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Published: Monday, 1/24/2011

John 'Jack' Cairns, 1929-2011: Newsman demanded accuracy, excellence

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

John "Jack" Cairns, an old-fashioned newspaper man who demanded accuracy and the precise use of language from his reporters at The Blade, died Sunday at Lake Park Skilled Nursing Facility in Sylvania.

Mr. Cairns, 81, died of esophageal cancer, said his daughter, Carla Cairns.

Mr. Cairns, born in Canada and naturalized as a U.S. citizen, capped his 36-year career in newspapers, 24 of them with The Blade, with 10 years in public relations for the Medical College of Ohio, now the University of Toledo Medical Center.

Mr. Cairns was born on April 28, 1929, in Galt, Ont., to John and Margaret Cairns. He attended high school in Galt and was a journalism graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

He worked on newspapers in Sarnia and London, Ont., before joining The Blade in 1958 as a general assignment reporter. He became city editor at the Toledo Times, The Blade's sister publication and competitor, then assistant city editor of The Blade.

When he left The Blade in 1984, he was assistant managing editor in charge of directing The Blade's news operation.

In 1964, he left The Blade to return to Canada to work on the Woodstock, Ont., newspaper as its managing editor but left for Utica, N.Y., after a short period to become an assistant managing editor. He stayed there for about a year, returning to The Blade because "he really missed Toledo," his daughter said.

His boss during his second stint at The Blade, Joe O'Conor, said Mr. Cairns chalked up a first for the family-owned newspaper.

"He was the first guy the publisher had hired back after leaving," Mr. O'Conor said. "In those days, the publisher would not hire back people who had left."

"He was tough, but he was honest. He was honest beyond reproach," Mr. O'Conor said. "The best you could say about him was he was a damn good newspaperman."

In 1970, while working as The Blade's regional editor, Mr. Cairns became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

He was one of three newly minted citizens who spoke to the group of 31 people who took part in the naturalization ceremonies at the U.S. Courthouse.

"We all bring something from our native countries, which we can offer to make America even greater, if not for ourselves, then for our children," Mr. Cairns told the assembled group.

Mr. O'Conor, who retired as managing editor in 1984, said Mr. Cairns still had a warm spot in his heart for his native land.

John Robinson Block, The Blade's publisher and editor-in-chief, said that even after Mr. Cairns left The Blade, he followed the newspaper and events in Canada with intense interest.

A headline on a story about a plebiscite in Quebec intended to be clever instead offended Mr., Cairns, who chastised his former employer for being disrespectful of his native land.

"The headline was aimed at being clever, but was more cute than it was accurate," Mr. Block said. "That brought the Canadian out of him."

Mr. Cairns was a stickler for accuracy.

"He was punctilious with details … at a time when reporters had to check the spelling of a name three ways," Mr. Block said.

In 1972, at age 43, Mr. Cairns was named city editor. In another first at The Blade, he was the youngest person to hold that position at that time, his daughter said. He held that post for 10 years, a record in longevity at that time, she added.

The change was a good one for the paper, Mr. Block said, because the city editor's position until then was "held by all these old men."

Despite his relative youth, Mr. Cairns "did not have an ego. He wasn't trying to prove anything," said Tom Gearhart, who worked for Mr. Cairns assigning stories to reporters.

"He was a hard-bitten newsman who insisted on chasing stories no matter what it took," Mr. Gearhart said. "He could laugh, but when he was at work, he was bound and determined that we got the news and we got it right."

Mike Bartell, a retired night city editor who worked for Mr. Cairns as a reporter, said, "Jack was a very demanding boss who expected excellence. And as a result, you learned to do your job properly. He taught you the idea of accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."

Mr. Cairns left the Blade in 1984 as part of management changes but was quickly hired at the Medical College. He worked there 10 years, retiring at age 65.

His supervisor there, Jim Richard, called him, "a very active and very aggressive communicator for us."

"We assigned beats just like the newspaper did. I had him cover the faculty senate; you could always count on Jack," Mr. Richard said.

He also was a mentor to young reporters.

"He was an unrelenting taskmaster who demanded nothing less than your best," Tom Quinn, a 49-year veteran at The Blade and now a copy editor, said.

"He worked to discover your weaknesses and did his best to help you overcome them while nurturing your strengths," Mr. Quinn said.

"At 10 in the morning he could draw and quarter you for a bonehead mistake, and sit down beside you after lunch and calmly explain the morning's tirade. You knew he cared about you as a person. You knew he cared about your career," Mr. Quinn said.

Early in his career at the Blade, Mr. Cairns covered the state legislature for a time.

Mr. Cairns married Marion Joyce in 1952, and she died in 2000.

Mr. Cairns' hobby was reading and following politics, up until the time he died, said his daughter.

He was an avid hockey fan and kept tabs on the Toronto Maple Leafs, she said, but his real passion remained newspapering.

"That was his life. He loved working at newspapers," Ms. Cairns said.

Mr. Cairns is survived by his daughter, Carla Cairns, and son, John Scott Cairns, and four grandchildren.

Arrangements at Ansberg-West Funeral Home are pending.

Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com, or 419-724-6050



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