I worked for John Seigenthaler as the Library Manager for the First Amendment Center for nine years before moving on to my current position as Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Moving on wasn't easy. I loved my job, and I loved working for Mr. Seigenthaler. Serving John Seigenthaler at the First Amendment Center Library was one of the greatest honors of my professional life.
John Seigenthaler died on Friday at the age of 86. He lived a full life of purpose and consequence. As a champion of Civil Rights he showed bravery in the face of hate and fear in his defense of the Freedom Riders and became a fierce advocate for diversity in the newsroom. As editor of The Tennessean and USA TODAY he wrote eloquently in defense of journalistic integrity and the free flow of ideas. John Seigenthaler valued truth and accuracy in reporting, and he guarded the cause of free speech and freedom of the press like a sentinel. Throughout his life and as founder of the First Amendment Center he was an unwavering defender of the 45 words of the First Amendment for everyone, not just the privileged few.
John Seigenthaler had a commanding presence, yet was humble, approachable and friendly. He treated everyone with whom he had contact as equals, and still, when you met John Seigenthaler you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Mr. Seigenthaler will be missed by all who knew him, including me, a young researcher with a passion for history who he frequently sought out as an "expert" whenever he needed to find some obscure fact, quote or statistic. I cherished each and every opportunity to serve him during my days at the First Amendment Center because I knew I was serving the greater good of freedom through his work.
|In April 2012, John Seigenthaler invited us to the set of Nashville Public Television's "A Word on Words" for an interview about our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War.|
John Seigenthaler was incredibly generous with his time and had a sincere affection for those who he called a friend. I'll share two moments of reflection as examples of his generous spirit. In 2003, Mr. Seigenthaler delivered the commencement address to my graduating class at MTSU. During his speech, he encouraged us graduates to embrace open mindedness and the diversity of our culture even in the most challenging of times. Following his inspiring words, as I walked the aisle to pick up my graduate degree, he greeted me with an embrace, and proudly shook my hand as if he had known me forever, even though I had only known him for a few short months. A few years later, I had the privilege of introducing him as the keynote speaker during the Society of Tennessee Archivists annual meeting in 2011. He generously shared his life story with our group, and thanked all of us archivists for the work that we do to help preserve the rich history of our collective past. I think he enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed his, and I remain forever grateful for the time he took to share his life story with us.
One of the last conversations I had with Mr. Seigenthaler was on April 11th, exactly three months prior to the day of his death. I stopped by the First Amendment Center for a visit, and I had the opportunity to chat with him about our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. Mr. Seigenthaler had a keen passion for Tennessee history, something we both shared, so it was such a pleasure to get to talk to him about "Tennessee's First Hero." In 2004, he published a biography of James K. Polk, and was actively researching the life of suffragist Alice Paul for another book project. Most recently, he took on the task of editing the Encyclopedia of Nashville, and was excited to talk to me about his research into the life of former Nashville Mayor Hilary House for a planned entry in the Encyclopedia.
A few years earlier, my wife and I had the great honor to be interviewed by Mr. Seigenthaler for his television program, "A Word on Words," shortly after the publication of our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers. During our informal chat in April, Mr. Seigenthaler and I talked about scheduling a return trip to the Nashville Public Television studios to record another interview to help spread the word about our latest book about John Sevier, but my conversation with him in his office -- just the two of us -- I wouldn't trade those moments for any camera time in the world.
I will cherish my memories of John Seigenthaler, and I pray that his family and many friends find solace in the fact that his life touched so many people in a positive way. He was a gentleman, scholar, mentor, hero, and friend to so many people, including me. I will miss him deeply. Rest in peace, my dear friend.