From the moment I stepped into the gleaming offices of the Freedom Forum in Rosslyn, Va., I instantly felt I didn’t belong.
I was a young Cuban-American journalism student from Miami on one of my first trips to the D.C. area. I had no business rubbing elbows with editors and news personalities. But as soon as John Quinn gripped my hand, smiled and told me he was thrilled to have me there — reading glasses perched characteristically on his head — I couldn’t help but relax.
It was 1994 and I was participating in the Chips Quinn Scholarship program (named after John Quinn’s son who tragically died in a car accident in 1990), aimed at promoting minority journalism students. I learned a lot from Quinn that summer: How to abhor adverbs. How to write in short sentences. How to fearlessly pursue the truth. But my main takeaway from him was the feeling that I had earned my place in the newsroom, that I belonged, and not to let anyone ever tell me otherwise.
The world of journalism lost a titan with Quinn’s passing Tuesday. His accomplishments are legendary: Founding editor of USA TODAY. Former president of Gannett News Service. Former deputy chairman of the Freedom Forum.
But perhaps lesser known is his relentless pursuit to diversify newsrooms. The Chips Quinn Scholarship program has helped launched the careers of more than 1,300 scholarship winners since it was launched in 1991.
By the end of that summer, Quinn and his wife, Loie, knew all of our names and made us promise to stay in touch. So I did. I wrote to him when I landed my first job at The Miami Herald and was thrilled to receive one of his hand-written notes in reply. When I felt a travel bug while still at the Herald, Quinn engineered a four-week fellowship for me at the Freedom Forum’s Buenos Aires office.
After a team I was on at the Herald won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism, Quinn called to congratulate me and say he was proud of the first Chips Quinn scholarship recipient to earn a Pulitzer.
The communication could have stopped there, but we remained in touch. I wrote to him after leaving the Herald to freelance in Eastern Europe and was impressed when his hand-scrawled notes reached my mailbox in Prague.
I leaned on him for career counseling and overall support. After returning to the U.S., I went and spoke to new Chips Quinn scholarship winners. Each time, Quinn and Loie welcomed me back with hugs, like family members. I was in constant awe at the energy and ambition he instilled in the scholarship winners, the sense of belonging. He memorized names, hometowns, colleges.
In one of my last communications with him, 12 years ago, I wrote to him to tell him I had accepted a job at USA TODAY, his alma mater. It was probably his proudest of my accomplishments. I still have his hand-written reply.
Quinn’s passing will be felt in newsrooms across the USA as hundreds of journalists remember the perched glasses and smiles that greeted them during their nerve-racking scholarship run. In today’s age of alternate facts and fake news allegations, his lessons are more pertinent than ever.
We should all remember to pursue the truth, write short, and never forget we belong. Thanks again, John. You’ll be missed.
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