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John Ensslin posthumously named recipient of Wells Memorial Key, SPJ's highest honor


Matthew Kent, SPJ Program Coordinator, 317-920-4788,
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785,

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists honors John Ensslin, posthumously, with the Wells Memorial Key. Denise Ensslin accepted this award, the highest honor for a member of SPJ, on his behalf at the virtual Closing Ceremony of the SPJ2020 Journalism Conference.

“From wherever John is watching today, I know he is a bit befuddled, mildly amused and deeply honored to receive the Wells Memorial Key,” said Denise Ensslin, John’s wife of 35 years. “… John was driven by a desire stronger than telling good stories. He was deeply committed to his belief in a community of good journalists; People who come together because they believe in truth, equity and justice.”

Ensslin served as SPJ’s 95th president in 2011-12. Up until his death in August 2019, he remained an active and dedicated SPJ member.

“Since John isn’t able to join us today to express his gratitude himself please allow me to say on his behalf thank you,” Ensslin said. “Thank you very much and please keep fighting the good fight.”

“John was one of the best, as dedicated to SPJ as any past national president could be,” J. Alex Tarquinio, SPJ national president 2018-19, said at the time of his death. “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.”

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.

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.

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 2019 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.”

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

“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,” Hagit Limor, SPJ national president 2010-11 and current SPJ Foundation vice president, said at the time of his death.

"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,” Sonny Albarado, SPJ national president 2012-13 and current SPJ Foundation secretary, said at the time of his death. “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."

Ensslin truly believed in the importance of SPJ and showed his commitment to the Society through his many years as an active member and journalist. In his installation speech in 2011, he said: “In hard times, you learn who your true friends are, and you learn about your core values. And one thing these last few years have taught me is the true value of our Society of Professional Journalists.”

Named after Sigma Delta Chi’s second national president, Chester C. Wells, the Wells Memorial Key was first awarded in 1913. Each year, it is given to a member who has performed outstanding service to the Society in the preceding year or through a period of years.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.


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