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SPJ mourns death of 95th President John Ensslin


J. Alex Tarquinio, SPJ National President, 212-283-0843,
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Director of Communications and Marketing, 317-361-4134,

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is mourning a beloved former national president, long-time award-winning journalist and friend today as it grieves the sudden passing of John Ensslin.

Dedicated, devoted, kind and genuine are words friends and colleagues across the country use repeatedly to describe him.

“John was one of the best, as dedicated to SPJ as any past national president could be,” said SPJ National President J. Alex Tarquinio. “After his term, he supported our election process with his podcasts of the candidates and freely gave advice to SPJ leaders coming up the ranks. He remained a committed journalist, moving halfway across the country twice to keep doing the work that he loved. He was also a good friend and a class act, and our hearts all go out to his family and friends.”

Ensslin started his career as a journalist by posting accounts of the 1964 World Series on his front porch for neighborhood kids to read.

A graduate of Columbia University in 1976, Ensslin worked as a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News for 24 years. He was with the paper when it closed in February 2009.

“I’m heartbroken,” a gracious Ensslin told the Denver Post at the time of the Rocky’s closure. “I’ve given 24 years of my life to this paper, and I really liked it. I had a goal when I came to Denver: to work for a great American newspaper, and I met that goal, and I got to stick with it.”

He won numerous awards throughout his career and covered stories ranging from the JonBenet Ramsey case to visits from Queen Elizabeth and the Pope. In 2012, he sat down with the Columbia School of Journalism to discuss “Ethics in a Modern Era” as part of the school’s 100th anniversary activities.

“It was a great run,” he told The Post in 2009.

He worked for The Gazette in Colorado Springs from 2009-2011; The Record in New Jersey from 2012-2018; and returned to Colorado in February to work at Colorado Politics. He was inducted into the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame in 2007.

He told Quill magazine, after being inducted as SPJ’s national president in 2011, that he stays involved with SPJ because, “I’m always struck by how much work we do every day in the cause of journalism.”

He is survived by his wife, Denise. Arrangements are pending.

Quotes about John Ensslin from colleagues and friends:

J. Alex Tarquinio, current SPJ National President

“This is devastating and thoroughly unexpected news. John was one of the best, as dedicated to SPJ as any past national president could be. After his term, he supported our election process with his podcasts of the candidates and freely gave advice to SPJ leaders coming up the ranks. He remained a committed journalist, moving halfway across the country twice to keep doing the work that he loved. He was also a good friend and a class act, and our hearts all go out to his family and friends.”

Hagit Limor, SPJ’s 94th national president and current vice president of the SPJ Foundation

“John never hesitated to step up to the plate when we needed him most, be it a committee, an initiative, a phone call, even stepping in as president-elect a year early. He exemplified calm, focused leadership and above all, was a genuine, true friend. What a huge loss to SPJ and every organization blessed to enjoy his talents.”

Sonny Albarado, SPJ’s 96th national president

"John epitomized the collaborative leader -- gracious yet clear about his goals. He began his year as SPJ president by convening a weekly conference call with his president-elect and secretary-treasurer, me and Dave Cuillier. Those meetings kept us in the loop about his FOI and podcast initiatives, and we shared ideas about how to extend and expand on one president's goals beyond a single term. I think we were successful.

"Even after his term was over, we stayed in touch and consulted on crises and ambitions for SPJ. I'm going to miss his positivity and deep commitment to journalism."

Robert Leger, SPJ’s 86th national president and SDX Foundation immediate past president

“Some years ago, John Ensslin started a podcast for the Society of Professional Journalists. He asked me to write a theme for it. I knew John as a fine journalist, an excellent leader as SPJ president, but above all a gentle, thoughtful soul with whom every conversation was a treat. We titled his theme ‘Civil Dialogue.’

“John died unexpectedly in Denver this week, a blow to all of us who knew and respected him. In his honor, here is his theme."

Sue Porter, retired vice president of the Scripps Howard Foundation

“John’s work earned him the esteem of his colleagues and the gratitude of his readers. But his kindness and intelligence endeared him to everyone whose path he crossed. SPJ - and the journalism profession - have lost a very special friend.”

Andy Schotz, SPJ Region 2 director

“I met John at a Scripps Leadership Institute weekend when it was still held each year in Indianapolis.

“We bonded over journalism and baseball, and those bonds lasted as long as we knew each other.

Most conversations ended with a chat about the last game we attended or the next one we hope to see. And we sometimes talked about which city and stadium where we could meet sometime soon, although we never made it happen.

“One trait I liked most about John is that even if he was bugged about something, he never ratcheted up the outrage. He stayed level-headed and collected and kept his demeanor cool.

“He went through ups and downs in job security, but he always found a way to keep going and do what he loved.

“Podcasting was a great example. It wasn’t part of his duties years ago. Then, a job cut forced him to try something new and he took to it.

“He was thrilled to do a podcast series focusing on a teenage girl who was a contestant on ‘The Voice.’

“Talking to John, such as for the SPJ candidate interview series he launched last year, was soothing and enjoyable, every time.

“In emails, too. He would sign off ‘Til then,’ and you would think, ‘See you soon, my friend.’”

Andrew Seaman, former SPJ Ethics Committee chair

“John was one of the first people I met within the Society of Professional Journalists. In addition to being such a wonderful and committed journalist, he was an incredibly nice person. You could sit and talk with him for ages — always feeling a bit better about your day when you parted ways. SPJ has lost one of its most effective leaders and volunteers, journalism has lost a great reporter and the world has lost a good soul.”

Joe Skeel, former SPJ executive director

“John became president during my third year as executive director, and insisted that we chat via phone once a week. Despite my best efforts to explain that chatting that often wasn’t necessary, he insisted. But because he is truly one of the nicest, most gentle people I have ever met, he didn’t demand it. Rather, explained it in a way that made me feel guilty for pushing back. John’s secret sauce, from my perspective, was that nobody wanted to disappoint him – even moments after meeting him. I was no different. Needless to say, the weekly calls commenced.

“We spent the early calls talking all business. My intent was to guide him during his term, explain how things worked and keep us on track. And although I think I may have done that in small ways (mainly explaining operational aspects) I later figured out that those calls were his way of keeping me up to speed and on track with his plans. It wasn’t long before those calls turned into brainstorming sessions. In time, I found myself leaning on his guidance when it came to topics an executive director should know: managing staff, managing volunteers, office culture, technology, etc. No matter my challenge, he always had a way of helping me through it. But he never told me what to do. He simply asked a lot of questions, which often led me to a solution.

“John was not only a great SPJ president, and journalist, he became somewhat of a mentor – although I didn’t realize it until later. As someone who leads a team, I often find myself using the same approach that John used with me. Rather than provide my answers to a team member’s challenge, I ask lots of questions. They usually arrive at their own solution – which not only gives them a sense of empowerment and confidence, but the outcomes are often better than what I would have come up with. I can’t say that my solutions were better than anything John would have recommended, but I’ll never know because he never gave me recommendations. But I can say his approach gave me confidence in a role I was still figuring out. In its most broad definition, this is leadership. Looking back, I have a great appreciation for how effective he was as a leader -- despite (or because of) his unassuming ways. Countless journalists have benefitted from this, inside SPJ and out. And now, people far beyond SPJ are feeling his impact because of the lessons he taught me.

“As his term was winding down, the calls became shorter. We talked less about SPJ and more about family, careers, careers of our spouses, hobbies, etc. I would guess that my relationship with John was similar for many other folks. Although career circumstances brought us together, we developed a friendship along the way. Once his term was over, and we would run into each other, he would always ask first about my wife (who worked in education, like his wife). Or if I was fishing as much as I wanted. Or how my sons were doing with their tennis.

“I will be forever grateful for my time with John. Not only because he was such a positive presence, but because of the lessons he taught me about leadership -- and how kindness can be a more powerful motivator than force. Those lessons have served me well, and I only hope I can pass those along.”

Chris Vachon, former SPJ associate executive director

“John's devotion to SPJ was exemplary. He gave more than a decade of time, talent and treasure to SPJ. His dedication was selfless as he put SPJ and its members at the top of his priority list. SPJ is not only losing a member and a past president, but it is also losing a person who touched many lives in the SPJ community. John's passion for the organization and for journalism were immeasurable.”

Steve Krizman, PR and communication consultant, writer and college professor

“When Mrs. McDonough, the fourth-grade teacher, sent her sports editor husband to substitute one day, little did she know she was hatching the Consummate Journalist. ‘I was amazed you could have a job watching sports and telling people about it,’ John C. Ensslin said recently. ‘It seemed cool to be able to relate the world to other people.’”

“He went home and started posting sports scores on the front porch.

“Upon learning of my old friend's death today, I did what I hope John would have done for me. Tell his story.”

Dan Petty, Denver Press Club president

“John was kind, sincere and gentle. He was the consummate journalist, seeking compelling stories and telling the world about them — no matter the format. Trained as a print reporter, he taught himself how to produce and record podcasts. He supported journalists as they began their careers, offering advice on how to succeed in what has always been a difficult business. Two years ago, we renamed the largest of our Runyon scholarships for student journalists for John Ensslin.”

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