John K. (Jack) Teahen Jr. died last week on January 8. He was 87 and I’ve known him for almost all of my professional career.
Most of you reading this blog won’t have a clue who Jack was, but I’m here to tell you he embodied the spirit of Detroit, the spirit of journalism and the spirit of humanity. His ethics and commitment to accuracy and good writing are the things we strive for on this blog.
Jack was one of my first editors and mentors when I was a young journalist just starting my career at Automotive News. My first beat was weekly production numbers. My job was to call each auto company and find out how many cars and trucks they built in the U.S. that week, which plants were open and which plants were closed and why.
Sounds boring, right? I thought so, too. I wanted to be out covering the big stories. I quickly learned there was a reason young reporters were given such tedious assignments. To learn patience. To learn to be thorough. To learn how one set of numbers or several sets of numbers can lead to a big story.
Just so you know in those days production numbers were tallied by hand on a spreadsheet. No computer. No Excel. No nothin’ but a calculator and your own math skills.
To Jack data was the big story and he wrote those stories for Automotive News for nearly 60 years. He chronicled the ups and downs of the auto industry and backed every single story up with his meticulously gathered and analyzed data.
He taught me data was the backbone of any good, accurate story. That data wasn’t always numbers. Don’t just make two calls to sources to get information, he told me. Make the third call and if things still don’t track keep calling. Know why people are sharing something with you and don’t take anything at face value … data … data … data.
And, he was a stickler … a curmudgeon … about the use of commas, apostrophes and every other detail in a story. It wasn’t uncommon to sit with him for what seemed like hours being grilled about points you’d make in a story. He did it with grace and gentlemanliness, never making you feel stupid or insignificant. He made you know he cared about how a story with your byline went into the paper. It’s a belief I’ve tried to live up to in my career.
Jack’s abilities were recognized by his peers. In 2006, he was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, received a Distinguished Service Citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame and accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Jack applied his same thoroughness to another job he loved … statistician for the Detroit Lions from 1948 to 2000. During that time he saw three National Football League championships in the 1950s and one playoff-game victory. I know he’s still rooting for them in heaven.
I know he’s there because Jack was a man of great faith who thanked God for his successes and for his friends and family … both personal and professional. At the funeral home his niece told those of us assembled from his Automotive News family … both past and present … how much he cared about us. That’s why he kept coming into the Auto News office twice a month after he retired … at 83 … to write a column and do some analysis.
When I got the word last week Jack was gone I e-mailed a friend who is still at Automotive News and asked for details and pictures for this blog. She told me she’d gone to Jack’s desk and found an envelope of photos with pictures of his Automotive News family. Among them was a photo of the then women of Auto News taken about 25 year ago on a boat celebrating her upcoming wedding. It warmed my heart that he’d kept that snapshot.
As a mentor Jack helped many of us become better reporters. As a friend he helped us become better people.
In Detroit we are lucky to have mentors with the same passion as Jack for making certain our young people have the skills they need to succeed … not only in careers but in life.
The last song sung at Jack’s funeral was On Eagle’s Wings. It seemed fitting. He helped many soar.
Bless you, Jack.