Longtime Times-Picayune sportswriter Pete Finney dies at 88
on August 13, 2016
He was on hand in Miami Gardens, Fla., for the Saints' 31-17 victory in Super Bowl XLIV over the Indianapolis Colts, with their New Orleans-born quarterback, Peyton Manning. Mr. Finney, who covered 40 Super Bowls, had been on hand nearly 44 years earlier for the birth of the team, too.
Writing on the front page of The States-Item under the all-capital-letters banner headline proclaiming "N.O. GOES PRO!," Mr. Finney announced that New Orleans had landed a professional-football franchise. The date was Nov. 1, 1966, which just happened to be All Saints' Day.
That was 21 years into a career that had begun shortly after Mr. Finney graduated from Jesuit High School in 1945. He started at The New Orleans States, which became The States-Item in 1958, when it merged with The New Orleans Item. In 1980, The States-Item merged with The Times-Picayune, which became NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in 2012 to reflect its digital reach.
Mr. Finney began his career when reporters banged out their stories on manual typewriters. By the time he wrote his last column, when he was writing for the grandchildren of his original readers, Mr. Finney and his fellow scribes had graduated to laptops.
Throughout Mr. Finney's career, he interviewed such luminaries as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Muhammad Ali. Around the newsroom, he became a white-haired eminence who never was too busy to answer questions from younger colleagues and retrieve arcane facts from his vast mental database.
Jim Amoss, former editor of The Times-Picayune, worked with Mr. Finney for nearly 40 years at that newspaper and at The States-Item.
"Generations of journalists at The Times-Picayune and The States-Item wanted to be like Peter Finney -- deeply curious about everything he covered, tireless in his reporting, naturally graceful as a writer, generous as a mentor to his colleagues," Amoss said. "He had an eye for what was interesting and a voice that was distinctive and irresistible. Even if you weren't a New Orleans sports fan, you read Pete for his take on what mattered in our world."
"He's a guy who was sensitive to people's feelings," Izenberg said, "so that gave him a perspective when he was going to do a critical piece. He never forgot he was writing about a person, and that person had a wife and kids."
After 68 years, Mr. Finney "never stopped loving what he did," Izenberg said. "The three things he most loved and made him great were his wife, his family and his job. He never treated (the job) lightly. He always felt responsibility. He was an amazing guy."
Awards came, too, but Mr. Finney didn't brag about the prizes he had amassed.
At the Loyola University ceremony where he was named to the School of Mass Communication's Den of Distinction, Mr. Finney said: "All I do is write. I've never felt like I've had to work a day in my life."
A lifelong New Orleanian, Peter Paul Finney was born on Oct. 17, 1927, and grew up in the French Quarter, where he was an altar boy at St. Louis Cathedral.
At Jesuit High School, he was editor of The Blue Jay, the school newspaper. Shortly after graduation, he went to work freelancing for The States. His first byline, for a story about American Legion baseball, ran on June 22, 1945, the day that the Battle of Okinawa ended in victory for the Allies.
That fall, he enrolled at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1949 with a degree in journalism. Eight years later, he earned a master's degree in the subject at LSU.
At Loyola, Mr. Finney played basketball for the Wolf Pack his last two years. After graduating, he coached the Wolfpups, the freshman basketball team, which won the New Orleans SAAU championship. Mr. Finney also was the school's sports information director in the 1950s and 1960s.
During that period, Mr. Finney was at places to write about major sporting events such as LSU's Tiger Stadium during Billy Cannon's legendary 89-yard punt return on Halloween Night 1959 in the annual grudge match against the University of Mississippi; John Gilliam's 94-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff at the first Saints game at Tulane Stadium; and also Tom Dempsey's record-setting 63-yard field goal for the Saints.
In addition to producing five columns a week, Mr. Finney was named The States-Item's sports editor in the 1960s.
His output wasn't limited to sports. In June 1975, while Mr. Finney was on assignment in New York City, Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 crashed while approaching John F. Kennedy Airport, killing 113 of the 124 people on board. The flight, which had originated in New Orleans, had a stellar passenger list that included the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, a noted Tulane University surgeon and a former king of Carnival.
Realizing the story's importance to New Orleans readers, Mr. Finney sprang into action, gathering as much information as he could.
"He empathized with people in trouble that he had to write about," Izenberg said. "It wasn't that he gave those people a pass. He was going to do what he had to do, but he was going to do it with fairness, sincerity and consideration."
No job was too small for him. Izenberg recalled a story Mr. Finney told about a reporter in pre-computer days who had a story due but was assigned to ride in a Carnival parade. To get the man's story, Mr. Finney went to the parade, and the reporter threw it to him from his float.
"He understood the people of New Orleans," Izenberg said. "To me, that was a great part of Peter's success."
Whenever Mr. Finney conducted an interview, "he always made people feel very comfortable in sharing their stories," said Doug Thornton, executive vice president of SMG, which runs the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Smoothie King Center and about 230 other facilities around the United States. "He was totally disarming when you talked to him. That's a great trait to have as a journalist because you want people to open up to you."
Thornton, who was on Mr. Finney's beat for 30 years, said he appreciated Mr. Finney's ability to keep a confidence.
"He was a reporter you could always trust with off-the-record information and not have to worry about being quoted the next day," Thornton said. "That's a trait that people cherished."
In addition to his work for the newspaper, Mr. Finney wrote two books: "The Fighting Tigers, 1893-1993: One Hundred Years of LSU Football" and "Pistol Pete: The Story of College Basketball's Greatest Star," about LSU's Pete Maravich.
Earlier this year, "The Best of Peter Finney, Legendary New Orleans Sportswriter," a compilation of 75 of his columns, was published.
Mr. Finney was a 17-time recipient of the Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year Award, and the Louisiana Sports Writers Association renamed its columnist-of-the-year award for him. He was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and, a year later, into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Mr. Finney also was Jesuit High School's Alumnus of the Year in 1974 and a 2013 inductee into the Den of Distinction of Loyola's School of Mass Communication.
The Saints Hall of Fame gave him its Joe Gemelli Fleur-de-Lis Award in 2013 for his contributions to the team.
In a statement, Tom Benson, owner of the Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans, said Mr. Finney is "someone that our city should celebrate and cherish his legacy."
Moreover, Benson said, Mr. Finney "has had a major impact on sports in our city. He told the story of the Saints to generations of readers, and he helped grow not only fan interest in the Saints but in our great city."
Thornton said Mr. Finney was part of a dwindling number of people who had helped contribute to the development of New Orleans as a major sports city in the 1960s and 1970s, when the city acquired the Saints franchise, the Superdome was built, and New Orleans started attracting Super Bowls.
"He was a tremendous person, an exceptional journalist and someone who loved his job of writing about his experiences in the sports business," Thornton said.
Mr. Finney's wife of 61 years, Doris "Deedy" Young Finney, died in 2013.
Survivors include three sons, Peter P. Finney Jr. and Dr. Timothy Finney, both of New Orleans, and Michael Finney of Louisville, Ky.; three daughters, Barbara F. Weilbaecher of Kenner, Jane F. Haas of Metairie and Elizabeth F. Donze of New Orleans; a brother, Thomas Michael Finney of New Orleans; a sister, Patricia Finney Daniels of New Orleans; 20 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A Mass will be celebrated Saturday (Aug. 20) at 11 a.m. at St. Rita Catholic Church, 2729 Lowerline St. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m.
Burial will be private.
Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.