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Sun-Times Chairman Michael Ferro honors an overachieving Chicagoan


Newton Minow

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Updated: October 5, 2012 12:26PM

‘You inspired me to work in public service!” gushed a young woman to my companion. We were sitting at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., and within moments a man approached our table with his hand extended, saying, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” A short time later, we went to a meeting at the White House with Director of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle, and she was equally deferential — telling us she had been a student of his daughter’s at Harvard Law School.

That afternoon two years ago solidified in my mind the indelible impact one Chicagoan has had on our country: Newton Minow.

Newt, as he likes to be called, began his life of public service in World War II, serving as an Army sergeant in a unit that built the first telephone line connecting India and China.

After 2½ years in the service, he went to Northwestern for both his undergraduate and law degrees, where he met his wife of 63 years, Jo. (Their three daughters, Nell, Martha and Mary, are all lawyers.) The year they were married — 1949 — was also the dawn of the television age, and Newt felt moved to be a part of it. “I said to myself, this is the most important invention since the atomic bomb,” he recalls. When he joined the law firm of Gov. Adlai Stevenson, he got his wish: One of his first clients was Burr Tillstrom, the creator of one of the country’s most popular television programs, “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”

In 1956 when Stevenson ran for president, Newt’s roommate on the campaign trail was Robert Kennedy — and years later, when Robert’s brother John became president, that relationship would lead to Newt being appointed head of the FCC. He recalls telling the president, “Sending a communications satellite into the sky is more important than sending a man; a communications satellite will launch ideas, and ideas last longer than men.”

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first communications satellite under Newt’s watch as chairman of the FCC. Among many major accomplishments: He helped launch the first national public television and public radio systems (PBS and NPR), and he increased the number of television stations by opening up UHF, cable and satellite television. “I wanted to enlarge choice because I’m a television junkie myself,” he says.

It’s ironic that one of the things he’s most known for is a 1961 speech calling television a “vast wasteland.” And he’s still amused that — because of that landmark speech — “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz named the S.S. Minnow after him.

When he came back to Chicago, Newt returned to law practice, and his firm would later merge with Sidley Austin, where he continues as senior counsel to this day. The public service continued: He co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 presidential debates and is still at age 86 vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. He has served as the chairman of the Carnegie Foundation, PBS, the RAND Corp. and too many philanthropic boards to mention.

But here’s a nugget not everyone knows: His father-in-law, Salem Baskin — who served as Newt’s inspiration for a life in public service — was responsible for getting the Chicago Sun and Chicago Times to agree to merge in 1947.

It seems that in addition to the debt of gratitude our nation owes him, I — along with our entire Sun-Times staff — owe him and his family a personal debt, as well.

Newt is truly a great American!

Michael Ferro has made a donation
in Newton Minow’s name to the Sun-Times Foundation at the Chicago Community Trust.

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