John Cowles, 82; publisher who supported arts in Minn.

jeff wheeler/star tribune/file 2011
Kelley Lindquist (left), Sage Cowles, and her husband, John Cowles Jr., at The Cowles Center in Minneapolis.

NEW YORK — John Cowles Jr. — a Minneapolis newspaper executive and philanthropist whose support for arts, sports, and entertainment helped elevate the Twin Cities’ cultural community to national prominence — died Saturday at home in Minneapolis. He was 82.

The cause was lung cancer.

Scion of a family that owned The Des Moines Register, started Look magazine, and came to dominate the newspaper business in Minneapolis for more than half a century, Mr. Cowles succeeded his father in 1961 as the editor of two Minneapolis papers, the morning Tribune and the evening Star. He became president and chief executive of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. (later renamed Cowles Media Co.) in 1968.


His tenure was rocky, but during it the papers won praise for aggressive local reporting, increased arts and science coverage, and supporting the civil rights movement and the Equal Rights Amendment in editorials.

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The company’s fortunes declined in the late 1960s, however, after several unsuccessful acquisitions.

In early 1983, the board of Cowles Media, which included his sister and two cousins, dismissed him as publisher.

He remained on the board until 1984 and into the 1990s controlled a substantial percentage of company stock.

Mr. Cowles was known in Minneapolis and St. Paul for his philanthropy and his belief that arts institutions and sports teams were necessary for cities to grow and thrive. In 1960, he served on a steering committee that persuaded the British director Tyrone Guthrie to establish a resident theater company in Minneapolis.


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Cowles was active in the construction of the Metrodome, a stadium in Minneapolis for the Twins and the Vikings.

Mr. Cowles said in 2010 that the impetus for his support of the Guthrie and the Metrodome were the same.

“Strengthening the cultural organization and life of the Twin Cities was not only going to make life more interesting and attractive for our families,’’ he said, “but was going to attract business and keep business here in town, and it was going to be just plain good business.’’

John Cowles graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Harvard, and spent two years in the Army.

After his dismissal from the company in 1983, Mr. Cowles began an eclectic career. He studied agricultural economics, taught aerobics, toured in the United States and Europe with a modern dance company, and helped establish a women’s professional fast-pitch softball league. He also continued his arts philanthropy around the Twin Cities; most recently, the Cowles Center, a theater devoted to dance, opened in Minneapolis last fall.