A man dressed in black and silver approached me at a newspaper convention in San Francisco 30 years ago. He held out his hand and said, "Hi, Tim; I'm Al Neuharth and I also am from South Dakota."
That was the first time I met the man who would go on to found USA Today. He told me then that, as a consummate newsman, he had been following the progress of the weekly newspaper I had started on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1981 and offered his encouragement. He said, "Sometime, down the road, come and visit me."
And a few years later after we had formed the Native American Journalists Association in 1984, we were looking for the funds to get it off of the ground and Al came to mind. I contacted him and he pointed me to a man named Gerald Sasse with the Gannett Foundation. Al was then the head of the Gannet Foundation.
Loren Tapahe of the Navajo Times and I went to Rochester, NY and met with Mr. Sasse and with his help we secured the funds given to us in Gannett stock worth $85,000 to put the organization on firm footing and to stage the very first convention on the Warm Springs Nation in Oregon.
The Gannett Foundation had also been instrumental in funding the very first meeting of aspiring Native American journalists at Penn State, hosted by Journalism Professor, William Dulaney. Prof. Delaney stuck with us through our formative years and again, through Gannett, secured us the funds to hold our first organizational meeting on the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma in 1984. I spoke to Prof. Delaney a few weeks ago and he informed me that he only has a few months to live. He has cancer of the brain.
All of the help from the Gannett Foundation would not have happened without Al Neuharth in the background pulling the strings. He was our featured speaker at our second convention held in Scottsdale, AZ. Not only did he speak, he also brought us another substantial check. By that time he had retired from the Gannett Newspaper Group and was now the head of the Freedom Forum, a foundation that replaced the Gannett Foundation.
When Al formed his first Advisory Board for the Freedom Forum he called me and asked me to serve on that board which I gladly did for a few years. It was at the board meetings when I met privately with Al and encouraged him to start a seminar to host young Native Americans to encourage them to pursue careers in journalism. He followed through and started the Journalism Workshop for aspiring Native American high school journalists at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He followed this up by holding an annual intensive journalism workshop for older Native American journalists at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
Al came to Rapid City and visited my newspaper, Lakota Times, in the late 1980s. He asked me what I needed to help the newspaper grow and I told him I needed funds for a printing press. A few weeks later he sent me a check to purchase my first printing press.
Always an optimist, Al made it a point to send out Happy New Year's cards to his friends every year and I was fortunate to be on his list. Ironically the card he sent me for Happy New Year 2013 got lost in the mail and I finally received it in April 2103, this month. It was a photo of Al on the beach at his home in Florida surrounded by his entire family. He was dressed in his signature black as always. The card read simply "The Al Neuharth and Rachel Fornes Family."
I immediately sent him a "Thank You" note and he received it just a few days before his death.
Native newspaper men and women and Native journalists across America lost one of their best friends. Neuharth grew up in the small South Dakota town of Alpena and he never forgot his roots, nor did he ever forget the Native Americans that made up a large portion of the state's population. We owe him much.
I remember having the opportunity to introduce Al at the NAJA Convention in Scottsdale, AZ. I read from the long list of his life's accomplishments, a list that went on and on, and then turned the podium over to him. He took the mike and said, "Thanks Tim for the great introduction, but it was kind of short wasn't it."
That was Allen Neuharth, a South Dakota boy who made good, but never lost his sense of humor. He will be missed greatly by every Native American journalist in America.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is now retired but writes about his old friend who passed away last week, Al Neuharth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org