Newton Minow left a long line of impressions during his life – Chicago Tribune

From Barack Obama to scores of friends and colleagues, a steady stream of tributes have flowed in for Newton Minow, the iconic civic leader who died earlier this month.

For most, the accolades have been close to home in a figurative sense, but for Glencoe’s Jonathan Katz, that has been a literal meaning. In what is no coincidence, Katz and his family live today where the Minow’s resided for most of the 1950s.

Over a decade ago, Katz wanted to purchase a home on the North Shore. When looking at a Glencoe house, the owners offhandedly mentioned the Minow’s once lived there.

“They probably didn’t realize it had any significance of any sort but it actually resonated with me. That probably had more weight than they actually thought it would have or could have,” Katz said. “That stuck in my mind.”

Today, Katz is enthralled to be in the same home where Minow engaged in conversations with John Kennedy, former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson and many others.

“It is just really neat to live in a place that has some historical connections,” Katz said.

Katz had a separate connection to Minow — he once worked at Sidley and Austin, the high-powered Chicago-based law firm where Minow was a partner for many years.

“Every time I saw him speak he had a humanity about him and he had a brilliant mind and he was humble at the same time and seemed like a kind and warm person,” Katz remembered.

That is just one of many local associations to Minow, who grew to national fame in the early 1960s as Federal Communications Commission Chairman. The noted attorney and 2016 United States Medal of Freedom recipient died May 6 at the age of 97.

Since his death, friends, family and neighbors have spoken of their appreciation for Minow and his impact throughout the nation. Many of these were local connections as the Minow’s owned residences in Glencoe and Winnetka for most of the time from 1953 to 2018.

For former Today Show correspondent Mike Leonard, Minow played a role in his life for more than 60 years as he grew up in a house next door to the house where Katz lives today.

Former Today Show correspondent Mike Leonard (left) and Jonathan Katz speak in front of the Glencoe home that once belonged to Newton Minow

Former Today Show correspondent Mike Leonard (left) and Jonathan Katz speak in front of the Glencoe home that once belonged to Newton Minow (Daniel Dorfman/Daniel I. Dorfman for the Chicago Tribune)

They remained friends and in 2015, he produced a television documentary about Minow. The night before Minow died, Leonard sat next to him at a testimonial in Chicago for acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns.

“He was engaged as he could possibly be,” said Leonard, who now lives in Winnetka. “He was really laughing a lot, asking questions and writings things down. It was one of the best conversations I ever had.”

After serving in the U.S. Army in the late 1940s, Minow graduated from Northwestern University’s law school and then worked as a law clerk for United States Chief Justice Fred Vinson.

Upon returning to the Midwest, Minow was part of Stevenson’s legal team in both of his presidential campaigns, becoming acquainted with the Kennedy family.

Minow and his wife, Jo were starting their family and in 1953, they purchased the Glencoe house in 1953 for $21,750, according to a family memoir published in 1999.

The Minow’s were drawn to Glencoe with its good schools, the proximity of Lake Michigan and being in a community where people could easily walk around, according to their daughter, Nell.

Nell Minow recalls her mother telling her on the first day in the Glencoe house someone knocked on the door with a petition seeking construction of a playground in the neighborhood.

“My mother said have you come to the right place,” Minow said.

The family also made frequent trips to the Glencoe Public Library, a walkable distance away. In what draws hearty laughs today from current village officials, Newt Minow expressed interest in becoming a member of the Glencoe Public Library board in early 1961, but was deemed too inexperienced by local community leaders at the age of 34.

Just a few days later, President John Kennedy appointed him FCC chairman.

“We all love that story,” Nell said.

With the FCC appointment, the Minow family, which now included three daughters, moved to the nation’s capital.

“The Kennedy administration was a wonderful time to be in Washington,” Minow said. “It was very magical for children as the Kennedys had young children and we were invited to parties at the White House.”

Shortly into his FCC run, May 1961, Minow delivered an address bemoaning the state of television at the time, which he did not believe was properly serving the American people.

It became known as the “Vast Wasteland” speech, which Nell Minow indicated her father thought was a mischaracterization.

“He always said the two words people remember from that speech are vast wasteland and the two words I want them to remember are public interest,” Minow said.

It was a controversial take on the medium, but Minow recalled her father got a call later that night from John Kennedy’s father Joseph expressing appreciation for the points that were raised and the Kennedy family supported Minow.

However, Minow angered some television executives with his speech. To tweak him, the producers of the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” named the boat (while spelling the name incorrectly) as the passengers were stranded as the S.S. Minnow.

Minow said her father was not angered about the jab, quite the opposite.

“That was absolutely hilarious,” Minow said. “Quintessential of my dad, he and (Gilligan’s Island creator) Sherwood Schwartz had a very cordial exchange of letters and considered each other friends. There was nobody my father could not turn into a friend.”

In 1963 with a government salary only going so far, Minow resigned as FCC chairman returning to the Chicago area, an area they loved.

The return to Chicago also meant a return to Glencoe, this time to a larger house and all three daughters graduating from New Trier High School. Martha Minow was inducted into the school’s Alumni Hall of Honor in 2012.

The Minow’s engaged in other local activities, as they were members of Congregation Solel, the Northmoor Country Club with frequent trips to Ravinia, the Glencoe Beach and getting food at Ricky’s, one of the two popular downtown delis of that era.

“We were definitely a Ricky’s family,” Nell said. “Every Sunday my father would take one of us with him and get a cold cut platter and take it home with him and nosh on them all day.”

But the Minow’s also brought national issues inside the village borders.

On Memorial Day 1970, Minow delivered an anti-Vietnam war speech, less than a month after four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a rally at Kent State University. With tensions still high, Minow spoke of his frustrations about the war that had paralyzed the nation for years.

“A war which threatens to turn the American Dream into a twisted nightmare,” Minow told the crowd, according to excerpts published in the Glencoe News.

“He got a lot of flak for it, but he was right and I am very proud of him for that,” Nell Minow remembered.

Another historical impact tying Minow to Glencoe occurred in 1978 when the Minow’s hosted a fundraiser for their close friend Abner Mikva who was running for reelection to Congress. The fundraiser was attended by President Jimmy Carter, who flew in from the White House.

Jimmy Carter came to Glencoe in 1978 for a fundraiser for then-U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva. Pictured from left to right is Newton Minow, Martha Minow, Jimmy Carter, Nell Minow, Mary Minow, Jo Minow, David Apatoff (Nell Minow's husband) and Mikva behind Newton Minow.

Jimmy Carter came to Glencoe in 1978 for a fundraiser for then-U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva. Pictured from left to right is Newton Minow, Martha Minow, Jimmy Carter, Nell Minow, Mary Minow, Jo Minow, David Apatoff (Nell Minow’s husband) and Mikva behind Newton Minow. (Nell Minow/Nell Minow for the Chicago Tribune)

“He came to our house and it was really an incredible experience,” Minow said.

In an interesting twist, one of the reporters covering the event was ABC News White Correspondent Ann Compton, who also grew up in Glencoe.

Upon their return to Glencoe in 1963, Minow took a position as an executive with Encyclopaedia Britannica and in 1965 resumed his legal career working at the firm of Leibman, Williams, Bennett, Baird & Minow that later merged with Sidley & Austin in 1972.

The scores of lawyers he worked with included Barack and Michelle Obama and Lake Forest resident Caren Thomas.

“He was a champion of professional women at a time when there was still a great deal of prejudice against women in the law,” Thomas remembered. “When I got to Chicago, it was better in Chicago but there were still big hurdles. Newt’s daughters became incredibly accomplished and he was a huge supporter of the young men at Sidley and women achieving things in the workplace. He was a real pioneer.”

Before moving to Lake Forest, Thomas served as the longtime chairwoman of Glencoe’s plan commission adding her work with Minow provided context and perspective in that role.

“He was a strategic genius and the way he could take very complex interactions and dynamics and he could break them down strategically and show you what was actually going on and then map out a strategy going forward,” she said. “He was amazing that way.”

Another protégé of Minow was Deerfield resident Bruce Bernstein, who initially met Minow in the late 1960s and worked with him at both law firms.

“Newt put you in situations where he simply expected you to do well and excel and he gave you the opportunity to do so,” Bernstein said. “He never micromanaged projects where the two of you might be together. He relied on you but he expected excellence. When you are with someone like that and they push you in that way, if you respond to it, it makes you a better person and a better lawyer.”

After he left the FCC, Minow maintained connections to broadcasting as he was a board member at CBS, chairman and longtime member of the WTTW Board of Trustees and the chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service.

In that post, he worked on securing federal funding to launch the beloved children’s show “Sesame Street,” which Nell Minow remembers him being very excited about its premiere.

In another connection to broadcasting, former television correspondent Rich Samuels remembered how he initially met Minow in the 1970s when Samuels worked at WMAQ-TV.

“I did a piece about an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Niles near Shermer and Milwaukee,” Samuels recalled. “One of the headstones shown in the video was the grave marker of a man named Abraham Baskin. Newt called me after the segment aired and told me Abraham Baskin was the grandfather of his wife.”

Back on the North Shore, the Minow’s developed friendships with many Glencoe residents including Herb Cohen, the author of the 1982 New York Times bestseller “You Can Negotiate Anything.”

“Anyone that had the honor of knowing him would say here is this person of great achievement and was very humble,” Cohen said. “If you had a conversation with him, he would be asking more questions than giving answers. He would be listening rather than talking. He was interested in your life and he really cared about you. He was an A1 class human being.”

As she looked back on the life of her father and what made him a beloved figure to so many, Nell Minow spoke of what made him so special.

“His qualities of optimism and a joyful curiosity and his ability to connect people,” she said. “He was always introducing people to other people who could help them. His commitment to helping young people and giving them advice and guiding their careers. He was a rare person who had a commitment to individuals but also to the larger public good.”

Daniel I. Dorfman is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.

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May 23, 2023 at 05:41PM

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