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DPU  alum McWethy, 61, dies in ski accident

Thursday, February 7, 2008

KEYSTONE, Colo. -- John McWethy, a retired ABC News correspondent who had to flee the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks but continued reporting live, died Wednesday after a skiing accident. He was 61.

Witnesses said McWethy was skiing fast on an intermediate trail when he missed a turn and slid chest-first into a tree, Summit County Coroner Joanne L. Richardson said. McWethy died of blunt force injuries, she said.

McWethy and his wife, Laurie, moved to Boulder after he retired to be closer to ski slopes and golf courses, ABC News President David Westin said in a statement. Before then, McWethy had been ABC News' chief national security correspondent.

He had to leave the Pentagon after a hijacked plane crashed into the building in 2001 attacks, but he kept reporting from a nearby lawn, Westin recalled.

"He was one of those very rare reporters who knew his beat better than anyone, and had developed more sources than anyone, and yet, kept his objectivity," Westin said.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, DePauw University, and had a master's degree from Columbia University's journalism school.

A Denver Post newspaper story tells of how, during a visiting professorship in 2004, McWethy spent late nights working with students at both The DePauw and campus television station D3TV.

"He was so generous with his time," recalls Mary Compton, who graduated in May but was a sophomore at the time. Joey Bunch writes that "when Compton graduated last summer,

McWethy wrote her a letter of recommendation and pointed her to people she should call at ABC News. She landed an entry level position in the newsroom. She e-mailed McWethy the good news. He replied, 'I'm rushing out the door, but you've made my day.'"

As if McWethy's hero status needed brandishing, there's that time in 2004 when Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the presidential envoy to Iraq, spoke on campus and spurned questions from the professional media," reports Bunch. "Jack went backstage and got to Bremer," Ken Owen, executive director of media relations at DePauw and former television journalist, tells the Post. "He told him, 'You really owe it to these students to go answer their questions.'"

Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, was in McWethy's graduating class. They worked together at DePauw and remained friends, sometimes presenting programs on media issues together when back on campus. Steele recalls McWethy as being "smart, courageous, unintimidated by power and committed to holding the powerful accountable." He adds, "Forty years ago at DePauw, Jack exhibited those same qualities as a student journalist and leader on campus. He had more integrity than anyone I knew. He had strong beliefs and he honored them through his values and his actions. He challenged the University's top officials, both with his solid journalism and his powerful intellect. Jack McWethy was destined to be a terrific journalist. He lived up to that promise."

On May 18, 2003, McWethy presented the commencement address at DePauw and received the McNaughton Medal for Public Service.

"When I was here at DePauw, I protested against the war in Vietnam," he told the crowd of graduates, parents, faculty and friends assembled on East College lawn that afternoon. "Something seemed so wrong to me as a student. Without knowing it at the time, it turned out our government was lying to us. How could I have known that I would spend most of my working life covering this country's wars and trying to understand what makes people go to war, asking questions of our government every time we headed towards conflict."

McWethy told the Class of 2003, "The word 'why' is, in my view, the most powerful word in the English language. It is the driving force of my profession, and it's also the driving force and at the heart of your professors, creative sciences, honest politicians, and of good parents. Don't stop asking the word 'why' just because you're leaving DePauw. All institutions, all endeavors, all relationships are improved by a good scrubbing using the word 'why.' In democracy it is the question we must all constantly be asking our government and our leaders. It is not unpatriotic to question the government; it is unpatriotic not to."

McWethy's most recent return visit to Greencastle was on Oct. 8, 2007, when he discussed his Nightline report on post-traumatic stress disorder in a session at the Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media.

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