In Memoriam: Our Friend John Seigenthaler (1927-2014)

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler (1927-2014) was the host of A Word on Words for 42 years.

As much as John Seigenthaler was a part of our family here, it’s easy to forget that, essentially, he was a volunteer.  For 42 years, he hosted A Word on Words with John Seigenthaler. Not as a paid employee, but as a volunteer, dedicated to serving this community and honoring the integrity of the written word. “Keep reading,” he told us at the end of every episode, whether he was sitting across from a New York Times bestselling author, a politician who’d written a manifesto on public policy, a local historian, or a first time author with a collection of short stories. He took his own advice seriously, reading everything before the cameras rolled. Kevin Crane, vice president of content and technology and executive producer of A Word on Words tells us that “in all my years of working with John on A Word on Words, it never failed to amaze me, especially during the Southern Festival of Books when we’d do more than a dozen interviews in a weekend, how engaged he was with each author. He read every book, much to the surprise of the authors, who were not used to that much attention and respect.”

He was prepared, too, as any staffer lucky to snag a copy of a book he used on the show knows. The back pages were full of notes.

Beth Curley, NPT’s president and CEO recalls that John’s love of literature “inspired and informed my own reading, as it did for all of us at the station, all who watched the show, and all who sat across from him on the set.”

But he did more, she added:

“John was extremely supportive of me when I arrived at NPT 15 years ago, where he was already an established presence and host of A Word on Words for 25 years and counting. He had an invaluable influence on the way we conducted ourselves as journalists at NPT, and was always there to provide us guidance. He was also a gifted Nashville historian; always willing to be a resource for us on our Nashville history documentaries.”

When the Anniversary of the Freedom Rides came in 2011, an event pivotal in John’s career, he was understandably much in demand. But he always had time for us. He hosted our own reunion of Nashville Freedom Riders just days after appearing on Oprah, made time for multiple screenings of the Freedom Riders documentary and even spoke to a roomful of public television employees when our national conference was in Nashville. He was tireless when it came to telling the story of the Freedom Riders, because he knew it was an important story. That was why every time he told it, whether recalling his own harrowing brush with death or how Diane Nash and the other riders signed their own last will and testaments, audiences were moved and inspired.

We were always moved and inspired by John, especially every time he came in the door to tape a new batch of shows. These last few years gave us plenty of opportunities, too, as he showed no sign of slowing down. He taped 48 shows in 2012-2013, and enough this year to last us until September. He was, you could say, the most dedicated volunteer in the history of public television. He was also a friend, and a part of our family. We’ll miss him deeply, and keep reading.

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