Montana open government champion John Kuglin dies at 78

  • This Aug. 26, 2017 photo provided by Tom Kuglin shows his father and journalist John Kuglin posing for a photo near Swan Lake, Mont. Kuglin, a former Associated Press bureau chief for Montana and Wyoming who was a champion for open government and the public's right to know, has died, his son said Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. He was 78. He retired from the AP in 2005. (Tom Kuglin via AP)

    This Aug. 26, 2017 photo provided by Tom Kuglin shows his father and journalist John Kuglin posing for a photo near Swan Lake, Mont. Kuglin, a former Associated Press bureau chief for Montana and Wyoming who was a champion for open government and the public's right to know, has died, his son said Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. He was 78. He retired from the AP in 2005. (Tom Kuglin via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 2/29/2020 10:38 PM

HELENA, Mont. -- John Kuglin, a former Associated Press bureau chief for Montana and Wyoming who was a champion for open government and the public's right to know, has died, his son said Saturday. He was 78.

Tom Kuglin, a reporter and assistant editor for Helena's Independent Record, said his father died overnight at home in Helena after a prolonged illness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

John Kuglin oversaw coverage of some of the biggest stories to come out of Montana, such as the arrest of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in 1996 and the FBI standoff with the anti-government Freemen that same year.

One of Kuglin's enduring legacies is the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, which he started in 1988 as a way to give journalists and citizens free legal advice on public records and open government meetings.

Charles Johnson, a retired Montana statehouse reporter and former member of the FOI Hotline's board of directors, said Kuglin founded the hotline at the urging of a retired judge who criticized the media for not being more involved in cases that affected open government.

'John was the hotline's heart and soul,' Johnson said. 'As The Associated Press bureau chief for Montana, John was able to convince a number of newspapers, TV and radio stations to join the AP in bringing successful lawsuits, including one that opened legislative caucuses.'

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Today, Mike Meloy, the attorney retained by the hotline, receives more than 100 open-government queries a year.

Tom Kuglin said it meant a lot to his father to establish the FOI Hotline as a resource for journalists and the general public.

'He truly believed in that aspect of the Montana Constitution, the public's right to know,' Tom Kuglin said.

John Kuglin was born in Chicago and graduated from Colorado College with a degree in history before he began his 40-year journalism career. He was a reporter for the Colorado Springs Free Press and the Gazette-Telegraph, then he moved to Montana, where he worked for the Missoulian and the Independent Record in 1965.

He covered Montana government for the Great Falls Tribune before he was hired on at the AP, working stints in Spokane, Washington, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, before moving to Helena. He became the bureau chief for Montana and Wyoming and retired in 2005 after a 31-year AP career.

His successor, Jim Clarke, who is now the AP's regional director for the West, compared himself following in Kuglin's footsteps to the baseball player who replaced the legendary Lou Gehrig.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

'John Kuglin is a giant in Montana journalism,' Clarke said. 'If it has to do with government transparency, freedom of information or just making sure Montana politicians stayed worried about Montana journalists, John Kuglin either invented it or had a seat at the table when it happened.'

Former AP news editor John MacDonald said Kuglin hired him in 1990 as a relief staffer and then a decade later as news editor in his home state of Montana.

'John was a champion of the free press and a staunch defender of Montana's constitutional right-to-know,' MacDonald said. 'More than that, he was a good man and a damn fine fisherman.'

Kuglin retired in 2005. He spent his retirement fishing, hiking and hunting, and dove into his passion, the Civil War and American history. In 2018, he wrote a book about notorious Butte madam Beverly Snodgrass, called 'Montana's Dimple Knees Sex Scandal: 1960s Prostitution, Payoffs and Politicians.'

He also kept close tabs on Montana journalism, and he regularly peppered his son with questions and observations.

'I had an editor at the office and editor at the dinner table on Sundays, as well," Tom Kuglin said. 'He wasn't afraid to say when he thought things could be done better.'

Kuglin is survived by his wife, Gale; his son, Tom; his daughter-in-law, Dusty; his grandson, Bridger; and his brother, Chuck. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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