Long before The New York Times had its first woman Executive Editor, Ruth Holmberg was the Editor of The Chattanooga Times. Holmberg is a member of the family that founded both newspapers and she has shared her compelling life story as friends and admirers gathered to hear her speak. Holmberg is a former director of The Associated Press and of The New York Times Company, a former president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and of the Southern Newspaper Publisher Association and a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Education Network (PEN). The petite, soft-voiced woman is also a member of one of the nation’s most prominent publishing families.
Editor’s note: Publishing icon and Chattanooga civic leader Ruth Holmberg passed away at age 96. In her honor, here is the ADR interview with Ms. Holmberg several years ago.
In an event sponsored by Chattanooga’s Women’s Leadership Institute, Ruth offered a glimpse into this unusual woman’s pioneering career in the South. As the interview progressed to explore not only her career, but also her civic contributions and historic perspective, it was evident why she was named Tennessee Woman of the Year in 2003.
Ruth Rachel Sulzberger, born in New York City, is the granddaughter of Adolph Ochs who, at age 20, bought The Chattanooga Times in 1878 for $250 with $37.50 working capital and $1,500 in debt. Ochs made it profitable in one year and purchased The New York Times in 1896. She was one of four children of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Sr. who was the 3rd generation to publish The New York Times. Growing up in a house on 5th Avenue in New York City, she had a privileged childhood but “. . . was raised on a leash. I was never allowed out of the house by myself. I resented the fact I didn’t ride the bus to school.”
Later years provided more adventure. “I started working at The New York Times as a cub reporter in high school. When the war started, I covered the Waves for the newspaper. “My favorite experience was to drive a taxi in New York City . . . I didn’t always obey the rules; I didn’t know what they were.” She quickly added, “But I learned.” Not surprisingly, she cites her parents as mentors and quotes their advice, “Know what you’re talking about before you do the talking.”
Holmberg attended Smith College during World War II and volunteered for the war effort after graduation. She considers WW II to be ‘The Last Right War.’ It was a war in which her brother served as a Marine in the Pacific and her sister, a young mother, drove an ambulance in New York City. “I went into the Red Cross at the suggestion of my very patriotic father. He was on the Red Cross Board and I was several years younger than the required age of 25.” Many in the audience had never heard about her time in the Red Cross and they were fascinated.
Attached to an air force base, Holmberg was one of two women: the club director and herself, the staff assistant. During the two years overseas with the Red Cross, she was promoted to club director. The base was mobile and she recalls being stationed at two sites in England and three different sites on the continent. The base started off north of London in Chelmsford and then moved south. “We were bombed in England.” Reminiscing about crawling under the desk, she explained, “We weren’t a primary target, but they [Germans] would empty their leftover bombs on us on the way back.”
The base arrived in Normandy, France’s northern coast and later moved to a second location near the city of Orleans, about an hour south of Paris. Recounting her role as club director, Holmberg describes serving coffee and doughnuts all day long. She joked that “When I got married I could fix doughnuts for 400.” She did whatever was needed from sewing enlisted men tears, rips and buttons to writing letters for those who were illiterate and being a shoulder to cry on.
She also spoke French and was active as the group’s interpreter, often facilitating conversations with prospective landlords. “I flew in a very small plane with a Lt. Colonel to look for a new base.” When asked about the most difficult part of her experience, she responded, “We used to go out to the end of the air force base and watch the bombers take off on their missions and count the planes when they came back. They didn’t all come back and we knew these guys.”
The mobile base entered Germany shortly after peace was declared and her last post was on the German-Dutch border. She was billeted with a German couple, a lodging arrangement made by the military. At this point in the interview, Holmberg talked about being Jewish since the family was not happy housing a Jew. About her Judaism, she explains, “Jews understand what it is like to be second class citizens and strive to help others. I was raised in the tradition of Hillel and the story of the man who went to Rabbi Hillel to explain Judaism while standing on one foot. “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you.”
After her wartime service, Holmberg applied her energy, talent, generosity and pioneering spirit back home. Her return was not to New York City, but to the South. She moved to Chattanooga following a short stint in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her family asked her to oversee The Chattanooga Times, which had been bought by family elder, Adolph Ochs, before acquiring The New York Times. Holmberg served as publisher of The Chattanooga Times from 1964 to 1992 and chaired The Times Printing Co. from 1992 to 1999. Yet, starting out, Holmberg’s husband was the understudy for manager at the newspaper while she worked as the art and theater critic.
Taking a moment to entertain us with stories from her art critic days, Holmberg talked about Margaret Truman and her attempts to establish herself as a singer. The art critic at The Washington Post trashed her performance and President Truman responded by trashing the critic. “When she came to sing in Chattanooga, the staff at the newspaper wondered what I would do.” Holmberg joked how she diplomatically reported, “She wore a pretty pink dress.”
Arts and culture in Chattanooga greatly benefited from Holmberg’s advocacy, time and funding over the years. Holmberg was a founding member of the Tennessee Arts Commission and a director of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Association. She chaired the Hunter Museum of American Art board of directors from 1979-1983. Visibly proud of Chattanooga, Holmberg says, “Overall, the arts are a very successful institution in this city. People don’t want to live a city without art galleries, symphony and dance.”
The gratitude of Chattanooga’s arts community for her support and that of her late husband, Bill, is tangible; the Allied Arts Leadership Institute carries the Holmberg name as does the Holmberg Bridge that leads from the Walnut Street Bridge to the Hunter Museum of American Art. The Director of the Hunter Museum, Robert A. Kret, talks about her impact, “Ruth Holmberg is one of those rare individuals whose personality combines style, grace, intellect, generosity and modesty. She recognizes the importance of the arts in making our lives more fulfilling. Over the years she has given generously of her time, talents and wealth to shape the growing cultural community. She could choose to live anywhere, but Chattanooga is fortunate that she has made this community her home.”
Holmberg’s involvement in Chattanooga has been far ranging and includes a long history with Chattanooga’s Reform Jewish synagogue, Mizpah Congregation, now an historical landmark. She carries on a family tradition of activism in the synagogue, begun by Julius and Bertha Ochs, parents of Adolph Ochs. Mizpah, established in 1866, was heavily influenced by the Ochs family as it was by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise. Often considered “the father of Reform Judaism” having established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Wise had an on-going connection to Chattanooga. One of his sons, Jonah, served as Mizpah’s rabbi. One of his daughters, Iphigene, married Adolph Ochs.
The first time I had the opportunity to meet Ruth Holmberg was at a meeting for the Black-Jewish Coalition held at the Urban League headquarters. She is an advocate for civil rights and has been since the beginning of the movement. Holmberg described segregation in Chattanooga when she arrived in late 1946. She talked about the colored water fountains and the restricted restaurants and hotels. “I had to arrange a workshop for music critics and the African American music critic from Detroit couldn’t stay in the Reed House with the other critics.” In 1954, The Chattanooga Times supported the Supreme Court’s famous desegregation case, Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Argued by then NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional, laying the foundation for ending segregation of students based on their skin color. Chattanooga did not see the ensuing violence that other Southern cities experienced. However, the newspaper did lose circulation and received threatening phone calls. The response neither intimidated nor deterred Holmberg from supporting civil rights and quality education for all students.
Holmberg has worked for decades to improve public education and increase access to higher education. She serves as chair of the local Public Education Foundation (PEF). Dan Challener, PEF President explains, “A core part of our work is to increase the performance of low-income students in elementary schools and for minority high school students the opportunity to go to college. PEF is approaching its 25th anniversary and Holmberg has been involved for two decades, serving ten of those years as chair. There is no possible way to measure the impact of her advocacy and her commitment for a generation of leaders in Hamilton County for our public schools. Challener adds, “When Ruth is involved, it shows the community that the cause is important.”
Holmberg’s prominence in Chattanooga’s civic and business affairs has not precluded a national leadership role. Not surprisingly, she served as chair of The Times Printing Company. The New York Times is publicly traded but the family descended from Adolph Ochs owns a substantial portion. The arrangement includes a family business entity named for Holmberg and her siblings. Holmberg explained that when Admiral Richard Byrd, the South Pole explorer and family friend, wanted to name a mountain after a grandchild, her grandfather didn’t want to play favorites.
The mountain, as well as the family business, was named Marujupu, using the first two letters of each grandchild’s name: Marian, Ruth, Judy and Punch Sulzberger. The grandchildren were raised to appreciate and maintain the family business. Holmberg reminisced how she and her siblings were taught as youngsters about the family’s expectations, teachings they passed on to their own children. Holmberg is the proud mother of four including Arthur Golden, author of the best-seller, Memoirs of a Geisha. At the time, she reported that he expects to turn in his next book in December. Today, we know that it became a best seller.
Of the family business today, Holmberg notes, “There are now about seventy of us. We meet twice a year, once for business and once for a reunion.” Her family’s ongoing prominence in publishing is particularly noteworthy given the challenges to family-owned newspapers across the country. Holmberg acknowledged concern about Rupert Murdoch, who recently bought the Dow Jones & Company, parent company of The Wall Street Journal, from the Bancroft family. However, she emphasized her family’s solidarity, “The family at The Wall Street Journal was not a family unit. It pays to stay and work together.”
One of the city’s leading philanthropists and civic activists, Mrs. Holmberg received the Tennessee Woman of the Year Award; the Kiwanis Distinguished Service Award in 1989; the Liberty Bell Award in 1990 and the Smith College Medal in 1988. Long-time friend, Pete Cooper, who is CEO of Chattanooga’s Community Foundation, described her in glowing terms. “Ruth over the several decades I’ve known her has been on the right side of every issue: downtown beautification, the arts, public education and civil rights.
Most of the time, she’s been the major champion of the issue. There hasn’t been a person in this city who hasn’t benefitted by her living here. She did this at her own expense and during the civil rights era, despite public degradation. If you were a proponent of racial equality during the 50s and 60s, most people were not fans. The younger generation sees beyond race so easily; it’s not an issue. Earlier, the only thing you could see was race.”
Holmberg has spent a life time being a leader and encourages leadership in other women. She notes, “I was the first everything in Chattanooga TN.”
Mrs. Holmberg was the first woman to head a major Chattanooga business, to serve as president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. She was the second woman tapped for the Associated Press Board of Directors, following Kay Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post. Citing her presidency of the male-dominated Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, she joked, “They embarked on a dangerous precedent of having a woman president every 40 years.” Holmberg strikes an optimistic note about today’s women. “There are more women in management in newspaper than in the past . . . It’s wonderful to see that women are almost on every board today.”
She offered this advice to a Women’s Leadership Institute audience, “You don’t have to think like a man. “Thinking like a woman is just fine.” Looking back, Holmberg says, “I’ve had a very fortunate life. When asked what she’d like as an epitaph, she replied, “I gave it my best shot. Give it yours or I’ll come back and haunt you.”