Jack McWethy: All about the Why

Jack McWethy was a journalist’s journalist. Skilled, savvy, smart.  In fact he was exceptionally skilled, really savvy and one of the smartest people you’d ever meet.

Jack died Wednesday in a skiing accident in Colorado.

Jack’s death breaks my heart. It also prompts me to remember how well he lived; how much he contributed; how much integrity he had.

The public knew him as John McWethy, the veteran, chief national security and State Department correspondent for ABC News. He traveled the globe covering diplomacy, détente and death. He intensely interviewed government leaders and he reported from battlegrounds all over the world.  On 9/11, he was inside the Pentagon when that terrorist-piloted airplane knifed into the building. He stayed at his post for hours; his cool, professional reporting a hallmark of journalism’s essential role that fateful day.

What the public didn’t see was Jack mentoring students at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, our alma mater. He would go back to campus to work with the next generation of journalists. Dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, he would hunker down with the reporters and editors at the school newspaper and the radio station. About reporting. About interviewing. About storytelling. About ethics.

Most importantly, Jack would ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.

I knew Jack as a great journalist. I also knew him as a friend.

Jack made a strong impression on me when we first connected 40 or so years ago as students at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. We became friends and we worked together on the student newspaper. He was a top-notch editor-in-chief. He had ink in his blood. His dad was a fine journalist, and Jack had the instinct and the intellect to follow that same path.

He also was mighty skeptical of authority. It was the late 60s and college students across the land were dubious and doubting of those in power. Jack challenged the fraternity system that was so dominant on our campus. He challenged the university president and his policies. He protested against the Vietnam War.

Jack spoke with conviction and commitment. He had principles. He had integrity.

He never lost that spirit in his professional career. As a journalist, Jack McWethy was passionate about the journalistic responsibility of “holding the powerful accountable.” He had no hubris. He was not arrogant. He practiced serious, substantive journalism. He was ethical and excellent.

As ABC News President David Westin said about Jack, “He was one of those very rare reporters who knew his beat better than anyone, and had developed more sources than anyone, and yet, kept his objectivity … Jack’s work made the people he covered value him, respect him, and always know that he would keep them honest.”

In 2003, Jack was the commencement speaker at DePauw University. In his address to the graduates, he used a word that epitomized his approach to journalism and to life.

“The word ‘why’ is, in my view, the most powerful word in the English language. It is the driving force of my profession, and it’s also the driving force and at the heart of your professors, creative sciences, honest politicians, and of good parents,” McWethy said.

“Don’t stop asking the word ‘why’ just because you’re leaving DePauw. All institutions, all endeavors, all relationships are improved by a good scrubbing using the word ‘why.’ In democracy it is the question we must all constantly be asking our government and our leaders. It is not unpatriotic to question the government; it is unpatriotic not to.”

The words are Jack McWethy’s. They are an important piece of the legacy of a great journalist and a prince of a guy.

Now, as we mourn his passing, I personally remember some wonderful conversations with Jack. Some were 40 years ago in the newsroom at The DePauw when we exhibited youthful rebellious spirit. In recent years, we would talk about the state of journalism, and about war and about religion. 

We talked about career choices and our mutual love for places where we would like to live our final years. We talked about golf. We talked about our families. We talked many things. Jack asked lots of questions. Of me. Of himself.

There is profound sadness in losing Jack McWethy. He made a difference, a really big difference in all of our lives.

Jack McWethy had integrity.

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