October 23, 2013


The April 19, 2013, passing of Al Neuharth, journalist, publishing executive, and founder of USA Today, the first truly successful general-interest American national daily newspaper, brought back memories of an interview I’d had with him about 30 years earlier. 

Sitting in his suite/apartment at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Mr. Neuharth, attired, I’m sure, in shirt and tie, sat at a desk behind which was a table with an old, manual-style typewriter, which he used to write his weekly column for the newspaper. USA Today might have been born at the start of the computer revolution, but its founder was old school, probably up until his passing at age 89.

31 1 6What strikes me now, however, is not Mr. Neuharth’s eye for detail—he chose the glass-front vending boxes for the new newspaper, and made them resemble TV sets—or his positive attitude. The fledgling publication was going to “make it,” he said, and, indeed, for many years it was a profitable and important part of American journalism.

Instead, it was a photo in the Aberdeen News, the South Dakota daily newspaper closest to Eureka, the 1,200-person town in which Mr. Neuharth was born—and known as “Allen” until he shortened his first name—and is to be buried. The photo, by reporter Calvin Men, shows the tombstone Mr. Neuharth had engraved and installed in the family plot at the Eureka Cemetery. On the reverse is inscribed “ALLEN NEUHARTH, FOUNDER” and bears the logos—the symbols—of the institutions he founded, not all of which were great successes.

First was SoDak Sports, a weekly newspaper offering exhaustive coverage of sports news in, well, South Dakota. It went out of business two years after its founding, which is why beneath that image is inscribed “1952 (Failed 1954).” There are logos and launch dates for Florida Today, a daily newspaper, the aforementioned USA Today, and two charitable endeavors: the Freedom Forum, a foundation that supports First Amendment issues and the Newseum, a Washington, D.C., museum of the news business.

Mr. Men’s photo got a fair amount of attention in journalistic circles, and perhaps a bit of cynicism from the hard-boiled reporters and editors who thought that was all Mr. Neuharth intended as his memorial. But a closer reading of the newspaper photo’s caption shows this was what was on the rear of the tombstone, not the front, on which, I’d imagine, are the more traditional notations of dates of birth, death, and perhaps his wife’s name.

Still, it’s clear what Al Neuharth believed were his important accomplishments: starting newspapers and media organizations. Fair enough, I suppose, and, not having spoken about spiritual matters, I can’t say where his heart was, or wasn’t.

The headstone photo, however, got me thinking: what would I want to have engraved on my headstone? (I’m hoping for translation, but “no one knows when their hour will come,” as we read in Ecclesiastes 9:12.)

I’m a stamp collector, and I enjoy my hobby, but, no, that’s not granite-worthy, I think. Neither is my fondness for animals, having been privileged to provide a home for one dog and several cats over the years. A husband? Yes, that should be noted, and I’m grateful for the privilege of being married to Jean, whom I love.

But many people have collected things, or had animal companions, or even been married. Lots of us have had what we considered significant careers, but do not feel compelled to take the corporate symbol of our employers literally to the grave with us.

I’d rather have a simple cross—to show my dedication to Jesus and His church—and perhaps a reference to Jeremiah 29:11 carved in stone, a reminder, perhaps, that God saved a sinner (me), and has a future and a hope promised for those who trust Him.