John S. Carroll: More than a giant in journalism

John Carroll (left) with Dean Baquet  in the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times when he announced his retirement.  ( Los Angeles Times photo)

John Carroll (left) with Dean Baquet in the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times when Carroll announced his retirement. ( Los Angeles Times photo)

If you are fortunate in life and work, you will be blessed with bosses and mentors who see your potential and take a personal interest in your career.

John Carroll was one of the first of many bosses who did that for me. And I will be forever grateful.

John was more than a boss and mentor, we became friends. When Joe and I got married, he and his wife Lee came to our wedding and gave us a beautiful gift we still treasure today.

Today, family and friends gathered in Lexington to say farewell to a wonderful husband, father and colleague. John was a giant in the newspaper industry whose work at The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Los Angeles Times produced multiple Pulitzer Prizes.

As executive editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, he stood firm and fearless when the paper received bomb threats and cancelled subscriptions after publishing a series of articles about University of Kentucky basketball boosters lining the pockets of players. If you know anything about Kentucky basketball, you know it’s considered  blasphemy in some quarters to speak ill of the Wildcats. The series won the newspaper’s first Pulitzer Prize.

In 1987, when I was a young, very green reporter, John allowed me to work on a series of articles about race relations in my hometown. I was paired with a brilliant veteran reporter, Andy Mead, and an excellent projects editor, Harry Merritt.  John could have chosen a more seasoned reporter to take on the project but he saw I was passionate about the subject matter and had the local contacts to pull it off.

As our reporting progressed, I’m sure John fielded calls from civil and political leaders who questioned the paper’s efforts. John was the kind of editor who wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power or to the people who worked for him.

Andy and I examined race relations in Lexington schools, workplaces, churches, funeral homes and social settings.  We even went to a University of Kentucky basketball game and attempted to count the of African-American fans in the audience. It was a very small number.  When I interviewed then Lexington mayor Scotty Baesler, who graduated from the University of Kentucky and played basketball under legendary coach Adolph Rupp.  Baesler seemed dumbfounded at my suggestion, backed by months of reporting, that Lexington had a race problem.

“Divided We Stand” won several state and national awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. More importantly, it was reprinted and distributed to teachers, administrators and students in Fayette County schools.  John was instrumental in making that happen, along with managing editor Jim Green.

John used to take daily strolls through the Herald-Leader newsroom, stopping to talk with reporters and give advice. He was so cool and most of us looked forward to having him stop by our desks. It was his way of making himself available to reporters who may have been intimidated by the big glass office at the end of the newsroom.  One day, when John asked me what I was working on, I made the mistake of saying I wasn’t working on anything in particular.  He very calmly  told me that I needed to fix that right away.  I got the message loud and clear and always respected his gentle correction.

He was a great leader, but more importantly, he was a good person. When he returned to Lexington after retiring, he once ran into my father and someone introduced the two of them. My father asked, “Are you the John Carroll?” To which John asked, “Are you the Fred Duerson?” It was his way of saying my father was just as important as he was.

I will never forget that. And I will never forget him. Rest well John!

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