Oct. 5, 1942 – Sept. 14, 2022
John M. Hanchette, a former Buffalo Evening News reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize at Gannett News Service before returning to Western New York to teach journalism at St. Bonaventure University, died Wednesday in North Carolina after a lengthy illness. He was 79.
Mr. Hanchette was on a Gannett team that won journalism's highest honor – the Pulitzer Prize – for public service in 1980. Their 18-part investigative series revealed that the Pauline Fathers, a Catholic religious order, squandered $20 million in loans, gifts and contributions, leaving the order nearly penniless and some 2,500 elderly Catholics unpaid. Donations were diverted to tax-avoiding business schemes, personal loans and investments.
Raised in Watertown, Mr. Hanchette was a 1964 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, where he was a classmate of former News reporters Lee Coppola, Anthony Cardinale, Modesto Argenio and Anthony Bannon. His classmates said Hanchette was known as much for his sense of humor as for his investigative skills.
"He was a wonderful person to be around because he always had a story to tell," Coppola said. "He was intelligent, he was tenacious and he was compassionate. All good reporters need those attributes, and John had them in spades."
Mr. Hanchette earned a reputation as an ace reporter early in his career, when he teamed up with the late News reporter Ray Hill on "Suburb Under Scrutiny," a 1973 investigative series on allegations of bribery and misuse of public funds in the Town of Cheektowaga. That same year the reporting duo published "License to Kill," a series on drunken driving that won awards from the Associated Press and the National Foundation of Highway Safety.
"They conducted some of their research at Jack's Cellar, where an officer with a breathalyzer machine tracked the alcohol-content of the diminutive Hanchette, who weighed 150 pounds, and the burly Hill, over 200 pounds, while both drank steadily for three hours on The News' bar tab," Cardinale said.
At 33, Mr. Hanchette became editor of the Niagara Falls Gazette, where he covered the ailing Mafia chieftain Stefano Magaddino with resourcefulness. When the mob boss was arraigned in his Lewiston bedroom on federal charges, Mr. Hanchette had the telephone company send a truck and crew to tap the telephone line and connect it to his phone, so he could call in the story on time.
"He made news gathering seem like fun," said Monica Roland, a former Gazette reporter. "His wry wit and happy persona brought light and camaraderie to the newsroom. Yet he was laser-focused on getting the facts and getting them right."
Gannett later tapped Mr. Hanchette to run its bureau in Tallahassee, Fla., helping to pioneer the birth of USA Today. As managing editor of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, he got to know Bill Clinton and later followed Clinton to Washington, serving as a senior national correspondent for Gannett before he retired in 2001. He later was named one of Gannett's Top 10 reporters nationwide over a 25-year period.
St. Bonaventure awarded Mr. Hanchette an honorary doctorate in 1997. In 2002, Coppola – who was then the dean of the university's journalism school – recruited Mr. Hanchette as an associate professor. Coppola said Mr. Hanchette was the only journalism professor the university agreed to hire with tenure. He retired from teaching in 2011 and moved to North Carolina.
Coppola said Mr. Hanchette's reporting achievements were more valuable than an advanced degree – and made him one of the best reporters ever to graduate from the school that has produced six winners of the Pulitzer Prize.
"He’s right up there with the best of them," Coppola said. "He was a guy who loved to have fun – and fun we had."
Mr. Hanchette was predeceased by his former wife, Joan. He is survived by a son, Christopher. Funeral arrangements are pending.