Obituary: Mike Sweeney, former Pioneer Press crime reporter and CEO of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild

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John “Mike” Sweeney joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served as a combat correspondent in the Vietnam War. When he came home, he refused to accept his “Distinguished Journalist” award from the state of Minnesota or attend his own recognition ceremony, such was his disgust with the war he covered.

Born in an army base, baptized by the news industry, Sweeney would take the same conscientious cantankerousness into the newsroom of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he served for 22 years, much of it as a crime and courts reporter, editor and union steward before becoming chief executive officer of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild.

Sweeney, 80, died June 1 at the Minneapolis Veterans Home following a years-long illness. He passed away from complications of Ataxia and Parkinson’s disease, “of which he willfully fought until his last breath,” wrote his daughter, former journalist Kathleen Sweeney, in a written obituary prepared for her father.

Former newsroom colleagues remembered him as the kind of eagle-eyed advocate for journalists and journalism whom they might butt heads with while in the moment-to-moment trenches of news-making but still respect the next day.

“While we often disagreed, I knew he was a man of principle who stood up for what he believed,” wrote Walker Lundy, a former executive editor for the Pioneer Press, in an online forum this month.

Former newsroom colleague Brian Bonner, a recent editor of the Kyiv Post, recalled Sweeney as “a true blue friend, occasional golf partner and a mentor” who had no hesitation rewriting one of Bonner’s stories while editing him on a weekend shift in the early 1980s.

“He displayed the widest range of emotions, sometimes in a single work shift — funny as hell, yet he could get mad as hell, too, as everyone knows,” said Bonner, posting to an online forum this month. “He made work exciting with his passion for living. In the later years of our friendship, with me in Ukraine, his messages were uplifting and typical of the love, support, curiosity and concern he showed for his friends.”

Former newsroom colleague David Hawley recalled how Sweeney was the first person he met when he started at the Pioneer Press  in 1978.

“We had both worked at the (Associated Press) and I remember he informed me that the newspaper’s contract, unlike the AP, allowed me a day off on my birthday — which, as it turned out, was the day after my first day at the paper,” wrote Hawley, in an online forum. “I dutifully mentioned this to Don O’Grady, then the managing editor. He shot a dirty look at Mike and then turned to me and said, ‘You’re gonna fit in here.’ I got the next day off.”

Sweeney, according to his daughter, was the “first and only baby” born at the Camp Lockett Army Base in Campo, Calif. His family later relocated to Hopkins, Minn., where he was raised as the eldest of five brothers and two sisters. He attended Most Holy Trinity Elementary School and Benilde High School before joining the U.S. Marine Corps. After service in Vietnam, he completed his journalism degree at the University of Minnesota and wrote for the Fairmont Sentinel and the Associated Press in Bismarck, North Dakota.

He then spent the next two decades at the Pioneer Press, specializing in crime and courts coverage, before leading the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild until his retirement in 2006. In retirement, Sweeney partnered with novelist and former Pioneer Press colleague John Camp to write a book loosely based on a story he had written years prior for the newspaper. The novel “Bad Blood” went on to win a Thriller Writers Award.

Among his pastimes, wrote his daughter, Sweeney enjoyed “camping with his children and friends in the Boundary Waters, photographing loved ones, running marathons, studying and achieving a TaeKwonDo Brown belt, golfing, skiing and reading an endless number of books, and of course, the newspaper.”

He is survived by Angeles, his wife of 49 years, his children Kathleen, Carlo and Michael, six grandchildren and six siblings. A Celebration of Life service will be held at 11 a.m. on June 29 at the Minneapolis Veterans Home, 5101 Minnehaha Ave. South. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center at the University of Minnesota or the National Ataxia Foundation.

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