By MICHELLE WILLIAMS, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kent Flanagan, a longtime journalist and open government advocate who spent 21 years as Tennessee’s bureau chief for The Associated Press, died Wednesday. He was 69.
Flanagan’s wife, Janet, said he died at home after a long illness. He had been talking and joking with his brother just before he died, she said.
The couple recently marked their 42nd wedding anniversary, she said. The two met while Flanagan was stationed in Germany with the Army as a public information officer. After a stint in Vietnam, Flanagan completed his four years of military service, and the couple married in 1972. They then began moving around the country with Flanagan’s fledgling journalism career.
Flanagan worked for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel in Florida, and the San Antonio Express-News before he joined the AP in Pennsylvania in 1979 as a newsman. However, his love for reporting and writing started much earlier.
“I’ve been a journalist since the age of 12,” Flanagan told the Williamson Herald in Franklin., Tennessee, in April 2012. “I got drafted in middle school to write sports for the student newspaper, and kept going.”
Born in Ballinger, Texas, Flanagan began his career as a reporter for the San Angelo (Texas) Standard in 1967 while studying at Angelo State University, where he graduated with honors in 1968.
He was an AP administrative correspondent in North Dakota and news editor in South Carolina before getting promoted in 1983 to bureau chief in Nashville, where he oversaw news and sales until he retired in 2004.
As bureau chief, Flanagan directed news coverage of several major stories in Tennessee, including personally covering in 2000 the state’s first execution in more than 40 years. He was known not only for his sharp editing, keen news sense and quick word play with puns, but also for spotting and encouraging young talent.
On Wednesday, Flanagan’s Facebook page quickly filled with sentiments from former interns, editorial assistants and reporters who remembered Flanagan as someone who saw their potential, offered them opportunities when others didn’t, and mentored them.
“When I first met Kent, he was gruff and intimidating, but I would soon learn that behind that formidable exterior was a man with a huge heart who was an unrelenting champion for all those who worked alongside him,” said Amber McDowell, a communications strategist for Washington, D.C.-based Blue Engine Message & Media, who was hired by Flanagan as an editorial assistant in 2001. “He was a teacher and an example for us all. He gave us the tools we needed to do our jobs, and then set us free to be our best selves.”
Add Seymour Jr., communications writer and social media manager at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said he was disillusioned with law school and eager to follow his dream to become a journalist when he met Flanagan at a Memphis job fair in 1995. While other editors dismissed him for his lack of experience, Seymour said Flanagan encouraged him to apply for jobs at the AP, and later hired him.
“He offered me a job as an editorial assistant as a way into the newsroom to learn and grow. I stayed with AP for a few years and then knew I wanted to be in a traditional newspaper environment,” said Seymour, who later won a national Excellence in Urban Journalism Award from the Freedom Forum in 1998. “I owe that to Kent, who believed in me.”
Flanagan was supportive not only of AP employees but others in the industry. Regina Burns, who was news director at WGKX -FM in Memphis from 1985 to 1994, was the first black woman to win the state’s AP Broadcaster of the Year award and to serve as the Tennessee AP Broadcasters Association’s president.
“He encouraged me as a young African-American news director when there was no one else around me who looked like me,” Burns said. “What I was able to achieve was a direct result of his support and encouragement.”
AP photographer Mark Humphrey said besides the grin Flanagan couldn’t hide when he delivered one of his puns, one of the things he will remember most about Flanagan is “the satisfaction he would radiate” when he joined the staff to help cover breaking news.
“He would sit down behind a terminal, and start to write and edit. He loved it. He was at home then,” Humphrey said.
And, often he came to work wearing Hawaiian shirts. He loved to travel, especially taking cruises, and to tell stories about his cherished cats, although he would sometimes pretend that all the doting was done by his wife.
After AP, Flanagan served four years as journalist in residence at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and just over two years as editor of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.
Most recently, Flanagan served from 2012 to 2013 as executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance of media, citizen and professional groups that works to educate the public about open meetings and open records laws.
Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, worked with Flanagan and others to start TCOG. He said Flanagan was instrumental in helping organize the first public records audit in Tennessee in 2004.
“There was no greater champion of the First Amendment and the cause of open government than Kent,” Gibson said. “He put the resources he commanded at AP squarely behind our efforts and made our statewide records audit possible. He was a true friend and will be missed.”
Flanagan requested that no services be held. A scholarship fund will be established in his memory.