Otis Brumby gives up his seat on the 50-yard line

My experience with Otis Brumby Jr. began 33 years ago this month, when this newspaper decided it could no longer allow smaller publications to eat into Atlanta’s suburban market.

Brumby’s Marietta Daily Journal and his chain of weekly Neighbor Newspapers were the largest part of that competition, as I found when I inherited the AJC’s new Cobb bureau. As first impressions go, I’m sure we were wary of each other.

Several college friends who worked for Brumby had two primary objections: a) He paid little more than minimum wage; and b) felt fully entitled, as publisher, to rewrite any reporter’s copy so that it made the point he wanted.

Most MDJ hires left as soon as they could, which suited Brumby just fine. Journalism schools churned out new graduates every year.

Three decades can have a remarkable influence on one’s thinking. What a young outsider might have denigrated as cheap in 1980 looks like a business model today – but maybe one that we will not see again.

Newspapers are becoming rare enough. What Brumby built was rarer still: A community newspaper that for more than 40 years served as one man’s megaphone. That his community was Cobb County, which has occupied the Democratic and Republican crossroads of Georgia politics for roughly the same period, is no coincidence.

Brumby, 72, was buried on Wednesday, felled by a two-year battle with prostate cancer. His last act was to fill First United Methodist Church of Marietta to the rafters. Mourners included a lieutenant governor, an attorney general, an ex-governor, at least two members of the state Court of Appeals, one member of Public Service Commission, and the mayor of Marietta. One or two more state lawmakers and they might have started legislating.

And there were the “OMs.” Old Mariettans are the social stratum that formed the base of Brumby’s readership. They accepted that he was no Editor Whedon, able to see every side of every issue. Their question every morning was, “Who’s Otis after now?”

Maybe the school superintendent who recommended laptops for every student. Or the university prospect who cited the Marx brother named Karl rather than Groucho. Or the county commission chairman who helped put together a package of road and rail projects for a transportation sales tax referendum.

There was a fascination to it – not unlike watching a terrier stalk a mouse. But in print, day after day.

It is worth noting that not everyone was in the pews on Wednesday. One of those missing was Bill Byrne, the former Cobb County Commission chairman, who nearly unseated Republican incumbent Tim Lee last month.

The MDJ had hammered Lee for his support of the July vote on TSPLOST, among other sins. But in the end, the newspaper endorsed Lee – and Byrne lost by a narrow margin.

“Totally, completely combative,” is how Byrne described his relationship with the publisher. “Otis Brumby was the kind of guy – if you didn’t agree with him, you were wrong. And he bought ink by the barrel.”

Otis Brumby III, whose name now appears as publisher of the MDJ, served as a spokesman for the family at the funeral. Running a newspaper, his father had declared, was like having a seat on the 50 yard-line of your community.

“It was no secret he took particular interest in the newsroom,” the younger Brumby said. “He couldn’t wait to get there in the morning, and as recently as two weeks ago, was meeting with reporters and editors.”

But it was Brumby’s pastor, the Rev. Sam Matthews, who gave the fullest account of the man. Matthews spoke glowingly of Brumby’s philanthropy to his church, his humility, his dedication to his family, and even of the newspaperman’s well-noted pursuit of open government and transparency.

But any Methodist minister might do the same. Matthews ventured slightly further in his description of Brumby.

“He had a way of talking about the newspaper in the third person. It was never ‘we.’ It was never ‘I.’ It was always ‘the paper.’ As if the paper had a job to do that was different from the job he had to do,” the pastor said.

“The paper” could be sometimes cold and stark – something its publisher was not, he assured mourners.

“I went to see him one time,” Matthews said. “I said, ‘Otis, I think the paper’s harsh – too harsh, sometimes. I think you need a more pastoral, softer tone.’”

You do not often hear guffaws at funerals.

”I said that,” Matthews continued. “And he virtually ignored me.”

When it came to the inevitability of Otis Brumby, the pastor quoted Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin. “If there was an issue that’s coming, you might as well go talk to Otis really early. He’s going to have a piece of that action. He’s going to talk about it,” the preacher said. “’The paper’ had a job to do.”

Every morning, my Cobb County driveway receives two newspapers. It used to bother me that, every now and then, the woman who shares my life would read the other one first – “to see who Otis is after.”

Today, that question can’t be answered. And we’ll miss it.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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14 comments Add your comment

anon

September 12th, 2012
6:38 pm

Glad to see Jim at this wonderful service. Proud of my paster, Sam Matthews, and of Otis III, whose words were moving and poignantly true to life. I have seen people on the wrong side of Otis and, as Galloway observes, there were more than a few. Rev. Matthews made an interesting point Galloway did not remark upon: the sacrifice made–in friendships and such–by journalists who are committed to speaking the truth, no matter the consequence. Otis Jr was not not infallible. But he was utterly fearless in how, to borrow Sam’s words, “the Paper,” reported on the happenings in this community. The legacy of that fearlessness is a local government that has not fallen under the clouds of some others (Clayton, Dekalb and recently Gwinnett). Otis did not preserve good government in Cobb singlehandedly–but the threat of a fearless editor helps. I cannot think of a much better thing to say about a man than he was fearless in his profession, reliable in support of his church, and, above all else, committed to his family. That was Otis.

Adam Pratt

September 12th, 2012
8:43 pm

Uncle Otis was a good man and always treated my family with the utmost kindness. Our family looked up to him with respect, and we will miss him dearly. It is true that he could have a tough side, but that is what I liked about him the most. He stood up for what he believed in, and did not back down. In closing I would like to end by posting a Winston Churchill quote I once read that said “Do you have enemies ? Good ! That means you stood for something once in your life !
“.

PatDowns

September 13th, 2012
1:32 am

Thanks, Jim.

Martha Zoller

September 13th, 2012
7:27 am

Otis Brumby was a great journalist and a protector of local newspapers. I crossed paths with him a few times over the years for information, an interview or background on a story I was working on for radio. He was always professional and a little intimidating. After all, he was and is an institution. As a person who has lost too many of my loved ones to cancer, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends at this time of grief. As a Methodist and believer in the grace of Jesus Christ, I know Otis is doing a little editing in Heaven. Godspeed!

Look before I leap...

September 13th, 2012
9:04 am

Jim

Since my post was in direct response to another poster whose post you have removed, my post lacks context and is misleading.
I’d be grateful if you removed it.

My condolences to you and the Brumby family.

Chipoff Dablock

September 13th, 2012
9:47 am

I don’t know nor have ever heard of Otis but must say well written and held my interest Jimmy. Good job.

Mild Mannered Moderate

September 13th, 2012
9:58 am

Let us all observe a moment of saying nothing nicely.

Tomi Johnson

September 13th, 2012
10:12 am

Remembering Otis Brumby — Peach Pundit

September 13th, 2012
11:00 am

[...] Please read Galloway’s column and for those who wish, share a memory or two. Tweet [...]

A Small Town View

September 13th, 2012
11:18 am

Great piece, Jim. As someone who was one of Otis’ combatants when I was at the paper, I have to say I am unexpectedly sad at his passing. If I were still in Atlanta, I’d be working with the Atlanta Press Club and the MDJ/NNI Survivors and AJC Alumni groups to hold an informal wake for Otis. There all the stories could be told (and I could tell my own stories… and I have tons). I was at a Atlanta Press Club meeting after which all these AJCers and other who were former MDJ and NNI survivors started with Otis stories, and it was not only a HOOT, but also cathartic. And I want Bobby Nesbitt be acknowledged as the REAL reason the paper flourished, at least during my time there. RIP, Otis, you were a skinflint, socially awkward (with your staff), a newspaper genius and true visionary. Who knew 35 years ago I’d feel this way?

Nutmeg

September 13th, 2012
11:43 am

Having done a four-year stint at the Neighbor, I heartily endorse paragraph 3, and I think paragraph 4 says something very important about the kind of business he ran.

He impacted the lives of a *lot* of journalists (because the turnover was so high), and arguably had more impact on them than on public policy. Whether that impact was positive or negative is for each person to decide. I know my opinion.

One attacked

September 13th, 2012
5:01 pm

Jim
Thank you for having the guts to write the truth. Having been one of those attacked I know his motives where not to do what was right for Cobb County, but to do what was right for Otis and friends. The comment that you should “go to Otis before early”… was a demand. If you did not meet that demand you became one of the ones your wife looked for each morning, and it never stopped. Please keep in mind that meeting Otis’ demands many time meant breaking the law and the bounds of executive session. Some of us refused to do that. Some of us had the back bone to do what was right for those we served instead of what Otis wanted. Most of the time we lost to the tons of ink. We know who we are and I am proud of us!!!!!

Remembering Otis Brumby

September 13th, 2012
5:02 pm

[...] Please read Galloway’s column and for those who wish, share a memory or two. [...]

[...] Please read Galloway’s column and for those who wish, share a memory or two. [...]