The last few years were difficult for James F. Vesely, not because of his age, or his health, but because of the current administration’s criticism of journalism, a passion and pursuit that fueled him throughout his life.
“The attacks on journalism upset him more than some of the policies,” said his daughter, Rebecca Vesely. “He took it very personally. But he was also very thoughtful about it.”
Mr. Vesely, the former editorial page editor of The Seattle Times, passed away early Wednesday morning at his Mercer Island home after a night spent watching coverage of the Super Tuesday primary election. He was 79. His daughter said the cause was a heart attack.
“He was super engaged to the end, watching the presidential primary closely,” Rebecca Vesely said from her home in San Leandro, California. “I know he was up late.”
Mr. Vesely, a Chicago native, worked in newspapers predominantly in the Midwest but ended his daily newspaper career at The Seattle Times. He retired in 2009 after eight years as editorial page editor, and 18 years at the paper. During his tenure, he also wrote a weekly column of commentary focused on the region’s Eastside communities and growth-management issues.
“Growing up, he was one of the few dads that I knew who really liked what he did for a living,” Rebecca Vesely said. “He loved it. He was a strong believer in journalism and the rights of journalists and he was a big believer in the truth.”
Thirty years ago, he met Eastside businessman Skip Rowley. Mr. Vesely had reached out to Rowley after he had clashed with the then-Corporate Council for the Arts (now ArtsFund) about how it spent its contributions.
“He was kind of quiet but he was honest as the day is long,” Rowley remembered. “He was looking for an issue, and when he wrote about it, it was balanced. I never worried about his skewing an article. He would ask a question and present exactly what I said.”
That first meeting led to a long friendship between the businessman and the journalist — something Rowley believes to be a rare pairing.
“That doesn’t happen every day anymore,” he said. “People come with preconceived notions and nothing could change it. But Jim Vesely was never one of those people and neither was I.
“In the days of all this crap on national TV, Jim Vesely was a shining star about honesty. I think he was a reporter’s reporter.”
Ryan Blethen, a reporter and member of the family that owns The Seattle Times, called Mr. Vesely “a true gentleman.”
“He taught me a great many things about newspapering,” said Blethen, who succeeded Mr. Vesely as head of the editorial page, including, “the importance of compassion and thoughtfulness as essential aspects of being a journalist.”
Blethen also remembered Mr. Vesely’s firmness not only with the members of the editorial board, but with those who came before it.
“That toughness was complemented by his sound reasoning and clear feedback,” Blethen said. “Jim cared deeply for this community, his colleagues and journalism.”
Kate Riley, the current editorial page editor, praised Mr. Vesely’s “focus on regionalism,” and his ability to remind readers “that our community was a robust, successful region richer for its economic and political diversity.”
“He was sometimes hard to impress but always quick to support his staff, either professionally or personally,” Riley said. “He had a reporter’s flinty view of politicians who were full of themselves and disdain for sacred cows. But he also had a soft spot for true and authentic public service.”
After retiring from The Seattle Times, Mr. Vesely was a publications adviser at Seattle Central College, served as a judge in student journalism competitions and worked with The Marshall Fund.
“He loved that,” his daughter said. “He loved mentoring journalists.”
He also spent a lot of time fishing: salmon in British Columbia and Alaska. Marlin in Florida, where his parents once lived.
“He went every summer, out on a float tube for four days,” his daughter said. He also traveled to Churchill in the province of Manitoba, Canada, to see the polar bears — a journey that had long been on his bucket list.
Mr. Vesely was raised in Chicago, the son of a steelworker and a bookkeeper. He briefly attended West Point, served in the U.S. Army, then started working at small papers in Ohio and Illinois. In 1975, he won a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, then was hired as an assistant editor at The Detroit News.
He was the paper’s managing editor when, in 1982, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for a series which exposed the U.S. Navy’s cover-up of circumstances surrounding the deaths of seamen aboard ship and which led to reforms in naval procedures.
“It was one of his proudest moments,” his daughter said.
Mr. Vesely went on to work at The Sacramento Union, The Anchorage Times and finally came to The Seattle Times in 1991 as associate editorial page editor, deputy to Mindy Cameron.
“It was a really great partnership,” Cameron said. “I always thought of Jim as a fine, gentlemanly guy and a graceful writer with a lot of good journalistic chops. He knew the world. And we chose to chase ideas, rather than fires and sirens.”
Twelve years ago, Mr. Vesely lost his wife, Jean. They had been high-school sweethearts who went to the prom together, married, and had two daughters, Rebecca and Debbie.
He grew up going to baseball games, a beloved pastime that saw him at Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners games later in life. He loved a good steak, a nice piece of salmon — especially one he had caught himself.
Mr. Vesely loved to read about American history, “easily a book a week,” Rebecca Vesely said. “He always had his Kindle. I want to get ahold of it and see what he was reading.”
And he never stopped engaging in the news of the day; the democratic system and the pursuit of truth.
“He took the job very seriously,” his daughter said. “He was a true believer in the power of storytelling, journalism and the truth. He was a mentor to me and a friend.”
Mr. Vesely is survived by his daughters, Rebecca, of San Leandro, California, and Debbie, of Kirkland; sons-in-law Zach Waller and Eric Twelker; and two granddaughters, Julia and Lyra.
No services are planned.