April 2, 2009

Jack Heselden (Sam Kittner/Newseum)

Remembering Jack Heselden

John E. Heselden, a veteran news executive with Gannett Co. and an influential trustee and valued friend of the Freedom Forum, died April 1, 2009, in Towson, Md. He was 88.

Heselden, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., witnessed the evolution of the Freedom Forum over a span of 42 years from a small office in Rochester, N.Y., where it was the Frank E. Gannett Newspaper Foundation, to the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.

The Freedom Forum is the major funder of the operations of the Newseum, which will celebrate its first anniversary in the nation’s capital on April 11. Heselden would have turned 89 that day.

"Jack’s longtime commitment was underscored by his good instincts, clear analysis and the ability to offer a few well chosen words at just the right time," said Charles Overby, chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum. "The staff loved Jack because he noticed the little things that made a difference, as well as the big things."

Heselden’s distinguished career began in Rochester in 1955 with Gannett Newspapers, where he was assistant to the general manager in labor and personnel work. During his 30 years with the organization, Heselden was promoted to a number of key executive positions, including publisher of USA Today and deputy chairman of Gannett, a position he held from 1983 until his retirement two years later.

In his 1987 book "The Making of McPaper," former USA Today editor and Newseum president Peter Prichard called Heselden "a friendly bear of a man who … had a sure instinct for what would help the bottom line. He would pick and prod at a publisher’s budget, saving a few dollars here, a few dollars there. He hit a few newspapers every afternoon, and pretty soon it added up to millions."

USA Today founder and former Gannett chairman Al Neuharth described Heselden as a "compromiser" during open debates who "was always ready to step in just before polarization peaked." In his 1989 autobiography "Confessions of an S.O.B.," Neuharth also noted Heselden’s "firm belief in equal-opportunity programs," which was reflected in Gannett’s commitment to hiring and promoting women and minorities throughout the company. That legacy lives on at the Freedom Forum, as well.

"He was not a household name because he shunned the spotlight, but he was a giant in the newspaper business," Overby said.

Heselden is survived by his beloved wife of 67 years, Ethel, and daughters Barbara and Nancy.

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