Newspaper Icon Makes Every Day Interesting, Fun
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – As a husband, a father of two grown and six younger children, writer of a weekly nationwide newspaper column and participant in a non-profit of his own founding, Al Neuharth knows how to manage an active life. And as an octogenarian, he knows plenty about maintaining health and vitality.
Neuharth, founder of USA TODAY, celebrated his 86th birthday this year. He also passed the two-decade mark in retirement, a period that has seen a new marriage, a house full of children and a busy travel schedule for his professional and philanthropic pursuits.
Commitment To Health
“What I try to do is make sure that every day is interesting, and includes some fun. I’m pretty serious about my physical condition and health, and I have been for a long time,” said Neuharth, a longtime resident of Cocoa Beach, Florida. The lifelong newspaperman also founded TODAY – which later became FLORIDA TODAY – in 1966.
He dates his commitment to health back to age 22 and the end of World War II. The South Dakota native had just gotten out of the Army, having served in Europe and the Pacific.
“Then, I ate some healthy food and also a lot of crap. I decided that I wanted to avoid becoming obese, and food and exercise were the way to do it,” he said.
Jogging was his exercise of choice for decades, through the years of building the Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper chain, launching the country’s first general interest newspaper and setting the course for the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to First Amendment freedoms.
The easily accessible activity leaves no excuse for people who say that they don’t have time to exercise, or that they travel too much.
“Every street has sidewalks. I’ve pounded a lot of pavement all over the world,” he said.
He concedes that discipline might have led to knee problems that forced double knee replacement surgery earlier this year. The procedure was performed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y.
“I should have done it long ago,” Neuharth said, but he admits he was put off by the 10 days of hospitalization, followed by 10 days of rehab and two months of physical therapy.
The daunting recovery also motivated him to get both knees done at once. “I was afraid if I did one, I wouldn’t have the guts to go back for the other,” he said.
Worth the Pain
Still, if the surgery was the price he paid for health benefits he gained from years of jogging, Neuharth counts the payoff worth the pain.
Today, he goes easy on the knees by cycling on the beach instead of running. He takes his three-wheeler out on the sand for 40 to 45 minutes at low tide. “It’s terrific,” he said. “You get to see the beach and exercise your legs at the same time.”
Alternatively, he can swim in his pool or use the exercise machines in his office. Feet away from his desk sit two Nu Step machines, one for all-over toning and the other for legwork.
They’re situated so the self-described news junkie can keep an eye on the television, also viewable from his desk. Count on the set being tuned to a news channel: cable during the day, then the network news. He flips between the three newscasters. “That’s an evening ritual for me,” Neuharth said.
His morning ritual starts at 5 a.m., with delivery of six newspapers: FLORIDA TODAY, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Orlando Sentinel and Investor’s Business Daily. When traveling, he gets USA TODAY as well as the local newspaper.
Stick To the Basics
As for diet, he sticks to the basics. Breakfast is hot tea and orange juice, toast or some sort of bread, and mixed fruit. Neuharth eats fruit and vegetables three times a day, and keeps fresh fruit on hand and accessible.
Lunch, prepared by a staff member, is the same every day: canned vegetable soup, tossed salad, tuna sandwich on whole-wheat toast, and fresh fruit for dessert. “I will sometimes shock her and ask for chicken noodle or minestrone,” he said.
Dinner usually features beef or another meat, sometimes fish, as well as a variety of vegetables, though he’s partial to spinach, broccoli and corn on the cob. Neuharth sits with the family during the kids’ meal, but he prefers to eat later.
“They like to gobble. They would find it boring to have a leisurely meal with me,” Neuharth said. “I just listen and tell stories and try to get them to talk.”
Chances are good the dinner table is rarely quiet. Neuharth is father to six children with his third wife, Cocoa Beach chiropractor Rachel Fornes. All were adopted at birth.
“Every time we adopted, we added more logs,” Neuharth joked, referring to Pumpkin Center. His oceanfront Cocoa Beach estate, named for a famous crossroads and gathering place in South Dakota, started as an overgrown log cabin has expanded with subsequent additions to the family.
After the first adoption, Neuharth and Fornes decided daughter Alexis should have a sibling. So they took her to the hospital to visit a newborn girl available for adoption, and allowed Alexis to hold the baby.
Neuharth remembers the huge grin on Alexis’s face as she announced, “Everybody who wants to take her home, raise your right hand.” She subsequently tried to rescind her vote when her younger sister annoyed her, Neuharth said with a smile.
They later adopted two sets of twins and today the clan includes Alexis, 19; Karina, 13; Andre, 12; Ariana, 12; Ali, 10; and Rafi, 10.
Fornes does most of the work getting the children ready for school, but Neuharth plays his part. “I pull the covers off and tell them to get the hell out of bed. You know how it is,” he said.
When he’s not traveling, he sits with the kids at breakfast and takes three to their Montessori school in Indian Harbour Beach. (The Neuharth vehicles are easy to recognize: One license plate reads GANNETT, another MCPAPER.)
Second-grader Ali takes the bus to Cocoa Beach Elementary, which is better equipped to accommodate his autism. The severity of his case has lessened significantly over the years, Neuharth said.
“I credit the other kids with that more than his mother and me. He was reluctant to get involved with us old folks,” he said. Ali’s siblings, however, engaged the boy and drew him out. “I saw it develop.”
Dare To Dream
He talks regularly to the kids about a healthy lifestyle, and also about their futures.
“I make it clear from first grade that they should realize what a great variety of opportunities are out there,” Neuharth said, noting that children’s career plans should be expected to change over the years.
Andre, for example, now dreams of being a professional basketball player. Alexis, a Valencia Community College student, is considering medicine.
“She realizes she might change her mind a few times,” Neuharth said. No matter what stage they’re in, though, his encouragement to the kids is the same: They should learn as much as they can about what they think they want to do.
Neuharth certainly serves as a positive example of enjoying a career.
His home office includes mementoes of his accomplishments, including a USA TODAY newspaper box, a framed telegram from a Gannett executive informing Neuharth that USA TODAY had turned a profit (a telegram that in fact, Neuhart had sent to himself) and an engraved plaque with the following quote attributed to former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee: If USA TODAY is a good newspaper, then I’m in the wrong business.
“He was serious at the time, but we laugh about it now,” Neuharth said.
Center stage is Neuharth’s 1926 Royal typewriter, which he still uses to write his weekly newspaper column. “The computer has too soft a touch. I like to take my frustration out on the keys,” he said.
As manual typewriters began to disappear, Neuharth sent out word to Gannett locations to buy as many Royals as they could. They found 15, mostly from antique stores. Neuharth even knows the average price – $17.25. He still has five or six that work, and he saves expired models to scavenge for parts. Surprisingly enough, he can still buy the ribbons.
His office does include a computer, which he uses for fact checking or to look up more information on a story he’s interested in. But it’s more regularly used by his children. “They think using dad’s computer is a real treat,” he said.
At 86, his only medications are a daily aspirin, part of his routine since his mid 40s, and a B-12 supplement, to counteract a deficiency discovered during a checkup a few years ago. And, of course, a vodka.
Neuharth has rarely missed a day enjoying a vodka on the rocks, with an olive. He even convinced a doctor friend of its necessity and had his drink smuggled in during a short hospital stay once.
“I used to drink gin, but there’s good gin and bad gin,” Neuharth said. He solved the problem by switching to vodka. “It’s tasteless all over the world.”
The success of his anti-aging formula is in the results, as Neuharth enjoys family life and continued involvement in his career of choice. “I’ve just been lucky to be able to do some things I thought were important, and lucky to still be active in them,” he said.