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Former Detroit News managing editor James Vesely dies

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Throughout his time as an editor at The Detroit News, Jim Vesely was a thoughtful, probing presence in the newsroom.

“Every day, in words and through his pleasant leadership style, Jim brought intelligence and reason to handling the day’s news,” said Mark Lett, a former reporter and editor at The News and retired editor of the State in Columbia, South Carolina.

“Where some journalists settled for telling what had happened, Jim pushed for the ‘why’ and the ‘what’s next.’ His penetrating, persistent approach enriched coverage and encouraged more thorough storytelling.”

Mr. Vesely died Wednesday, March 4, 2020, at his home in Mercer Island, Washington, following a suspected heart attack, relatives said. He was 79.

Vesely was also an avid fisherman and caught Coho salmon on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state in 2017.

During his tenure at The News from 1976-88, he served as a news editor, features editor, Sunday magazine editor and managing editor. 

“I remember Jim as a solid newspaperman, who worked in Detroit at the height of the great newspaper war,” said Nolan Finley, The News’ editorial page editor and a former colleague. “He loved the competition. Jim was smart, and had great sense of humor. He always wore an impish grin.”

Mr. Veseley was also part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize public service medal for the newspaper in 1982 for a series that highlighted a cover-up by the U.S. Navy of the deaths of seamen aboard ships, and led to significant reforms.

David Ashenfelter, one of the reporters on the series, described Vesely “as one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. (He) had a vision in 1981 when we began working on a project about the runaround families were receiving from the Navy after their children died in peacetime service. Jim was a major reason that the newspaper had the vision to take on a story that won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for public service. It was the first news writing Pulitzer in The Detroit News’ history.”

He added: “I left college with two goals: Work at a major daily and win a Pulitzer. Jim made the second possible.”

After leaving The News, Mr. Vesely took management positions at the Sacramento Union in California and the Anchorage Times in Alaska.

In 1991, he joined the Seattle Times, where he became its editorial page editor.

Retiring in 2009, he continued media ties by serving as an adviser at Seattle Central College and judging student journalism competitions, said his daughter Rebecca Vesely. “Mentoring young journalists was a big priority for him.”

Mr. Vesely’s own start was slightly different.  After attending the United States Military Academy  and doing a stint in the Army, the Chicago native “kind of fell into it,” his daughter said. “He was just a big believer. He loved to write and he loved current events.”

Mr. Vesely started working as a reporter in Ohio and was an editor by his 30s, she said. He later earned a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University before joining The News.

While at the paper, Mr. Vesely taught at Wayne State University, traveled abroad and even met President Ronald Reagan, his daughter said.

Keeping journalism viable was a major goal, she recalled, since he “was a big proponent of regional news and holding people in power accountable.”

Outside of work, Mr. Vesely enjoyed fishing, following sports and keeping up with public affairs. The night he died, he avidly watched Super Tuesday election results, Rebecca Vesely said. “He was very engaged in politics.”

Other survivors include another daughter, Debbie Twelker; sons-in-law Zach Waller and Eric Twelker; and two granddaughters, Julia and Lyra. His wife, Jean, died in 2008.

Memorials may be made to the Committee to Protect Journalists.