Former Star Tribune publisher, arts patron John Cowles dies at 82

John Cowles,  with his wife Sage
John Cowles, shown here with his wife Sage, died Saturday evening from lung cancer. He was 82 years old.
Image courtesy Cowles Center for Dance

MINNEAPOLIS -- John Cowles Jr., who published the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper in the 1980s and grew to become a key arts patron in the Twin Cities, has died. He was 82 years old.

The Star Tribune website said he was surrounded by his family when he died quietly Saturday evening. He had lung cancer.

Cowles was born May 27, 1929, in Des Moines, Iowa, into a family with growing newspaper investments. His father, John Cowles, Sr., moved the family north to Minneapolis when he bought the Minneapolis Star, an evening newspaper competing at the time with several other Twin Cities dailies.

Barbara Flanagan and Cowles worked as reporters in the 1950s in the Star's newsroom. She remembered the family living in a large red brick house at 2318 Park Avenue in south Minneapolis, where Cowles grew up surrounded by discussion of current events.

Cowles entered the family business as a reporter, and worked in every other department at the Star, learning the business of newspapering. He was named CEO of Cowles Media in 1968.

After the Star and Tribune newspapers merged 1982, Cowles fired publisher Donald Dwight to fill the position himself. Three months later the Cowles Media board asked him to resign and, in 1984, Cowles left. He retained control of the company, however, by managing the family trust that held 60 percent of Cowles Media stock.

Cowles said that family-owned newspapers didn't thrive when extended family member shareholders lived elsewhere.

Cowles Center for Dance
Crews continue work on the Goodale Theater at the Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. The restoration of the former Shubert Theater and new construction Cowles Center project has taken more than a decade to complete at a cost of more than $40 million. The Cowles Center is scheduled to open Sept. 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"The owners weren't any longer living in the town so they didn't care as much about the town and the interests of the town," he said. "They got divorced from both the civic or community purpose of newspapers and the democracy fostering role of journalism."

The Cowles family sold the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper in 1998 to the McClatchy Company, and in 2007, McClatchy sold the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners. In 2009 the Star Tribune emerged from bankruptcy as a privately held company and became Star Tribune Media Company.

"John Cowles, Jr., was a businessman who didn't just excel in life for himself. He saw his position and wealth as a means to an end, as a way to make our state a better place," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement Sunday. And, refering to her father, Jim Klobuchar the Twin Cities journalist, she added, "He was my dad's boss and I first got to know him when I interviewed him for the book I wrote in college about the Metrodome. John started at the paper as a police reporter and learned the ropes, even though he might not have had to do that given that his dad owned the paper."

John Cowles, Jr's, legacy of philanthropy along with that of his wife, Sage, is extensive.

One of the most recent and visible is their gift to help refurbish the Shubert heater in downtown Minneapolis, now named the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts.

Other philanthropic causes included the Minnesota Orchestra, the Walker Art Center and sculpture park, including the Cowles Conservatory -- to name a few.

Cowles was asked at a University of Minnesota appearance in December 2010 about his motive for helping build the Guthrie and the Metrodome. He said self interest was part of the reason.

"Strengthening the cultural organization and life of the Twin Cities was not only going to make life more interesting and attractive for our families, but was going to attract business and keep business here in town and it was going to be just plain good business," he said.

Cowles' lobbying state lawmakers to build the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis was controversial. He was president and CEO of the company that owned the Star Tribune at the time, the state's largest newspaper.

Former Star Tribune reporter and managing editor Frank Wright says the perception was Cowles' support influenced coverage of the issue. Wright remembers dozens of newspaper reporters and other staff taking out a newspaper ad criticizing Cowles' stadium lobbying.

"Here was the owner lobbying openly at the legislature on behalf of himself and the newspaper as he saw it for the construction of this controversial building," he said.

Cowles, a military veteran, also studied agronomy and was a certified aerobics instructor. He served at various times on the board of the Associated Press and the Pulitzer Prize.

He is survived by his wife and four children.

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