Skip to main content

Newton N. Minow, Northwestern alumnus and trustee, dies at 97

Minow was the originator of the televised U.S. presidential debates
newton minow
President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Federal Communications Committee Chairman and Northwestern alumnus Newton Minow during a White House ceremony in 2016. Getty Images

Newton N. Minow, ’49, ’50 JD, ’65 H, Northwestern University alumnus, life trustee and Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus at Northwestern, died Saturday, May 6, in his Chicago home. He was 97.

“Newt Minow epitomized the very best of Northwestern University,” said Northwestern President Michael H. Schill. “Words cannot do justice to his life of leadership, public service, prominence in the legal world and love and engagement with the University he so faithfully and lovingly served for decades. His life lives on in our work. We grieve his loss with his family including Martha, Nell and Mary.”

A double alumnus, he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1949 and his JD in 1950 from what was then the Northwestern University School of Law. As a student, he was editor-in-chief of the Illinois Law Review (now known as the Northwestern University Law Review). Minow maintained a lifelong relationship with Northwestern. He joined the Board of Trustees in 1975 and became a life trustee in 1987. 

“We mourn the loss of Newt, who was a beloved member of our Board for nearly five decades,” said Peter Barris, chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. “Not only do we appreciate his many contributions to his alma mater, but his efforts in public service and a vast array of civic causes will long be remembered and felt throughout our nation.”

After graduating from the Law School, he served as law clerk to the Honorable Fred M. Vinson, Chief Justice of the United States, and then as assistant counsel to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Minow first suggested televised presidential debates in a memo to Governor Stevenson in 1955.

Minow was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the early 1960s and drafted legislation that expanded the broadcast spectrum and promoted the implementation of communication satellite technology. In 1961, while serving as FCC chairman, Minow referred to television as a “vast wasteland” in a landmark speech still remembered today.

He served in the Kennedy Administration until 1963 when he became executive vice president and general counsel of Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.  

He returned to Chicago in 1965, joining the law firm of Leibman, Williams, Bennett, Baird & Minow, which merged with Sidley & Austin in 1972. Sidley & Austin merged with Brown & Wood in 2001. He was a partner at Sidley Austin from 1965 until 1991, at which time he became senior counsel.

He remained active in Democratic politics and with the Commission on Presidential Debates, including co-chairing the 1976 and 1980 presidential debates. He was involved in every organizing presidential debate since and served until last year on the Presidential Debate Commission. He also served on commissions appointed by presidents of both political parties. 

In 2014, Northwestern announced gifts totaling $4 million to establish an endowment for a named professorship at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in honor of Minow. The gifts also established the Newton and Jo Minow Debate Series at the Law School, the first of which was held in November 2015. The endowment was funded by a consortium of Minow’s personal friends, fellow Northwestern alumni and colleagues at Sidley Austin.  

“We are tremendously grateful for Newt Minow’s incredible contributions to society and our law school community,” said Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Dean Hari Osofsky. “His leadership skills, brilliant insights, warmth and sense of humor lit up every room he entered and made a meaningful impact on me and everyone he encountered. We send our deepest condolences to his family.”

President Barack Obama named Minow one of 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, is given to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural and other significant public or private endeavors.

He’s also the recipient of the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award, Chicago Bar Association John Paul Stevens Award, Federal Communications Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award and American Lawyer Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Minow has been a director of many companies, including Aon Corporation; CBS; Sara Lee Corporation; Foote, Cone & Belding; Manpower Inc.; and the Tribune Company.

In addition, he was a former chairman of the RAND Corporation, trustee emeritus of the Mayo Clinic, a life trustee of Northwestern and the University of Notre Dame, a former trustee and chairman of the Carnegie Corporation and former chairman of PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). Minow has written five books and numerous magazine articles.

Minow was born Jan. 17, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He served as a U.S. Army sergeant in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. He was a recipient of several honorary degrees, including from Brandeis University, the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern and the University of Notre Dame. He received the Northwestern Alumni Medal in 1978.

Minow met his wife Josephine “Jo” Baskin Minow ʼ48 while they were both students at Northwestern. They married in 1949. Jo Minow passed away in February 2022. He is survived by his children, Martha ʼ12 H, Nell and Mary Minow. Martha Minow received an honorary degree from Northwestern in 2012.

For Journalists: view the news release for media contacts