Grand Forks Herald columnist and 2012 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media recipient Marilyn Hagerty speaks during a memorial service in honor of USA Today founder Al Neuharth at Aalfs Auditorium in Slagle Hall on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, S.D., Friday, May 17, 2013. Hagerty is best known for her Olive Garden write-up that went viral in 2012. Neuharth died at his Cocoa Beach, Fla., home on April 19 at the age of 89. (AP Photo/Argus Leader, Jay Pickthorn)
VERMILLION, S.D. (AP) — Colleagues and friends paying tribute to USA Today founder Al Neuharth on Friday remembered him not as a driven media giant but as a loyal native South Dakotan who never forgot his roots.
Some critics said Neuharth — who titled his autobiography “Confessions of an S.O.B.” — [auth] was a ruthless egomaniac, but close friend Jack Marsh knew Neuharth as a different man.
Marsh, the president of the Al Neuharth Media Center, said his boss was a free spirit, a visionary and a tenacious leader who was as thoughtful as he was tough. He was a South Dakotan through and through, who came back home a half dozen times a year for “reality checks,” Marsh said.
“He never forgot his roots,” Marsh said.
Neuharth died at his Cocoa Beach, Fla., home on April 19 at the age of 89.
He posthumously addressed mourners at Friday’s service at the University of South Dakota with a video segment taped before his death.
“In case you’ve already forgotten, I was Al Neuharth,” he began, joking that there are probably a lot of people who wished the day would have come earlier.
Neuharth changed the look of American newspapers by filling USA Today with breezy, easy-to-comprehend articles, attention-grabbing graphics and stories that often didn’t require readers to jump to a different page. Sections were denoted by different colors.
USA Today was unlike any newspaper before it when it debuted in 1982. Its style was widely derided but later widely imitated.
“I knew it was a high risk and so did he,” said television broadcaster Tom Brokaw, who appeared via video. “But at the same time, that was Al.”
Neuharth, born March 22, 1924, in the small South Dakota town of Eureka, had journalism in his blood from an early start. At age 11, he took his first job as a newspaper carrier and in his teens worked in the composing room of the weekly Alpena Journal.
After earning a bronze star in World War II and graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Dakota, Neuharth worked for The Associated Press for two years before launching a South Dakota sports weekly tabloid, SoDak Sports. It was a spectacular failure, losing $50,000.
“I was so ashamed of my failure that, broken in debt, I ran away from home at age 30,” Neuharth said in his video.
Brokaw said Neuharth learned a lot from that failure.
“From then on, he became one of the most transformative figures in American journalism,” Brokaw said.
The launch of USA Today was Neuharth’s most visible undertaking during more than 15 years as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. Under his leadership, Gannett became the nation’s largest newspaper company and the company’s annual revenues increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. Neuharth retired in 1989.
Neuharth also founded the Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to free press and free speech that holds journalism conferences.
Neuharth’s daughter, Karina Fornes-Neuharth, said her dad was admirable and inspiring with a stubborn side.
“He taught me to be open-minded and accepting,” she said. “He taught me to be brave and so selfless.”
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., described Neuharth as a tough South Dakota farm kid whose strong work ethic took him to the highest level of public life.
“With Al, what you saw is what you got,” Thune said. “He was authentic to the core.”