Remembering John Heaston: publisher, visionary, friend…

Category: Blog — Tags: — @ 8:26 am June 3, 2024
Jeff Koterba unveils a portrait of John Heaston at the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor roast held May 31.

by Tim McMahan,

About an hour before I left to attend the roast of John Heaston last Friday night where he was to be honored by the Omaha Press Club with the 178th “Face on the Barroom Floor,” I received word from a friend that John had passed away earlier that morning. 

To say I was shocked is an understatement. A real gut punch. I questioned whether or not they should go forward with the ceremony since many people would, like me, still be reeling. But in the end, it was the right decision as the roast turned out to be a fitting tribute to John and everything he’s done for the city and not just his work as publisher of The Reader, which is where we had our relationship. 

John’s brother, Ben, kept the crowd laughing as the roast’s emcee.

John’s brother, Ben, was the emcee and provided a lot of spicy quips about his big brother and the crazy, irresponsible things he did in his youth. His Creighton brother, Steve Hudson, echoed those stories with his own, while Leo Louis of the Malcolm X Foundation talked about John’s amusing early efforts to become part of the North Omaha community. Anne Schlachter spoke of John’s ability to talk people into taking part in his plans and ideas, no matter how crazy they were.

I, too, fell for John’s persuasiveness shortly after he began publishing The Reader back in ’94. Unlike many folks who credit John for their first writing breaks, I already had been writing for a regional music publication – The Note out of Lawrence, Kansas – for a number of years as one of their primary Omaha correspondents. I wasn’t interested in writing for The Reader… until The Note went belly up later in the ‘90s. I already had a full-time job at Union Pacific; my music reporting had more to do with acquiring free CDs and getting into rock shows. When John heard about The Note’s demise, I got the call, and he eventually talked me into becoming a freelance contributor and eventually a columnist. 

That was about 25 years ago. John always did what the best publishers and editors do: He backed me up, even when he didn’t agree with what I was writing, for better or worse. As the years wore on, it became obvious the internet would kill print publications. We all watched as the state of print journalism declined, but throughout the years, John kept hoisting the banner for print against all odds. The paper eventually went from a weekly to a monthly, and I think the only reason John finally stopped the presses with the September 2023 issue was because of his illness. 

If you want to read a complete history of the paper, it’s online right here, along with the rest of the content, at The Reader website, thanks to John’s hustle in his final year to reach a deal with Nebraska Public Media, who acquired The Reader and El Perico and not only will host the archive but will begin publishing new content under The Reader banner. 

The last time I spoke to John we reviewed edits to the Nebraska Public Media/Reader acquisition press release. He was clearly relieved the deal had been signed; his baby was now in good hands. But like always, we also dished on other topics, people we knew, music biz stuff, publications and the future, which we both thought we’d see together. He was a visionary, an optimist, a believer that the good guys and gals will always win in the end. He was a friend of mine, and I’m going to miss him. 

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2024 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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