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John O'Hearn helped steer Times through growth and tumult

John O’Hearn worked at the then-St. Petersburg Times for more than three decades. He rose through the business ranks, later becoming its general manager and executive vice president.
John O’Hearn worked at the then-St. Petersburg Times for more than three decades. He rose through the business ranks, later becoming its general manager and executive vice president.
Published May 16, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The first time John O'Hearn took a job at the then-St. Petersburg Times, it didn't go so well.

"He started as a punk teenager," said his daughter, Shannon O'Hearn Downing. "He even got fired when he was young because he went to the beach instead of showing up for work."

The second time, he quickly left to finish his bachelor's degree.

The third time, the job stuck — for more than three decades. The punk teen put on a suit and tie and rose through the ranks of the Times' business side, eventually becoming its general manager and executive vice president.

Amid years of growth and tumult, Mr. O'Hearn steadfastly steered the newspaper's finances until his retirement in 1994.

This month, Mr. O'Hearn died in hospice care after suffering complications from a stroke. He would have turned 80 in June.

"The Times really was part of our family," his daughter said. "My father sincerely cared as much about the guys in the plant as he did the guys that were in the executive office."

Mr. O'Hearn had taken a job as a messenger boy at the paper soon after moving to St. Petersburg at age 14. His firing didn't put an end to his loyalty.

He graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1955, served five years in the Air Force, then came back to the Times, but left again for college. He returned to Florida with a business degree in 1968 and quietly dedicated himself to the company that kept giving him a chance.

Colleagues remember him for his constancy and fairness. Downing said he earned trust through his integrity.

"He was extremely ethical," she said. "He wouldn't take a paperclip if it weren't deeded over to him."

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, said Mr. O'Hearn was dignified yet warm, always taking the time to ask about Clark's family.

"He came from a tradition in which the numbers people were solid and serious and dutiful, but he had a sense of humor," Clark said.

He was among a group of leaders who put the Times on track to become one of the larger newspapers in the nation.

"The paper and the community owe a lot to that generation of newspaper leaders, who aggressively developed the paper and built the circulation," Clark said.

During Mr. O'Hearn's career and especially after his retirement, he turned to public service. He served on the boards of Eckerd College and Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, among others. He set up a trust at St. Petersburg College in the name of his late wife, Sue, who earned a degree there in her 40s and served as the SPC Foundation chair.

He and Sue had married at 19, finding balance in each other. Where he was reserved, she was outgoing. They had grand plans to travel together in retirement, but Sue's dementia diagnosis in 2001 put an end to those dreams. Instead, Mr. O'Hearn visited her at a care facility every day until she died in 2009.

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Throughout his long career, Mr. O'Hearn was never one to brag. In an interview upon his retirement, he brushed off credit for his influence at the Times.

"I don't know that I can say I'm proud of myself," he said. "I'm proud of the people here."

Times news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at


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