In central Illinois media circles, they didn’t come any bigger than the late John Foreman, longtime editor/publisher of The News-Gazette and proud Illini. Following his death on June 30, 2018, Noelle McGee chronicled his life in this story in The News-Gazette.
At 6-foot-2 with broad shoulders and a full beard, John Foreman cut an imposing figure, especially to one cub reporter whose desk sat just outside the glass wall of his office, putting her in his line of sight.
Certainly, Cheryl W. Thompson was grateful to The News-Gazette´s then-managing editor for giving her a job out of graduate school.
Still, “I was scared to death of John. I thought he was so intimidating and gruff. Then I got to know him,” she said with a laugh.
“I learned so much from John — how to interview people, how to go get a story, how to write,” the award-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post continued, through tears. “I sent him every big story I did over the years because I wanted him to be proud and see what I turned into.”
Mr. Foreman — the award-winning editor and publisher of The News-Gazette, and most recently, editor emeritus — passed away unexpectedly Saturday at age 65. News of his passing prompted an outpouring of tributes from past and present colleagues and community members, friends and readers, who remembered him as a first-rate newspaperman, supporter of the Champaign-Urbana area and a gentleman.
“He was a real newspaper person,” said Bill Hawkins, board chairman of News-Gazette Media and retired publisher of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. “It coursed through his blood.
“He was dedicated to the newspaper,” said Hawkins, who first got to know Mr. Foreman “as a smart and talented editor years ago when we both represented our newspapers at meetings of the Independent Newspaper Group. ... He understood it. He loved the people he worked with. He loved the community he worked in. You wrap that up and you have someone ... who can´t imagine doing anything else.”
“John did a tremendous job of balancing the interest of the foundation, newspaper and community,” added Greg Cozad, a board member and past president of the Marajen Stevick Foundation, who called Mr. Foreman´s dedication to his craft “off the charts.”
“Operating a newspaper is very stressful from a business standpoint. There are dwindling advertising revenues from a variety of areas that make it tough to put out a quality paper,” he said. “However, The News-Gazette, in my opinion, is the gold standard compared to newspapers in similar-size communities, and that was due to John´s leadership.
“He was an excellent journalist, and he did a wonderful job,” Cozad said, adding that was apparent from his many honors, including Illinois Journalist of the Year in 2006. “But it was never about him. It was about serving The News-Gazette and the community.”
By his own words, Mr. Foreman was a latecomer to journalism, starting as a part-time weekend reporter after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1977. He quickly went on to become an editor, proving himself to be a leader and innovator, said retired Executive Editor John Beck. Beck was news editor when Mr. Foreman was named city editor.
“We worked closely together to improve the reporting, editing and presentation of the paper,” Beck said, adding that back then, the paper followed an old formula of filling the front page with national news.
“We decided this was a local paper. We should put local news out front,” Beck said, adding they did so with the blessing of higher-ups. “We also started doing a lot more enterprise stories.
“And we took a lot of pride in the Sunday paper,” he continued, adding they spent many days working from 6 a.m. to midnight putting out two afternoon editions, then working on the Saturday and Sunday morning papers.
It wasn´t all work.
The two were part of a monthly Saturday-night poker club that included longtime photographer and photo editor John Dixon, city and online editor Mike Howie — both of whom have also retired — the late Eric Schuster and Steve Bauer, and others who rotated in and out.
While occasionally playing for nickels or dimes, “it was more a chance to drink beer and just have fun,” Beck said.
Later, the paper ran stories written by students in Walt Harrington´s literary feature writing course at the University of Illinois.
“In the beginning, some of the staff were reluctant to have student work in the paper, so a lot of it appeared in an alternative paper, The Octopus,” said Harrington, a former Washington Post writer who befriended Mr. Foreman when he moved to Champaign to teach. The two got together to eat lunch and talk shop every month or two.
“One time, John said, ‘I´d like to have that stuff in our paper,´” Harrington said, adding that even applied to stories that may not have lined up with his personal values.
“I remember a time a student of mine did a story about a man who dressed like a woman,” he continued. “It was a controversial story at the time. I called John and said, ‘A little heads up-on this.´ He said, ‘You know what? If the president supports same-sex marriage, it´s about time we started writing about these things.’ He was a moderate conservative, but he was very open-minded about life and receptive to the many points of view out there.”
Mr. Foreman´s willingness to hear all voices, along with his knowledge and sound advice, gained him the respect — and many times, friendship — of government officials, fellow free-speech fighters and everyday citizens.
“When we had decisions to make about legal matters or legislative matters or what direction the association should take, he was the guy we´d call,” said Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois Press Association. “He would make you come to the right answer. He would turn things upside down and look at them from every direction, and he would slow you down and lead you in the right direction.”
“John was a great sounding board for ideas,” added former Champaign City Manager Steve Carter. “He was very smart, understood public policy ... and the community and its various parts so well.
“I didn´t expect John to always agree with what the city was considering,” said Carter, who had occasion to talk with Mr. Foreman at editorial board meetings, but also over coffee or lunch, “but I knew he would always give us a fair hearing. He listened well and always asked tough, thoughtful questions. We always came away better from those discussions.”
Former three-term Champaign mayor and staunch liberal Dan McCollum said he and Mr. Foreman often took different sides on issues. But they were never adversarial.
“I liked him. I liked to talk to him and exchange views with him. And above all, I think John Foreman appreciated candor, and I was certainly willing to produce that,” McCollum said.
Unlike his predecessor, “John Hirschfeld, who was a man of opinion, John Foreman was a classic news guy,” said McCollum, adding that benefited the area when the more liberal Champaign-Urbana Courier folded in 1979.
“The News-Gazette was decidedly Republican, and that reputation persists today. But the news, as far as I was concerned, was as fair as anyone could reasonably expect from a local newspaper ... and John Foreman had a hand, probably the hand, in that, which is why I gave him the key to the city during my last term.”
While Mr. Foreman worked tirelessly at the paper and with many professional organizations, he always made time for his wife of nearly 45 years, Sharon, and their two children, Shannon and Rob.
“You couldn´t have asked for a better dad,” Rob said, reminiscing about the times his father got down on the floor to play with him and his sister or chased him and the dog around the house when they played with Nerf guns. “He was a big kid himself.”
“I think he was relieved when he had a boy, so he could play soldiers and boy things. But he dutifully played dolls and girl things and never missed a beat,” Shannon added, recalling he built a doll house and surprised her with it on her third Christmas. “He liked to tell me that he had every reporter in town looking for doll furniture right before Christmas.”
She also has fond memories of listening to her dad, who was in a rock ´n´ roll band in college, play the guitar and sing. One of their favorites: Kenny Loggins´ “House at Pooh Corner.”
“We danced to this at my wedding,” she said.
He rarely missed one of her piano recitals or plays or her brother´s football or baseball games. And he was never one of those parents behaving badly.
“My dad was always kind of the calm one,” Rob said, recalling times he felt as though he wasn´t playing well. “My dad would come to the dugout. He´d talk to me and settle me down, kind of that good sideline coach.”
Rob joked that his dad´s professional skills came in handy at the Foreman home.
“I don´t know how many papers he wrote for me,” he revealed, before clarifying, “I wrote them, but they were so bad. When he got done editing, I don´t know how much of them were actually mine.
“I did not get that gene,” said Rob, a financial analyst.
Shannon, however, did. She followed her dad into editing.
“He considered me to be a good editor, which I take as the highest compliment,” she said. “He was very proud to attend Rob´s MBA ceremony. Our last Father´s Day, Rob insisted on picking up the check, and Dad was so touched by that. It was our last family dinner together, and Dad was in great spirits.”
Both kids feel fortunate they were able to spend quality time with their dad as adults. For father and son, that usually meant rooting for the Cubs.
“We´d go to Wrigley at least once a year,” Rob said. “When the Cubs played in and won the World Series in 2016, we got to go to Game 3. His dad was a Cubs fan. I remember him saying, ‘Wow! I´m so glad we got to do this.´ He never got to experience that with his dad.”
A longtime collector and restorer of fountain pens, Mr. Foreman began traveling the country to attend shows. Shannon accompanied him to a few.
“More for the quality dad time than for (my own) great love of writing instruments,” she said. “I will always cherish those moments.”
Bill Ackermann said he met Mr. Foreman about five years ago while serving as president of the board of the Orpheum Children´s Science Museum. When he stopped by the paper to hit its president up for a donation, he discovered they had something in common.
“He was writing with a fountain pen,” said a clearly delighted Ackermann. They spent most of the time talking about their shared passion and started the Champaign Urbana Fountain Pen Club, dubbed “Pen Central,” a few months later.
“John had no activities outside of work. All of a sudden, fountain pens became it,” Ackermann said, adding he jumped in “right up to his nostrils. He probably owned 500 or 600, but don´t tell Sharon. We tell our wives how many we´ve got, then there´s the real number.”
The two attended five or so shows a year, traveling to places like Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C.
“He was the Pen Guy, and people loved him,” Ackermann said. “He loved to talk about pens, and he also got really good at repairing them. He had that touch. People sent him pens from all over the world.”
Like many enthusiasts, Mr. Foreman enjoyed sending handwritten notes to people. Past and present employees were often recipients.
“I was always excited when I saw one of those in my mailbox at work,” said longtime cops and courts reporter Mary Schenk. “He sent me a real humdinger after I won the President´s Award in January. Still makes me weep.”
Thompson received a Christmas card yearly and a note about each story she sent. She grew concerned when she sent one in May but didn´t hear back.
“I said, ‘That´s not like him. I need to call him,´” she said.
Mr. Foreman suffered a stroke in March and was hospitalized for roughly three weeks. Afterward, he underwent intensive therapy and regained much of what he´d lost, Ackermann remembered.
“He went after it like he would go after a story,” said Ackermann, who was relieved he was getting better.
While devastated that Mr. Foreman passed away at a pen show near St. Louis, Ackermann said he is comforted knowing his friend died not in a hospital bed, but doing something he loved.
He said Mr. Foreman´s death has left a gaping hole in the community and the lives of his family and friends.
“I already miss him,” Ackermann said, his voice choked with emotion. He recounted how Mr. Foreman´s generosity played a role in his granddaughter´s recent visit from Texas, when he and his wife took her to a Cubs game.
“The morning before we left, who shows up with two Cubs hats?” he said. It was Sharon Foreman, delivering a present from John. “There´s nothing that got past him. He would do anything for anybody.”