May 16, 2013
Neuharth Goodbye

In a video taped before his death, Newseum founder Al Neuharth addresses guests at his memorial service held May 15, 2013, at the Newseum. (Maria Bryk/Newseum)

Al Neuharth Says Final Goodbye

WASHINGTON — Al Neuharth had the first and last words at a lighthearted and emotional memorial celebration held May 15 in "the house that Al built," as former Newseum CEO Charles Overby called the Newseum in his remarks.

In a video that was taped before his death, Neuharth controlled his own memorial service just as he had in his colorful career as one of the most powerful CEOs in the country.

Neuharth paid special tribute to Gannett, USA Today, Freedom Forum and Newseum executives who were key players in his successful projects. He encouraged guests to stand and sing along with many of his favorite songs, beginning with "God Bless America," and including "This Land Is Your Land." The Frank Sinatra classic "My Way" was reworded to reflect Neuharth doing things his way.

"Hi. In case you've already forgotten, I used to be Al Neuharth," the founder of the Newseum and USA Today said to the delight of the crowd of 500 family, friends and colleagues. Neuharth died April 19 at age 89.

In his welcoming address, Jim Duff, CEO of the Newseum and the Diversity Institute, set the mood by inviting guests to "whoop, holler and exercise your First Amendment freedoms. Al did not like stuffy parties," he said.

Thus began a unique send-off that ranked with the memorial services of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford II and Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist Art Buchwald, two celebrations that Neuharth admired and cited as "full of felicity."

Politicians, journalists, educators and students remembered Neuharth for his dedication to free speech, education, diversity, and patriotism.

"He was one of the few CEOs who sent the elevator back down. He knew about leaning forward long ago," said Madelyn Jennings, former senior vice president of personnel at Gannett and a Newseum trustee emeritus.

"It is no coincidence that half of the speakers this evening are women," said journalist Judy Woodruff, who is also a Freedom Forum and Newseum trustee. "There wasn't a CEO or media magnate in America who cared more for women than Al."

John Seigenthaler, founding editorial page editor at USA Today and founder of the Newseum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, drew laughs when he equated the three memorials held for Neuharth this week with the ambitious programs that took him all over the world. A program is scheduled at the University of South Dakota on May 17. The first of the services was held May 14 in Melbourne, Fla.

"Al had his BusCapade and JetCapade and NewsCapade, so why should we be surprised tonight to be part of FuneralCapade," Seigenthaler said. "[Neuharth] made those institutions in the image of the country he loved," he added.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle remembered his fellow South Dakotan as a patriot who was proud of his small-town roots. Neuharth was born in Eureka, S.D., and was raised in his mother's hometown of Alpena, S.D.

"Al had more invincible determination than anyone I ever met in my life," Daschle said. "Most of us will miss him only on days ending in Y."

Six former Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholars thanked Neuharth for the annual program he founded that is dedicated to high school students seeking careers in journalism.

At the end of the 90-minute service, it was Neuharth who had the final say. With his voice cracking, and in the plain talk for which he was famous, he dispensed final wisdom and also paid tribute to his family "who sometimes took a back seat" to his corporate life.

"Life is not an undefeated season. We must always play to win, but we will win some, and we will lose some. Failure is not fatal. We simply must dream, and dare, and do."

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