by Amelia Cellar
I was lucky enough to be John Quinn’s only granddaughter and to grow up next door to him, just down the street in Carolina (R.I.). John was many things to many people, a complex man, and he poured all of himself into his work and his family long before I was born. But after decades as a successful reporter, editor and Gannett executive, I think he really peaked as a grandfather.
My brother Stephen and I spent our weekends with John, playing in the river in Carolina or rolling around on the floor of his huge office in Cocoa Beach (Fla.). I spent so much time with John and Loie, I only remember having an actual babysitter once. It was really awkward. I mean, who was this stranger in my house!?
John made my childhood feel like magic and filled my little life with surprises that made me feel like I was the center of his world (even though we all know it was really Loie). He was sometimes serious and dignified, but there was another side to John that was playful, a cheeky prankster scheming for a laugh.
John would surprise us with games of “seek and find,” where he would write clues on yellow Post-it notes and send us on a wild goose chase until we found our surprise gift hidden somewhere in the maze of John Quinn world; usually the gift was found right back where we had started.
He bought a used golf cart and the three of us drove around the woods behind the mill for hours, thus sparking my lifelong love of driving. By the ripe ages of six and seven, John even let us drive (and we definitely never flipped it on its side). On Sunday mornings he’d make us his special John Quinn pancakes (years later Stephen blew his cover and revealed they were actually frozen). I can still feel the thrill of his surprise trips to Toys R Us in an old car, and taking me to get my ears pierced (sorry, Mom!) and how he fell in the hot tub fully clothed, and with great humility, let us laugh at him about it for years to come. John spoiled me like only a grandfather can, although I know I was just one of the many recipients of his lifetime of generosity.
When it came time for me to leave Carolina and move toward independence at college in Washington, D.C., John suddenly ramped up his travel to D.C. for his Freedom Forum work and his beloved Chips Quinn Scholars program. I loved dressing up and being his date to “grown-up” events that offered me a glimpse of the bigger picture of his life, what my grandfather had accomplished before I was born and the respect and admiration his colleagues and friends still had for him all those years later.
At the the 25th anniversary party for USA Today, many people came up to me to tell me about how John had changed their lives; how he had seen something in them and believed in them, and taught them to never let the bastards get them down.
At Loie’s funeral, I was 17 and talked here about the things she had taught me so far in my life. Good thing John was around for 12 more years, because there was a lot more to learn. He mostly stuck to a food and drink theme to deliver his lessons:
1. How to work a room in Washington. We rubbed elbows with Barack Obama (pre-presidency), Chief Justice John Roberts, Mike Bloomberg, Nancy Pelosi, Rupert Murdoch. Pro tips from John’s example: Ask questions. Be curious. Take dramatic pauses before speaking. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention, and even better, having a partner at your side who can remember everyone’s name.
2. Know where to find the best cheeseburger, the best Chinese food, the best martini, etc., in whatever city you live in. Have an answer to “What’s your favorite restaurant?” Sit at the bar to eat and always learn the bartender’s name. Again, pay attention.
3. Paradoxically, when you find yourself somewhere new, try something new. You can get a cheeseburger anywhere. I like to summarize this particular lesson in modern terms as YOLO; you only live once, so treat yourself sometimes.
4. Keep your family close and eat a meal with them often. Since we moved to San Francisco, John’s favorite question to repeatedly ask me and Stephen was “How far away do you two live from each other?” Answer: one mile. That gave him great comfort since we decided to leave Rhode Island and go about as far away as you can go without a passport. In recent years, we’ve started to make a point of doing monthly “johnandloie lunches” (actually, dinners, because a two-hour lunch in the middle of the workday doesn’t fly anymore, John).
5. Nothing philosophical here, just some good old-fashioned drinking etiquette: You must always “cheers” before your first sip, and preferably several more times throughout the meal. Anyone who has dined with John knows how much he loves to cheers. It’s a good way to change the topic of conversation away from questions you don’t want to answer! And you cannot get up from the table to leave until everyone has finished their drinks.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve visited Carolina every year, but spent more of my free time traveling the world. Whenever I’d call John to tell him about one of my trips, he had always beat me there, and I’d beg him to tell me a story about it. Cuba? Check, the Gannett private plane landed with special permission (or perhaps none at all) for lunch in Havana once. China? Invited by Chairman Mao himself as the first group of U.S. journalists to visit the country. I started to realize just what a large and rich life he had lived. We can’t know everything he did, but I can assure you, it was a great deal. He never read us stories from books growing up; we would beg him to tell us a story, and he would tell us his memories, complete with dramatic pauses, because his life was the story.
Stories about growing up in the Great Depression and his first job as a night copyboy at The Providence Journal; about meeting U.S. and foreign presidents and personally convincing Nixon to speak at the convention where he assured the nation that he was not a crook; embarrassing newsroom stories with ProJo editor Mike Ogden and big lessons learned. Or, stories about his and Loie’s trips around the world: While they were trapped in Moscow as Boris Yeltsin faced a rebellion in Red Square, we were at home facing Hurricane Bob and no electricity, and they got word to Carolina to remind us of the frozen lasagna thawing in the freezer.
As much as John liked to think of himself as a lowly night copyboy from Providence (a favorite story he was retelling to a nurse the day before he passed away), his life actually played like a Forrest Gump movie. I guess that’s what happens when you make a career out of the news; your own life becomes tied to all the major news stories of your lifetime.
Yet with all of his worldly adventures in news, his headline was always home: “the safe place where you can go as you are and not be questioned.” When I said goodbye to John on Tuesday, he said “I love you, and safe travels.” So because of John, I know that despite how far I go, Carolina is always home. Cheers, and safe travels, John.
(This piece has been edited for style.)