By Aly Tamboura
The San Quentin News, created in 1940 by Warden Clinton T. Duffy, is at the end of an era, which began eight years ago under the guidance of one remarkable volunteer, who has decided to step down.
Veteran journalist John C. Eagan, who has been volunteering his time mentoring prisoners, including myself, in the craft of journalism, is leaving his position as senior adviser to the San Quentin News.
The legacy he leaves behind is a strong, professional, respected newspaper built from scratch. It is one of the most remarkable revivals in the annals of Bay Area journalism.
Eagan was asked in 2008 by then-Warden Robert Ayers Jr. to breathe new life into the San Quentin News, which had been on hiatus for years.
Eagan told Ayers he agreed to take the position “as long as the newspaper was not going to be a mouthpiece for the administration.”
As an unpaid volunteer adviser, Eagan oversaw publication of San Quentin News’ first edition in almost 20 years in June 2008. He was also instrumental in creating the paper’s Journalism Guild, a training project, where he has spent his Fridays for the last eight years instructing prisoners in how to be journalists.
On these Fridays, Eagan, despite his ailing knees, saunters in with the confidence of a seasoned newsman. He sports his black blazer and tie, topped off with his signature broad-brim canvas hat, creased at the crown. He takes his seat at the front of the class, sets his briefcase down and brushes his tie down to a neat, businessman’s white shirt. The day’s lesson begins.
“Write tight,” Eagan tells the class of incarcerated men. “Tell me what I need to know, and don’t tell me what I don’t need to know.”
His 80 years and fulsome experience in newsrooms command the listeners’ respect.
Eagan, who has interviewed the likes of former President Ronald Reagan and former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Earl Warren, gives instruction, even when he himself is the interview subject.
“What are the three most important questions you should ask me?” said Eagan, taking a break from editing articles with journalism students.
I asked how he became a journalist. Eagan set his coffee cup on the table, leaned back in his chair and smiled like a man who enjoys story-telling. And Eagan’s life and long tenure as a journalist is nothing less than a narrative suited for a novel.
Eagan was born in 1935 in Crystal River, Florida, in a home his carpenter father built. At age one, along with six of his seven siblings, he was sent to the Florida Baptist Children’s Home after his mother died due to complications with an ear infection.
The children’s home imbued the child with a foundation of strong Christian values. After 17 years in the Children’s Home. Eagan graduated from high school and joined the Army in 1954. After a stint overseas, he returned to the States and enrolled in University of Florida where he struggled to find what he really wanted to do.
First Eagan majored in engineering. All went well, according to Eagan, until he enrolled in a calculus class. The class was so difficult he changed his major to architecture, a profession that inspired him during his Army time in Europe. It also helped that his new major did not have such rigorous mathematical requirements. However, he changed yet again.
After a flu epidemic hit the college, leaving most of the school newspaper staff ill, Eagan was asked to assist. “I told the editor I didn’t know how to write like a journalist,” says Eagan.
According to Eagan, the editor’s response was: “’Whatever you can do is better than nothing.’” After the editor read the articles Eagan wrote, he called Eagan “a really good liar,” because the articles were well written and suited for publication.
“I found something I could do well, so I changed my major and graduated in three semesters,” said Eagan.
When it’s editorial crunch time at the San Quentin News, Eagan offers the slogan, “Let’s get out a paper and we’ll make the next one better than the last,” a mantra which is deeply rooted in his college journalism experience.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life”
Eagan’s mentorship is the driving force behind elevating the San Quentin News from a four-page tabloid, distributed inside prison walls in 2008, to a 20 to 24 page, award-winning singular and respected journalism voice, which is distributed in all 34 California prisons.
“What else should you ask me?” quips Eagan, with his fingers laced together and brown eyes signaling an eagerness to tell another story. “How about the most important story in which I have been involved?”
When Eagan was the assistant bureau chief and news editor at the Associated Press (AP) in Chicago, he came across a story in a local newspaper about a doctor, Henry Jay Heimlich, who was promoting an emergency technique he claimed would eject an object, such as food, from the trachea of a choking person. Many rejected Heimlich as a quack, but Eagan asked one of his reporters, “What if it’s true?” and submitted the story for national coverage. The article was published worldwide.
The Heimlich Maneuver, as it is called now, has been adopted by emergency response officials all over the world and is credited with saving countless lives, including Ronald Reagan and Eagan’s own granddaughter.
After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism, Eagan went to work at the Fort Lauderdale News. From there he got married and moved to California and was employed at the Arcadia Tribune, where he worked as a reporter and photographer.
After a year working at Arcadia, Eagan moved to Napa.
While working for the Napa Register, Eagan was tasked with going to the family ranch of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren on Christmas Eve to take a family picture. A month earlier, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas and Chief Justice Warren was appointed by Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s successor, to head a commission to investigate.
Chief Justice Warren, who had an aversion to interviews, invited Eagan to write a profile on him as long as there were no inquiries about the JFK assassination. For years afterward Eagan spent his Christmas Eves at the Warren family’s St. Helena ranch where he would interview Chief Justice Warren and take a photograph of the Warren family.
The decades of Eagan’s career took him to multiple news agencies. On top of holding positions in many news outlets, Eagan held executive positions for the AP in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Chicago. The last position Eagan held in the news business was publisher of the Marinscope Community Newspapers, which encompassed five weekly newspapers.
Eagan also founded the San Rafael Computer Training Center, which he headed for 12 years in the 1980s and ‘90s.
What are his thoughts about his time here at San Quentin? His pending departure brought a cloud of melancholy drifting over his usually cheerful face.
“It is time for me to step down from the San Quentin News,” said Eagan, with a hint of sorrow in his voice. “It’s time to go to work on three books I have put on the back burner for eight years.”
According to Eagan, “The San Quentin News has become an outstanding, high-quality, award-winning publication that does a remarkable job of reporting what is good and what is bad about the criminal justice system – and what needs to be improved or changed.”
Under his tutelage, the newspaper to which he devoted so much time and energy has given a voice to a part of the American population which has dwelled in the shadows.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life,” reflected Eagan.
One of the books Eagan is writing is titled “What If It’s True?” a witty phrase drawn from the accumulated wisdom of a lifelong journalist.