Retired USA Today founder tells of rediscovering his home town

By Chet Brokaw, The Associated Press
Friday July 05, 2002

EUREKA, S.D. — When the founder of USA Today visits the rural town where he was born, he often spends time at the Luncheonette Cafe, chatting with old friends about everything from their arthritis to world affairs. 

“It’s sort of a reality check,” said Al Neuharth, who retired in 1989 as chairman of the newspaper’s parent, the Gannett Co. “It’s that sort of earthy talk — whether it’s about politics or sports or health — just what people in small towns are interested in.” 

The tough businessman, who oversaw the rise of USA Today and still writes a weekly column for the newspaper, also founded the Freedom Forum, a group that promotes freedom of the press. 

He’s taking advantage of his retirement to travel, including about four trips a year to the town where he was born 78 years ago. 

Neuharth recently left his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to make a trip to Eureka in the Freedom Forum’s big bus with four of his six adopted children: Alexis, 11; Karina, 5; and twins Andre and Ariana, 4. (Two-year-old twins Aliandro and Rafaelina stayed home with his wife, Rachel, because they’re too young for such a trip.) 

Neuharth wanted to show them life in a small town on the northern Plains, where cars don’t have to be locked, children can ride bikes without fear of traffic and everyone knows each other. 

Neuharth had plans to show his kids sites all around the state. But he particularly wanted them to see his hometown, a tidy city of 1,200 founded by German immigrants. 

Neuharth said he was so busy working when his now-grown son and daughter were young that he always had to figure out how to get them off his lap so he could get back to work. 

“With these kids, I try to keep them around as much as I can. It’s a whole different approach for me as a father,” he said. 

Neuharth’s hometown sometimes comes up in his column, which he has used a couple of times to praise the Luncheonette Cafe. Bob Jung, owner of the restaurant, said the retired newspaperman knows a lot of people in Eureka. 

“He’s just an old hometown guy. He talks to everybody,” Jung said. 

Mayor Ron Cooper said Neuharth fits right in with morning coffee drinkers when he sits at the counter. The mayor said Neuharth also helped build an information center for visitors, and the Freedom Forum donated money to build a playground near the swimming lake on the edge of town. 

“I know the community really, really appreciates him. Every time we’ve asked, he’s helped,” Cooper said. 

Neuharth was born in Eureka in 1924. His father died when Neuharth was 2. When he was 10, his mother moved the family to another small town, Alpena, to be near her parents. He became a newspaper carrier at age 11 and later worked for the weekly Alpena Journal. 

After serving in World War II and graduating from the University of South Dakota, Neuharth worked for The Associated Press for two years. He and a friend then launched SoDak Sports, a weekly tabloid that covered South Dakota sports. In 1954, after two years, the venture failed. 

Neuharth worked as a reporter and editor for The Miami Herald and Detroit Free Press before joining Gannett as general manager of its two newspapers in Rochester, N.Y., in 1963. He started a newspaper in 1966 that would become what is now Florida Today. 

Neuharth became Gannett’s CEO in 1973 and the company’s chairman in 1979. Gannett became the nation’s largest newspaper company, and USA Today, which he launched in 1982, eventually became the country’s most widely read newspaper. 

In Eureka, Neuharth’s presence tends to draw attention. Heads turned when he drove through downtown in a white Mercedes station wagon with Florida license plates. 

Neuharth’s one-story house in Eureka — which he bought for $15,000 last year, 66 years after his mother sold it for $1,700 — also draws some stares. On the front porch is a locked newspaper vending machine containing one paper — the first edition of USA Today, dated Sept. 15, 1982.