosophical constructs, gender equity, art and human potential.
He was a director of the Associated Press and a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. In 1964, he was named one of the 10 Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Fraser said Cowles "built on his father's legacy of breaking with tradition and spurring others to break old molds."
The Star and Tribune Company started acquiring Harper & Row stock in the mid-1960s. With the book publisher came Harper's Magazine, which appealed to Cowles for its prestigious East Coast reputation and intellectual rigor. Harper's lost money for most of the 1970s, before Cowles Media sold it for cheap in 1980. TV stations, weekly publications and specialty magazines performed weakly. In 1979, Cowles bought the Buffalo Courier-Express in New York. Following three years of losses totaling $25 million, Cowles personally delivered the news of its sale in Buffalo.
"My impression was that it was awkward and uncomfortable for him, but he wanted to take personal responsibility," said Joel Kramer, then editor at Buffalo and later editor and subsequently publisher of the Star Tribune.
How Cowles communicated the Buffalo closing, and his decision later in 1982 to fire Donald Dwight as publisher in Minneapolis, irritated the board of directors. In January 1983, Cowles was ousted as chairman and CEO. He left the board in 1984 but retained significant control of the company by managing a family voting trust that controlled 60 percent of Cowles Media stock. His son, John III (Jay), succeeded him within the trust in 1990.
"His response to his own firing, with equanimity and care for the newspaper as an enterprise, led him to be effective as a family leader through the sale [to McClatchy] in 1998," said Jay Cowles.
During this time, Cowles publicly betrayed no emotion about what he was going through.
"If John had been the kind of person to fight that kind of thing, he could have," Cox said. "His sense was that instead of triggering all that, he would step out. It was classic John."
Cowles' post-newspaper career was marked by diversity. He studied agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota, taught aerobics, and in 1991 courted notoriety when he briefly appeared nude in a dance work by choreographer Bill T. Jones. Cowles felt the piece was artistically important and part of his personal exploration. Whitney, who watched the performance, recalled asking his old friend, "How can you do that?"
"He said, 'Whee, your problem is that you don't understand art,'" Whitney recalled. "'If you understood art, you would know why it is natural for us. It's not part of your world, so I understand why it would make you uncomfortable.'"
Courting Tyrone Guthrie
John Sr. and Elizabeth Cowles instilled in their children a love of arts and a sense of duty to the community in which he worked. John Jr. and Sage continued that legacy.
"His parents would be very proud of what John accomplished and contributed," Whitney said.
In the spring of 1960, he cajoled director Tyrone Guthrie to establish his regional theater in Minneapolis and then went about raising the money to do so, serving as the first president of the theater foundation and later as its board chairman. In 2006, he was co-chairman of the architecture committee involved with the new Guthrie complex.
"Without John, the Guthrie wouldn't exist," said Director Joe Dowling. "And as we were building the new theater, you might have thought he'd be nostalgic for the old. But he saw this as maintaining and extending the legacy. His passing is a huge milestone in our history."
Cowles benefited the Walker Art Center in the 1980s with the $1 million Cowles Conservatory in the Sculpture Garden, and in 2011, he and Sage were honored for support of the Cowles Center for Dance in downtown Minneapolis. He also served on the Minnesota Orchestra's board of directors.
Shortly after Fraser took office as mayor in 1980, he recalled, Cowles came to talk about the need to locate a domed stadium for the Twins and Vikings in downtown Minneapolis. Cowles' support for what would become the Metrodome proved controversial. Stadium opponents (including 45 newsroom employees who took out an ad) suggested that as head of a newspaper company, he should not take a stance on the issue.
Cowles, whose father had transparently supported and advised presidents, advocated for the Metrodome as a "major building block in the future shaping of our metro area ... important to all citizens of the area, not just sports fans."
Cowles Media Foundation (later the Star Tribune Foundation) annually distributed millions of dollars, and Cowles himself led efforts to earmark percentages of corporate profits for charitable concerns.
"I assumed it was part of the job when you owned the newspaper in town, that you're responsible for the town," Cowles said in a 1996 interview that reflected his sense of obligation and stewardship.
On a smaller scale, Fraser called the Cowles family "pioneers" in renovating blighted areas. John and Sage were among the first to recognize the potential of the Mississippi Riverfront, for example, moving into an old building that was renovated into condos.
"I hope that over these next few days, as we celebrate his life, that the public will come to better understand all that he's meant to us," said Mondale.
Cowles was preceded in death by his parents and his older sister, Morley Ballantine. He is survived by his wife, Sage; sons Jay (Page) of St. Paul and Fuller (Connee Mayeron) of Shafer, Minn.; daughters Tessa Flores (Ira Goldstein) of Ithaca, N.Y., and Jane (Ann Stephens) of Olympia, Wash., 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A sister, Sarah Doering, of Northampton, Mass., and a brother, Russell, of Minneapolis also survive. Services are pending.
- Staff writers Joy Powell and Chris Havens contributed to this report
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN COWLES JR.
May 27, 1929: Born in Des Moines.
1935: Is 6 when his father, John Sr., and his uncle buy the evening Minneapolis Star.
1938: Family moves from Des Moines to Minneapolis.
1941: Family consolidates ownership of all Minneapolis newspapers.
1951: Graduates from Harvard University.
Early 1950s: Serves in U.S. Army.
1953: Joins Minneapolis newspapers as police reporter. Subsequently covers City Hall and the Legislature and works on the copy desk.
1955: Shifts to newspapers' business department.
1959: Returns to news and editorial departments as vice president and associate editor.
1960: Persuades Tyrone Guthrie to build a regional theater in Minneapolis and raises $2.4 million to do so.
1961: Succeeds his father as editor of morning Tribune and evening Star.
1965: Acquires an interest in Harper's magazine, which loses money over his 15-year tenure.
1968: Succeeds his father as president of newspapers.
1969: Named editorial chairman of newspapers.
1979: Cowles Media buys Buffalo Courier-Express.
1980s: Advocates for building of Metrodome.
1982: Leaves active management of Star Tribune. Star and Tribune merge. Buffalo newspaper closes.
1983: Ousted as chairman and CEO.
1984: Leaves board of directors but continues to manage family trust that controls 60 percent of the company's stock.
1988: Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Cowles Conservatory open.
1998: Company, now known as Cowles Media Co., sold to McClatchy Co.
2006: Serves as co-chairman of architecture committee for new Guthrie.
Fall 2011: Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis is dedicated.
March 17, 2012: Dies of lung cancer at 82.