John Alden Blethen, 74, publisher of The Seattle Times for 15 years, chairman of the board for 11 years and chairman emeritus since December 1988, died yesterday after a long illness.
Mr. Blethen, widely known as "Jack," was the fourth member of the Blethen family to become publisher of the newspaper purchased in 1896 by his grandfather, Alden J. Blethen.
Under Jack Blethen's leadership, The Times introduced many editorial innovations.
Among them: the Sunday Issues pages, the move to an electronic newsroom, plant expansion, Pacific magazine and the broadened scope of the Scene section.
As publisher, Mr. Blethen gave the go-ahead to special news supplements, such as The Times' prize-winning special section a week after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.
Like all the Blethens who have worked at the paper for more than nine decades, Jack Blethen learned newspapering from the ground up, selecting the newsroom as his first training ground.
There, he sat at the elbow of seasoned editors and was barked at, and seldom praised, in the old newsroom tradition.
Former Editorial Page Editor Herb Robinson, who edited the newspaper's Op-Ed page for five years under Mr. Blethen, called him "an ideal publisher."
`BACKED HIS PEOPLE'
"He held strong opinions and had an abiding interest in public issues," said Robinson. "Best of all, he did not second-guess and backed his people all the way."
Even though Mr. Blethen was a shy man who shunned the spotlight, "He relished a good, healthy scrap," said Robinson.
"When I told him a couple of prominent public figures were sore at us over some editorial criticism, Jack said, `Good! Hit 'em again!' "
Present Times Publisher Frank Blethen, a nephew of Jack Blethen, said of his uncle:
"During his 15-year tenure as publisher, Jack Blethen presided over the most dramatic period in The Seattle Times' history . . . a period in which The Times won the competitive metropolitan newspaper battle in Seattle, highly unusual for an afternoon newspaper."
Frank Blethen lauded his uncle's devotion to a quality product and to community service, adding:
"If there is a legacy that Jack Blethen has left the Seattle community, it is something very rare and very valuable in America today - a top-quality, locally owned newspaper. For that, we all owe Jack a deep debt of gratitude."
For most of the 96 years since Alden J. Blethen purchased the newspaper, Blethens have served as publishers: Alden J. Blethen, from 1896-1915; Clarance B. Blethen, 1915-1941; William K. Blethen, 1949-1967; John A. Blethen, 1967-1982; and Frank Blethen, 1985-present. The exceptions: Elmer Todd, 1942-49, and W.J. "Jerry" Pennington, 1982-85.
ON SEVERAL BOARDS
Besides being chairman of the board of The Times, Jack Blethen was chairman of the board of The Times Communications Co. and The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin at the time of his retirement four years ago.
Mr. Blethen also was a trustee and past president of the board of Lakeside School and a trustee of the Seattle Foundation. He was a past president of the University Club of Seattle and the Men's University Club, and had been a member of the Seattle Golf Club, Rainier Club and the Seattle Tennis Club.
A Seattle native, Mr. Blethen attended West Queen Anne Elementary School and graduated from Lakeside School, where he was president of the student body and the senior class.
He attended Dartmouth College, where he was a member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and the Sphinx Senior Society.
With war clouds gathering over much of the world, Mr. Blethen enlisted as a private in the Washington National Guard in January 1940, going on active duty the following year.
He rose to the rank of major in an Army Coast Artillery anti-aircraft battery, and at the end of World War II went on inactive status as a lieutenant colonel.
He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Barbara; sons, John Prentice and Alden Joseph Blethen, and four grandchildren.
Services are pending.
The family suggests memorials be made to the Hereditary Disease Foundation, 1427 Seventh St., Suite 2, Santa Monica, CA 90401-9798.