Seeing a life in pictures: John R. Finnegan, Sr.

Friends of Lincoln library column
By: Lora Finnegan Special to The News Messenger
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“An editor isn’t always right, but he’s never wrong.” That saying flashed across the screen and made me laugh as I watched the slide show depicting the life of my beloved uncle and longtime newspaperman, John R. Finnegan, who passed away Oct. 2, 2012. We lived half a nation apart but he had a big influence on my life, nonetheless. Our families didn’t travel much when I was a kid but we’d see Uncle Jack when he’d whirl through town on newspaper business. He cut a dashing figure and told marvelous stories of the characters he met and the adventures he had as a reporter. Right then, I decided on a career in journalism. As a school girl, I had a romanticized idea of a reporter’s life. I saw myself wearing a trench coat, rushing off the president’s plane and shouting “stop the presses—I have a scoop!” Later, I realized that professionals such as my uncle practiced a more thoughtful, hardworking kind of journalism: the unromantic slog of working to get at the truth, securing two sources (at least) for every fact and making sure you’d represented all sides of the story. As senior vice president and assistant publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch, John R. Finnegan made it his cause to fight for open government (at a time when many meetings of public officials were held behind closed doors). He won awards and acclaim, becoming a champion of Freedom of Information (FOI) rights. And in retirement, Uncle Jack continued working on FOI legislation, reading voraciously and writing (please see his story at While my professional career (into magazines rather than daily newspapers) took a different path than Uncle Jack’s, I hope he was proud of the role he played in my career choice. And I think he was happy to see that, in my retirement, I’m volunteering to help the cause of literacy and libraries. Uncle Jack wasn’t one of today’s career-obsessed men (he and Aunt Norma raised six kids who turned into wonderful adults). It seemed to me he led a balanced life and loved his family, fishing, Minnesota, his church, and newspapers—not necessarily in that order. Last year, the Finnegans Midwest invited us California cousins to a reunion and Jack and I spent one morning fishing. As the boat bobbed on a sparkling Minnesota lake, we talked about his life, family and work — but not in a serious, gloomy way. In fact, Jack lobbed several of the puns he was famous for. But what I saw on his face told the real story. It was the kind of contentment you feel when you’re thinking back over a life well lived. Now, as I turn back to the slide show, I see pictures of Jack as an altar boy, an infantryman in World War II, an editor at his hometown paper and many familiar photos of him as husband, father, grandfather and uncle. A shining light of the greatest generation is gone: John R. Finnegan, Sr.: Nov. 5, 1924 — Oct. 2, 2012. Help out Friends of the Lincoln Library: today! Our fundraising campaign continues this month. Donations large and small help Friends of the Lincoln Library buy books and support programs. The bulk of the donations stay here in Lincoln, further helping your kids, friends and neighbors. Find our donations envelope at the library’s front desk; slip a stamp on it and a check inside. We’ll take care of the rest. Or donate anytime via Paypal on our website On the Calendar Saturday, Oct. 13: 1 to 4 p.m.: Book sale, Lincoln Public Library at Twelve Bridges. Includes a selection of military books. This column is part of a Friends of the Lincoln Library series. Have a question? Contact the Friends at 434-2404, at or e-mail Lora Finnegan is a Friends of the Lincoln Library member.