Associated Press, Published March 19 2012
Philanthropist John Cowles Jr. dies at 82MINNEAPOLIS — John Cowles Jr., former publisher and chairman of the Star Tribune newspapers and a philanthropist who helped shape the cultural community of the Twin Cities by pushing for facilities like the Guthrie Theater and the Metrodome, has died. He was 82.
The Star Tribune reported Sunday that Cowles had suffered from lung cancer and died Saturday evening at his Minneapolis home.
"He died peacefully at sunset, surrounded by loving family," his family said in a statement provided to the newspaper. "His courage, deliberate style, wisdom and love of community were some of the special qualities that gave us all joy and will continue to be an influence in our lives."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called Cowles "one of the most important civic figures in Minneapolis in the last half century." Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a friend, said Cowles fought for civility and reason, and had a sense of caring for the community.
"He was never a person who wanted credit," Mondale said. "He was always one step behind those who he wanted to receive it. ... I hope that over these next few days, as we celebrate his life, that the public will come to better understand all that he's meant to us."
Cowles came from a publishing family, but left active management of the newspaper in 1982. After that, he studied agricultural economics, taught aerobics and was a philanthropic visionary. He also briefly appeared nude as part of a dance by choreographer Bill T. Jones.
The Cowles Media Foundation, which later became the Star Tribune Foundation, donated millions of dollars annually. Last fall, the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts was dedicated in downtown Minneapolis.
"I assumed it was part of the job when you owned the newspaper in town, that you're responsible for the town," Cowles told the Star Tribune in a 1996 interview about his stewardship.
Cowles' grandfather bought the Des Moines Register in 1903 and began building a media empire. Cowles was 6 when his father and uncle bought the Minneapolis Star in 1935. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1938 and within three years John Cowles Sr. controlled all the city's newspapers.
John Jr. graduated from Harvard and served in the Army, then started working at the newspaper in 1953 as a police reporter. By 1961 he was editor of the morning Tribune and evening Star. He became president and editorial chairman later that decade. He shared his father's journalism instincts, but where his father had a fascination with politics, world affairs and business, John Jr. was more interested in gender equity, art and human potential.
In the early 1960s, Cowles convinced director Tyrone Guthrie to establish a regional theater in Minneapolis. He then raised money for it and later served as its board chairman. In the 1980s, he pushed for a domed stadium for the Twins and Vikings — a move that was controversial as stadium opponents, including 45 newsroom employees who took out an ad, suggested that he should not take a stance because he was head of a newspaper company.
Cowles also was a director of The Associated Press board, and a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University. In 1964, he was named one the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce.
After some financial losses, the closing of a newspaper in Buffalo and Cowles' decision to fire Star and Tribune publisher Donald Dwight, the board of directors ousted Cowles as chairman and chief executive in 1983. He left the board in 1984 but retained significant control of the company by managing a family voting trust that controlled 60 percent of Cowles Media stock. His son, Jay Cowles, took over the trust in 1990.
"His response to his own firing, with equanimity and care for the newspaper as an enterprise, led him to be effective as a family leader through the sale in 1998," said Jay Cowles. During this time, Cowles publicly betrayed no emotion about what he was going through.
"If John had been the kind of person to fight that kind of thing, he could have," said David Cox, former CEO of Cowles Media. "His sense was that instead of triggering all that, he would step out. It was classic John."
Cowles Media was sold to the McClatchy Corp. for $1.4 billion in 1998.
Current Star Tribune publisher Mike Klingensmith said Cowles' contributions to the newspaper and community can't be measured.
"All of us at the Star Tribune mourn his loss," Klingensmith said.
Cowles is survived by his wife, four children, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. A celebration of his life will take place at a later date.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.