By Marilyn Miller and Stephanie Warsmith Beacon Journal staff writers
Published: June 21, 2013 – 04:30 PM | Updated: June 22, 2013 – 11:58 AM
When John Dotson Jr. retired as publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, he gave then-editor Jan Leach a saying she’d always admired that was hanging on his wall.
It read, “Look afar and see the end from the beginning.”
As he took the framed quote from his wall, Leach asked what she’d always wondered, “Who said it?”
“It was a fortune in a fortune cookie,” Mr. Dotson told her.
“I still have it,” Leach said Friday, as she reflected on the man who made her the first female editor at the Beacon Journal. “I liked what it said — what it meant.”
Those who knew and worked with Mr. Dotson, who died Friday at the age of 76, say he was a man with a keen news judgment who cared about Akron and strove to make it better. He was also a big supporter of diversity, helping to break many glass ceilings as the first African-American publisher at the Beacon Journal and serving at the newspaper’s helm when it won a Pulitzer Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service for a series on race in 1994.
The Beacon Journal’s work on the racial relations project inspired President Bill Clinton to hold his first Town Meeting on Race in Akron in 1997.
Former Akron Beacon Journal Publisher John Dotson. (Copy of watercolor portrait.)
Cared about community
“He was an outstanding person who cared about his community,” said retired Summit County Common Pleas Judge James R. Williams. “The Beacon Journal’s series on race relations, which brought President Clinton to Akron and resulted in a Pulitzer for the Beacon was an example of his outstanding leadership.”
Williams and Mr. Dotson had lunch together at least twice a month, usually at Jack Horner’s restaurant.
“He was not someone who would bend on his views to accommodate others,” Williams said. “You always knew where he stood.”
He and his wife, Peggy, lived in Boulder, Colo. They had a winter home on Marco Island in Florida. They have three children.
A native of Patterson, N.J., Mr. Dotson graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia. He received an honorary doctorate from Temple in 1981 and in 1995 completed the Stanford Executive Program at Stanford University.
Mr. Dotson had a long career as a journalist, including serving as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and working for 17 years for Newsweek, where he coordinated the magazine’s worldwide network of journalists for seven years. He also handled Newsweek’s logistical arrangements for the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1976 and 1980.
Akron Beacon Journal Publisher John Dotson in his office at the Beacon Journal in Akron in April of 1999. Dotson Jr., 76, Akron Beacon Journal publisher from 1992 to 2001 died Friday June 21, 2013. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal File)
Prior to coming to the Beacon, he was president and publisher of the Boulder Daily Camera for five years in Colorado. He was one of few publishers with a strong news background — most come from the business side of newspapers. He was knowledgeable in both areas.
He was one of eight co-founders of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping expand opportunities for minority journalists in the newspaper industry through professional development programs. He also served as the institute’s chairman for 10 years.
Mr. Dotson was publisher of the Beacon Journal from June 1992 to June 2001. He was one of only two black publishers in the then-Knight Ridder newspaper chain of 29 daily papers in the late 1980s and early 1990s and one of only a handful in the country.
Staff members at the Beacon recalled how he was “tough” and had “high journalistic standards.”
One editor recalled being summoned to the publisher’s office on his first or second day when he was hired as a national wire editor.
“I couldn’t figure out what I possibly could have screwed up in just one or two days,” said Rich Desrosiers, now the paper’s metro editor. “I even asked his secretary why he wanted to meet with some low-level, desk person like me.
“She said, ‘He likes to meet with all the new people.’ ” Desrosiers continued. “I spent nine years at another newspaper and had never spoken with the publisher there.”
Desrosiers said they talked for about a half an hour about the philosophy of news and the standards he expected from all Beacon Journal employees.
James Crutchfield, who succeeded Mr. Dotson as Beacon Journal publisher and who was the newspaper’s second black publisher, was managing editor during the race series.
He said editors at the time knew the project was traversing new ground in how a newspaper covered its community. They were concerned, however, that the project might have been pressing the emotions of readers too hard, making some people uneasy.
Mr. Dotson disagreed, Crutchfield said, saying: “Are you sure it’s big enough? I don’t think it’s big enough.”
“And that’s when it became even bigger,” Crutchfield said. “You see, I felt we were pushing the envelope by what we were presenting to him and we ended up pushing it even further than I even pushed it because of John.”
Andrea Mathewson, the Beacon Journal’s current publisher, got her first shot at a leadership position at the paper under Mr. Dotson, attending Knight Ridder’s Leadership Development Program in the 1990s.
“When I was appointed to my first team management position in packaging, he was so very proud,” she said. “I looked to him as a mentor.”
Mathewson said he had high expectations for the newspaper’s managers.
“You just didn’t want to disappoint John,” she said.
Mr. Dotson combined his work at the newspaper with an active role in the community. He was a former president of the Akron Community Foundation, vice chair of the Akron Regional Development Board and a member of the boards of directors of the Summit Education Initiative, Inventure Place, the Inventors Hall of Fame and Akron Tomorrow, a committee devoted to cooperative development in Northeast Ohio.
Started scholarship fund
He started the Beacon Journal scholarship fund for high school seniors in 1997 for dependent children of staffers. The Beacon changed the name to the John L. and Peggy Dotson Scholarship when he retired in recognition of his passion for education.
Michael Douglas, the newspaper’s editorial editor, said Mr. Dotson understood the importance of a newspaper’s dual role as a corporate citizen and a news provider.
“I thought of him as the whole package,” he said. “I think you get lucky to work for somebody who fulfills what you imagine that job should be.”
J. Cordell Slack of Bessay salon in Akron was both a friend and hair stylist for Mr. Dotson and his wife, Peggy, during their time in Akron.
He described Mr. Dotson as professional, intelligent and practical. He said he enjoyed fly fishing more than golf.
“I don’t know what I brought to the table, but he brought a lot,” Slack said.
He recalled telling Mr. Dotson, “I’m not worthy of being your buddy.”
Mr. Dotson laughed and said, “Don’t be silly.”
Slack said his friend was publisher during a time when the newspaper did a lot of stories that people weren’t happy about.
“I’m a newspaper man,” he recalls Mr. Dotson telling him. “We’re not supposed to be beholden. I deal with truth and facts.”