Christine Martinez and Andrew Van Dam
Columbia, Mo. (March 17, 2009) — MU journalism professor Paul Fisher’s public acclaim as a hero of the freedom of information movement stood in bright contrast to his quiet, private personality.
Friends and colleagues said Fisher, who died Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at Lenoir Health Care Center at age 90, led the crusade for access to public information and helped found the academic study of information access.
“We wouldn’t have a Freedom of Information Act in the United States if it weren’t for Paul Fisher,” said Pat Smith, editor of the Global Journalist. Smith described her friend and mentor as a brilliant, complicated intellectual who loved reading and the craft of journalism.
Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, called Fisher, who served as the initial director of the Freedom of Information Center for 31 years, a “giant” in the field.
While true, that’s exactly the kind of praise the “quiet, cantankerous” man would never have tolerated, said George Kennedy, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and another former student and colleague of Fisher’s.
“He actively resisted anything that smacked of personal publicity or aggrandizement,” Kennedy said.
When Fisher retired, Kennedy said, “he just vetoed any notion of any celebration of any sort or any kind of recognition.”
Born Dec. 18, 1918, in Fairhaven, Mass., Fisher spoke with a straightforward manner and clipped diction that revealed his New England roots.
“He had a clear and straightforward way of speaking,” Kennedy said. “You always knew where you stood with Paul whether you were a student or a colleague or a public official.”
Keith Sanders, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism, remembered how his colleague of two decades “had very definite opinions and set high standards.”
Smith, who described Fisher as sharp and smart, said he intently scrutinized her thesis. “Every word mattered to him,” Smith said.
Kennedy said he and all of Fisher’s students shared great respect and affection for the former professor, which they and the reserved Fisher “worked pretty hard at keeping concealed.”
Kennedy said students also felt “a little bit of apprehension because Paul held himself and the rest of us to pretty high standards. When anybody failed to meet those standards he would, in his quiet but clear way, let you know that.”
Fisher’s other students agreed.
“He was a New Englander who wouldn’t put up with any foolishness,” Sanders said. “He didn’t suffer fools gladly at all.”
Kathleen Edwards, former manager for the Freedom of Information Center, said, “He was very dedicated to his wife and took care of her. He loved Cape Cod and missed going there in his later years.
“He was a wonderful storyteller. He told stories about freedom of information and classification, stories that kept the students spellbound.”
Fisher was an avid hiker, birder and tennis player. He would run to MU every day, then trade his running shoes for business shoes and get to work, Kennedy said.
He supported the ACLU and inmate rights, Kennedy said.
“He was a quiet crusader for the rights of prisoners and for many years regularly commuted to the prison down in Jeff City where he was a literacy instructor for inmates,” Kennedy said.
An accomplished typographer, Fisher studied under Frederic Goudy, creator of the Copperplate Gothic Bold and Goudy Old Style fonts, among others. Fisher ran his own small publishing operation, Press of the Crippled Turtle.
Fisher taught Smith to design magazine pages “with order and with interest,” a principle she has applied to her life, Smith said.
In 1937, Fisher came to Columbia to attend MU. After serving in the military during World War II, Fisher earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1946. He also earned master’s and doctoral degrees in journalism and never left.
Fisher became director of the Freedom of Information Center shortly after its founding in 1958 and served in this capacity until 1989.
Fisher, along with other MU staff members, realized the need for a legislative response in a post-war era where information remained locked and secret – no specific open records laws existed.
“I think they just saw a great opportunity for the School of Journalism to get involved on an academic level that didn’t exist anywhere else,” said Edwards. “He changed the way generations of students read and understood and analyzed the news.”
Kennedy said, “He created what was and, what I think, remains the leading repository of material relating to access to information and control of information in the country.”
After he retired, Fisher, an extremely active man, would often jog to the center to drop off clips, swap information and pick up newspapers.
“In a million small ways, he still inhabits the place,” Davis said.
Fisher’s teaching notes still fill the center’s files, and his presence remains in the structure of his classes and filing system.
Edwards said Fisher remained dedicated to the continual fight for open government throughout his life.
“He knew the work would never be done,” Edwards said.
Updated: May 1, 2020