FORMER CHATTANOOGA TIMES PUBLISHER RUTH HOLMBERG DIES
Ruth Holmberg, Chattanooga civic leader and former publisher of The Chattanooga Times, died Wednesday at her home. She was 96.
Holmberg was the granddaughter of Adolph Ochs, the 19th-century patriarch of The Chattanooga Times who rose to world prominence as publisher of The New York Times in the early decades of the 20th century.
Over time, Holmberg was deeply involved in Chattanooga civic life, serving in leadership roles in the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Association, the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Chattanooga Urban League and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She was named Tennessee Woman of the Year in 2003.
“She had a spectacular life,” said her son Michael Golden, vice chairman of The New York Times. “On behalf of her children, we are extremely proud of the leadership role that our mother played in Chattanooga in education, civil rights, beautification and the arts.”
Holmberg was also active in the upper echelons of the newspaper industry, serving on the board of directors of both The New York Times Co. and The Associated Press. She was a past president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
For 28 years, 1964 to 1992, Holmberg was publisher of The Chattanooga Times. She was chairwoman of the Times Printing Co. from 1992 until 1999, when the company was sold to Walter E. Hussman Jr., chairman of Little Rock, Ark.-based WEHCO Media. Hussman purchased the morning Chattanooga Times and afternoon Chattanooga News-Free Press in the late 1990s, and combined the newspapers in early 1999.
Hussman said he remembers Holmberg as “warm and gracious but also a really good, effective leader.”
“What impressed me is that, as a publisher, she really insisted on quality journalism,” he said. “She set a good example for me and a lot of people to try to emulate her leadership.”
Hussman said he also admired Holmberg’s commitment to her hometown.
“I always had a lot of respect for her because a lot of the rest of the family moved on to New York and she remained in Chattanooga and tried to practice great journalism in the family home,” he said.
Holmberg was born Ruth Rachel Sulzberger in New York City, and she worked as a reporter at The New York Times while in high school. She later graduated from Smith College. She arrived in Chattanooga in 1946 after serving as a Red Cross nurse in England and France during World War II. Early on, Holmberg served as art and theater critic for The Chattanooga Times.
During her early years as publisher of The Chattanooga Times she guided the newspaper through turbulent times as the newspaper took controversial positions in support of the civil rights movement.
Later, her passions as a champion for public education and the arts were themes of The Chattanooga Times editorial pages. Downtown renewal was also at the top of her agenda, and in her later years she took great pride in the city’s 21st century renaissance.
Paul Neely, who was publisher of The Chattanooga Times before the papers merged, said: “Ruth could look around and see where Chattanooga was coming up short. The topics became the legacy of the Times.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, it was in granting equal rights to all citizens. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a special emphasis on the environment, restoring the physical health of the region. Then in the ’90s, the paper was at the front of those making clear that a first-class city could not afford to coast along on a second-class public education system.
“Raising alarms about shortcomings was often unpopular, until you look back decades later and realize what a lesser place this would be without leadership like hers.”
Holmberg also was a powerful and influential voice in a time when many advancement opportunities were closed to women.
“By succeeding in so many leadership roles in the city, she opened up new possibilities for the women who came after her.”
Wes Hasden, who worked closely with Holmberg as assistant to the publisher at The Chattanooga Times for many years, said he remembers Holmberg’s “grace and dignity and continuing dedication to the paper and to gathering and reporting the news in a fair and fearless manner.”
“After family and the newspaper was her consuming commitment to Chattanooga and the people who lived here,” Hasden said. “Even the people who knew her the best were probably not aware of how generous she was.”
U.S. Sen Bob Corker agreed, saying Holmberg’s “heart was always in Chattanooga.”
“In her quiet way, she was one of the kindest and most generous champions for our city that I have ever known and her impact will be felt for many years to come,” he said in a prepared statement. “Her long-time leadership and stewardship of the Chattanooga Times informed generations of our citizens and her advocacy for the arts helped transform our community and establish it as a place with tremendous heart and soul. She was a friend to so many and will be greatly missed.”
Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild, said Holmberg “is synonymous with the arts in Chattanooga.”
“Her generosity and leadership in building our community through the arts — and in so many other areas — are legendary. No one will ever replace her spirit, but her legacy and footprint will be felt for many generations to come,” Bowers said.
Hunter Museum of American Art executive director Virginia Anne Sharber said the Chattanooga community “owes a huge debt of gratitude to her — her leadership, her ideas, her just incredible support throughout her entire lifetime was just amazing. Her major contributions to the museum really helped fundamentally shape our collection.”
Sharber said the decision to name the glass bridge that arches over Riverfront Parkway for Ruth Holmberg and her husband “was just so fitting and so appropriate because they did so much.
“She was a huge part of the Hunter’s history, and we totally would not be where we are today had she not been involved.”
Holmberg is survived by three sons, Michael Golden; writer Arthur Golden, whose works include “Memoirs of a Geisha”; Stephen Golden; and a daughter, Lynn G. Dolnick.
Her late husband, A. William “Bill” Holmberg, a former business executive of The Chattanooga Times, died in 2005.
Heritage Funeral Home on East Brainerd Road is handling arrangements.
A memorial service will be held Monday at Girls Preparatory School, followed by a reception at the Hunter Museum. The time will be announced.