Today, The Northern Echo leads on my story looking back at the premature death of Ian Weir 20 years ago.

Ian, a friend and colleague at The Northern Echo, died at 38 after waiting seven months for a triple heart bypass.

I’d become the paper’s editor six months earlier, and I’ll never forget receiving a phone call from Ian’s wife Maggie early on June 1, 1999, telling me that Ian had had a heart attack. By the time I got to the family house in Darlington, Ian had been declared dead.

He’d had an initial heart attack the previous November and tests showed he needed an “urgent” surgery. He waited far too long for that to happen.

As Ian’s body was removed from the house, I distracted his sons Joe, 12, and Charlie, 8 by taking them out the back for a game of basketball. Even now, it all seems surreal, but it was devastatingly true.

At the time, our excellent Health Editor Barry Nelson discovered that the average wait for a heart bypass in this country was 12 months compared to three months in other parts of Europe.

After Ian’s funeral, The Northern Echo launched a campaign aimed at cutting heart bypass waiting times in line with the rest of Europe. While he was waiting for his “urgent” operation, Ian asked me pass on a letter to Tony Blair. In it, he asked the question: “How much longer will I be alive?” That letter was published on the front page as we launched our campaign and it sparked a national outcry.

The result was that the Health Secretary Alan Milburn, Ian’s local MP and also a friend, did a brilliant job by launching the country’s first national framework for coronary care. Bypass waiting times in the UK were cut to an average of three months.

Twenty years on, I wanted to remember Ian for the stubborn, grumpy at times, funny, warm, generous character he was. I wanted to remember the laughs we had covering jobs, like the time I had to be a lollipop man for the famous Bellerby ducks, crossing the road in the Yorkshire Dales, while Ian got his perfect picture.

But I also wanted to find out whether those heart bypass waiting times had slipped back or been maintained. The good news, as you’ll see from the coverage in today’s edition of The Northern Echo is that Ian’s legacy is still saving lives 20 years on.

Of all the campaigns The Northern Echo has fought over almost 150 years, the battle to cut heart bypass waiting times in this country was the closest to home. There were some who said it was too close. But 20 years on, it is the thing I’m most proud of, and I’m certain it was one of the most important campaigns in The Northern Echo’s history.

Today is a reminder of the importance of local newspapers, being the first to respond to what is happening within their communities, and sparking the fuse to inspire change.

The campaign couldn’t have happened without the courage and determination shown by Ian’s wife Maggie. He’d have been so proud of her. He’d also have been incredibly proud of how Joe and Charlie and grown up into lovely young men. And he would have been besotted by his eight-months-old grandson Seth.

Thankfully, they can find comfort in the knowledge that other lives have been saved, and other families have been protected from grief, because of what happened 20 years ago.