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John McChesney, Chronicler of the Rural West

John McChesney in front of a Cheyenne-area well pad in September 2011, as part of the production of the Center’s documentary, “An Unquiet Landscape.” (Photo credit: Geoff McGhee)


The Center is deeply saddened to report that our friend and former colleague, John McChesney, passed away on the evening of Tuesday, June 5 in Santa Rosa.

The director of our Rural West Initiative from 2010-12 and the organizer of our very first Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Salt Lake City, John was a widely experienced journalist who spent three decades at National Public Radio, covering national politics, foreign affairs, and later the tech industry in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and 2000s.

During his time with the Center, John traveled extensively in Wyoming and North Dakota, gathering stories of profound change driven by the hydraulic fracturing boom and the energy industry that it brought to previously bucolic and remote areas. John worked with Stanford students and Center staff to produce a number of multimedia reports, from our “Cow Town to Boom Town” series of oral histories to “An Unquiet Landscape,” a 30-minute documentary on the energy boom, and “The New Western Fugitives,” a report on the growth of ozone precursors affecting the air quality of rural western communities.

For the Center’s first Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Ogden, Utah in October 2012, John solicited research papers and presenters, and helped develop a wide-ranging agenda that addressed natural resource management, media and education, health and economic development issues, among several others. Much of the research presented at the conference made its way into the Rural West Initiative’s book, Bridging the Distance: Common Issues of the Rural West, which was edited by the western historian David B. Danbom and published by the University of Utah Press in 2015.

Trailer for the documentary that John McChesney co-wrote, edited, and shot with Center staff in 2011.

“John made uncommon and invaluable contributions to the Lane Center’s mission," said the Stanford emeritus historian David M. Kennedy, the founding co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. “He did more than any other investigator, in any medium, to document the on-the-ground human impact of the energy boom of the last decade. He was an inspiration to us all, and a boon companion, too.”

With a resonant baritone voice honed by decades of radio broadcasting, bolo ties, and mane of bright white hair, John was a memorable presence in the Center offices. “He cussed and drank whiskey, and liked a good wisecrack,” said Geoff McGhee, who worked closely with McChesney. “He could be ornery and battle with you over edits, but he was enormously kind and generous and a loyal friend. He was passionate and curious, and cared deeply about the West. He loved the twangy folksiness of the dobro music (a kind of steel guitar) that became a fixture of our soundtracks, and he was mad as hell at what he saw as happening to rural communities that weren’t getting enough back from a costly ‘one-time harvest,’ as he put it.”

John is survived by his wife, Wendy von Wiederhold, and his daughter by previous marriage, the journalist Amy Wallace. We express our condolences to John’s family and wide network of friends.

Trailer for the documentary that John McChesney co-wrote, edited, and shot with Center staff in 2011.

Related Links

John McChesney, former NPR reporter and founder of Sonoma Speaker Series, died Tuesday (Sonoma Index Tribune)

“An Unquiet Landscape: The American West's New Energy Frontier" (The Rural West Initiative)

Archived radio stories by John McChesney (NPR)

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