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A new beginning for Heath Meriwether: the former Free Press publisher reflects on 17 years of service to the Detroit community.

Heath J. Meriwether retired at the end of 2003 after a distinguished 17-year career with the Detroit Free Press, including the past seven years as publisher. He also had served on the Detroit Regional Chamber's board of directors since 1997. Before he left Detroit, he shared his thoughts with the Detroiter.


Was it hard to pack up and say goodbye?

Maybe I'm kidding myself, but it doesn't feel so much like a goodbye as it does a transition to another kind of relationship, both to journalism and civic affairs. I've met people here who've shown me that it's possible to work through some very difficult issues and still maintain your integrity and your perspective. I don't intend to lose touch with them, no matter what I'm doing. And I hope the lessons and values I've learned here are ones I can continue to uphold in the rest of my life.

Where is life taking you next?

Geographically, to the Hudson River Valley within easy striking distance of New York City where our son works and where it's likely our daughter will as well after her graduation from Yale this spring. Professionally, I'll be doing consulting on journalism for Knight Ridder, the company that owns the Free Press and for which I've worked for 33 years. I've also been in several conversations about ways I might continue to work for causes I believe in, including early childhood education and nurture, environmental stewardship and the revival of Detroit's riverfront. And I'm open to the serendipity of life, the possibilities my wife and I probably haven't even thought about as we enter this next chapter.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

That the Free Press is seen as a force for good in the community it serves, whether it's through our decade-long Children First crusade, its editorials championing the stewardship of Michigan's rich natural environment, or great journalism such as the series we did in 2003 that put a spotlight on lead poisoning of too many children in Detroit. I believe a newspaper ought to be actively engaged in making its community a better place and, despite some jolts like the 1995 strike, I'm proud that we've been able to maintain that tradition of civic service.

What was the single most difficult decision you had to make?

It had to be the decision to tell staffers who'd walked out during the 1995 strike that, unless they returned to the paper, we would have to begin to replace them with other journalists. I knew and liked these men and women but it was something we simply had to do to continue to keep the Free Press publishing and serving its readers.

Who gets the greatest credit for your success?

My mother and dad, who always believed in me and made me think my dream of running a major newspaper some day wasn't that outrageous. In Detroit, I'd have to say two of my predecessors--Dave Lawrence and Neal Shine--showed me what a publisher could do in a community, and why it was important.

What are the Detroit Region's top strengths--and weaknesses--and where do you see us in 10 years?

In 10 years, I expect to see a Detroit that has earned its reputation as America's comeback city of the 21st Century. I've said this before, but too often newspapers, civic leaders, politicians--all of us--get too involved in the day-to-day mini-crisis or headline and forget to see how far we've come. Sometimes I think Detroit and Detroiters have taken this to an art form, where we can always find the dark cloud among the silver linings. But if you truly step back, and see how far we've come over the 17 years I've been here, it's pretty impressive. I've been lucky to be involved with a lot of people who won't give up on Detroit and this region, and that attitude, finally, is beginning to carry the day. Hey, I even believe in the next 10 years the Tigers will be in the World Series and the Lions in the Super Bowl.
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Title Annotation:In Box
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:Chamber history: a link to 1903-1904.
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