Investigative journalist Paul McEnroe told students and colleagues alike that you’re only as good as those you talk to.
For 35 years at the Star Tribune, he developed an unrivaled trove of sources ranging from hotel bellhops to federal judges while chasing breaking news, uncovering scandals and shining light on untold human struggles. The three-time war correspondent, who retired from the Star Tribune in 2015, ended his career as the investigative executive producer at KSTP-TV.
McEnroe died late Wednesday at his home in Stillwater after a long battle with cancer. He was 69.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with many great journalists, but the most relentless one I’ve ever known, the most fearless in finding the truth for the public’s sake, is Paul,” said Star Tribune Editor Rene Sanchez. “He did that the hardest way — by earning deep trust from sources, by digging into government records and getting documents no one else could get.”
McEnroe’s work changed the course of Minnesota’s 1990 gubernatorial election when he helped produce stories about marital infidelity and a nude pool party with teenage girls involving Republican Jon Grunseth. The candidate dropped out nine days before Election Day, giving Arne Carlson a sudden berth on the ballot.
More recently, it was McEnroe who helped break the blockbuster story that police had found the body of Jacob Wetterling 27 years after the boy’s abduction in Stearns County.
In 1993, McEnroe received the grand prize in the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for “Licensed to Abuse,” a series that revealed that Minnesota officials had allowed criminals to become foster parents. He reported on the academic fraud scandal at the University of Minnesota in 1999 and broke a separate story showing that U athletics officials intervened to help star athletes avoid prosecution for alleged crimes that included sexual and domestic assault.
“He was the best street reporter I ever knew or heard about,” said John Ullmann, a former Star Tribune investigative editor who once headed the national nonprofit Investigative Reporters & Editors.
Ullmann said people from all walks of life told McEnroe things they wouldn’t tell anyone else because they knew he cared. A police source once dubbed him the “Irish Superfly” for his relentless questioning and artful prying. More than a few newsroom colleagues called him “Mad Dog.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Chris Ison remembers the day in August 1999 when top editors asked him and McEnroe to find defensive end Dimitrius Underwood of the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round draft pick had gone missing from training camp and his location was a mystery. Ison flew to Michigan State University, Underwood’s alma mater, while McEnroe flew to Philadelphia, where the defensive end grew up.
McEnroe tracked Underwood to the lobby of the downtown Marriott Hotel. He introduced himself to the athlete and listened to him. Underwood wanted to speak with the Rev. Reggie White, an NFL superstar. McEnroe arranged a phone call between the two men and later returned with Underwood to the Twin Cities with the scoop.
Ison, now a journalism professor at the U, said it was a classic case of McEnroe enlisting strangers to help him with his reporting. McEnroe circulated a photo of Underwood and cashed in when a hotel employee called to report the player’s presence in the lobby.
“I tell that story to my students,” Ison said. “Good reporting is about getting help. ... Everyone wanted to be a part of what Mac was doing.”
McEnroe volunteered to cover the conflict in Bosnia-Croatia, the Gulf War and the Iraq war for the Star Tribune. To enter Iraq as an “unimbedded unilateral,” he and Star Tribune photographer Richard Sennott smuggled themselves across the Turkish border in the back of a potato truck. Guards probed the truck’s load with long sticks, but they went undetected.
After filing some of his war stories via satellite phone from rooftops in Iraqi Kurdistan, McEnroe returned to Minnesota and increased his involvement with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. There he was named an Ochberg Fellow for his international coverage of victims of violence.
McEnroe covered at least three major plane crashes in his career, including the charter flight in 2002 that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone. His reporting raised questions about the competency of the plane’s pilots, and he obtained a federal document that laid out the crash’s probable cause before it was reported by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Other pieces of his work revealed how the state’s public mental health system failed psychiatric patients and how Minnesota failed to protect people with developmental disabilities.
In 2002, he co-wrote “Behind the Pine Curtain,” a Star Tribune series about the culture of sexual abuse and coverup at St. John’s Abbey. “He was absolutely dedicated to investigative reporting,” said Laurie Hertzel, who was McEnroe’s editor for five years and who, with Ison, edited the St. John’s project. “He thought there was no higher journalistic calling.”
McEnroe used to come into the projects bunker and say, “We’re in rare air here. Rare air,” she remembered.
Along the way, he taught investigative reporting to students at the U.
“Paul certainly leaves a legacy of great investigative journalism in Minnesota, plus something I believe will even be most lasting,” said Sanchez, the Star Tribune editor. “He drilled his hard-won wisdom on what journalism has to do into the hearts and minds of a younger generation of reporters who now carry his creed.”
The son of a CIA officer, McEnroe grew up seven miles from the Washington Monument in northern Virginia. Back then, his family was involved in providing special care to his only siblings, David and Peter.
In a deeply personal essay written for the Star Tribune magazine in 1987, McEnroe confronted his fears and resentments regarding the chromosome abnormality that left his brothers with intellectual disabilities. The deficit is hereditary, and it gave him doubts about starting a family of his own.
McEnroe became the legal guardian for David and Peter. He is also survived by two children, Tess and Caleb, and a stepson, Alessandro Galeone, as well as McEnroe’s wife, Louisa D’Altilia, who accepted guardianship of David and Peter several months ago.
The family asks those wanting to honor Paul to do so by contacting the Memorial Sloan Kettering Development Office at 646-227-3549 to donate in memory of Paul McEnroe for the research of Dr. T. Jonathan Yang in leptomeningeal cancer.