Silha legacy to continue through U ethics center

by Josh Linehan

A University alumnus, generous benefactor and true visionary died of a heart attack in an Edina barbershop Saturday. Otto Silha was 80 years old.
A former managing editor of The Minnesota Daily and founder of the University’s Otto and Helen Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, Silha is remembered as much for his philanthropy as he is for his innovative thinking.
Silha made the improbable climb from the copy desk to publisher and president of the Minneapolis Star in his four decades with the paper.
Born in Chicago in 1919, Silha came to the University after graduating from St Paul Central High School. He graduated from the University magna cum laude in 1940. He then spent four years in Air Force intelligence during World War II.
Silha’s legacy at the University will be long remembered. He served as a member of the Board of Regents from 1961-1969. Upon his retirement in 1984, he and his wife, Helen, founded the Silha Center — the first center to study media ethics and law in the world. Silha gained national and international attention for the center’s groundbreaking work.
Silha stayed heavily involved in the center he founded until his death, donating $1 million toward a media ethics and law professorship and later matching that amount to push the center further along its pioneering track.
William Babcock, director of the center, said the University lost one of its greatest friends.
“It was no small feat, to rise up the ranks as he did. He was one of the real visionaries, regionally and nationally, but he always worked for the University. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger backer of the University than Otto Silha,” Babcock said.
In May 1995, Silha was selected to The Minnesota Daily Hall of Distinction and received the George Hage/Mitch Charnley Award of Excellence, the highest honor the Daily awards.
Former Minnesota Gov. Elmer L. Andersen praised Silha for his foresight and generosity.
“He was a man who thought of generations and centuries ahead,” Andersen said.
Otto’s son Stephen said his father was many things over the years, but always remained a newspaperman at heart.
“He was an avid newspaper proponent. Even in the hospital the last few weeks he would ask all the orderlies and nurses if they read a newspaper every day. He always stressed clear communication — put it down on paper and make it clear,” Stephen said.
Silha spent 44 years with the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and Cowles Media Co., which owned the Star Tribune until 1998.
To Babcock, Silha was a unique combination of dedication and philanthropy who will be remembered and missed.
“Most of us don’t have money or vision. Otto had both and used them both well,” Babcock said.
At the time of his death, Silha was working as chairman of City Innovation, a national volunteer program he founded, dedicated to providing leadership for a holistic approach to improving urban areas. He was also chairman of the National Retiree Volunteer Coalition as well as the Community Action Network and a director of the National Organization on Disability.
Silha is survived by his wife Helen; two sons, Mark and Stephen; a daughter, Alice; and three grandchildren. A memorial will be held at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church at 12th Street and Nicollet Mall.
In lieu of flowers, the Silha family suggests memorials to Silha’s favorite charities: the University’s Silha Center; City Innovation; Opportunity Partners, a program for the disabled; and YMCA’s Camp Warren, where an outdoor discovery program was established in memory of Silha’s son David, who died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1974.

— Wire services contributed to this story.

Josh Linehan welcomes comments at [email protected]