`Old-fashioned' editor championed Evening Sun

Newspaperman's career spanned four decades

John M. Lemmon 1927 - 2008

April 12, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

John M. "Jack" Lemmon, a veteran newspaperman who was the managing editor of The Evening Sun from 1979 to 1991, died of a heart attack yesterday morning at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The longtime Towson resident was 80.

Mr. Lemmon, whose newspaper career spanned four decades, was born and raised in Mount Pleasant, Ill., the son of a businessman who admired H.L. Mencken and introduced his young son to the famed Baltimore newspaperman's journalism.

After stints as a journalism professor and editing jobs at The Washington Star and The Washington Post, Mr. Lemmon was hired to run The Evening Sun, where decades earlier Mr. Mencken had earned his fame as a reporter and columnist.

During Mr. Lemmon's tenure, The Evening Sun received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Lemmon was hired by then-publisher Donald H. Patterson and remained a steadfast advocate of afternoon newspapers until the end of his career.

"The death of evening papers is more in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Mr. Lemmon said in 1995 when The Evening Sun ceased publication, a victim of declining circulation and revenue.

Mr. Lemmon was remembered by staffers as being tough but fair. Outwardly, he projected a friendly demeanor, but he retained the skepticism of a hardened newsman.

"Jack was an old-fashioned newspaperman: fighting for his paper against other sheets, anxious for reporters to embarrass politicians, ornery when dealing with the company budget people, slow to accept crazy ideas - like his secondhand smoke was dangerous - a stranger to self-promotion, skeptical about the alleged holy mission of journalism (`Let's get the paper out on time') and a good fellow to be around," said Ernest F. Imhoff yesterday, who succeeded Mr. Lemmon at his 1991 retirement.

Mr. Lemmon also had a sense of humor.

Mr. Imhoff recalled a conversation with Mr. Lemmon several years ago, during which his old colleague said, "My dad was a confirmed Democrat. He used to buy the Chicago Tribune once a month just to see how mad he could get in 15 minutes."

Mr. Lemmon bore a strong resemblance, both physically and temperamentally, to actor Ed Asner, who played an editor in two 1970s and 1980s TV hits, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later Lou Grant.

The men, who both exhibited a certain gruffness - either feigned or real, had the pleasure of meeting each other in the city room one day and being photographed together.

After graduating from high school in 1944 and being too young for service during World War II, Mr. Lemmon enrolled at the University of Illinois. After a year and a half, he transferred to the Naval Academy.

Mr. Lemmon, who decided against a military career, left Annapolis and returned to Illinois, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1949.

"I worked for 1 1/2 years after college as a reporter and photographer for the Bureau County Republican. I was sports editor, columnist and chief and only photographer. It was a good job. I had a good time," he told Mr. Imhoff.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, Mr. Lemmon enlisted in the Navy and served aboard the escort aircraft carrier USS Bairoko, which was stationed off Korea.

"I was several things. Fire control officer. Training officer. Assistant navigator. Officer of the deck underway," he said in the interview. "I had to use a sextant and take sun and star lines. Occasionally, I got it right."

Mr. Lemmon then taught English at the Naval Academy from 1954 to 1956.

"When I got out of the Navy in 1956, I went back to newspapers. I went to The Washington Star. I had been there as a part-time copy reader in 1955 and 1956, and was now full time," Mr. Lemmon told Mr. Imhoff. "I was at the Star about 11 years and was head of the copy desk when I left."

After leaving the newspaper in 1966, Mr. Lemmon joined the faculty of Ohio State University, where he taught journalism for two years before taking a job with The Washington Post in 1969.

He served as head of the metropolitan copy desk, news editor and night managing editor before heading an interdepartmental task force overseeing technological change.

"Because Jack was on the news side and I was on editorial, I was able to observe his work from a distance," said Ray Jenkins, editor of The Evening Sun's editorial page, yesterday.

"And the more I observed, the more convinced I became that he was putting out the best afternoon daily in the country," Mr. Jenkins said. "The fact that The Evening Sun outlasted all of the great East Coast afternoon dailies - including The Washington Star, The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Richmond News-Leader - was a testimony to the exciting paper that Jack created."

"He was gruff outwardly but inwardly was very kindhearted," said John N. Fairhall, assistant managing editor of The Sun and an Evening Sun veteran.

"When I took a leave of absence to study Spanish in Mexico, he kept me on the payroll for four months, without mentioning that pertinent fact to the payroll department," Mr. Fairhall said.

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