Associate Editor Bill Kinney, 88, who wrote and edited most of the “Around Town” columns that appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal for the past four decades in the course of a 75-year journalism career spanning parts of nine decades, has decided it is time to finally put down his pen for good.
“As a lifelong journalist who has spent his career reporting about other people, the time has now come to make some news about myself,” Kinney said late this week. “My failing eyesight now makes it very difficult for me to read and write, so I have decided the time has finally come for me to retire.
“I have enjoyed every minute of my seven decades covering the people, politics and news events of Marietta and Cobb County, and watching us grow from a little cotton town of the Great Depression days to the booming community we are today.
“As This Ol’ Scribbler puts down his pen for the last time, he wishes all his readers the fondest of farewells.”
Kinney’s name will continue to appear on MDJ’s masthead, now as “Associate Editor Emeritus.”
Kinney’s column was a weekly pastiche of insider political gossip, analysis and scuttlebutt that pulled few punches and routinely had local leaders looking over their shoulders. Legend has it that many of them made a beeline out of their driveways early each Saturday to retrieve their newspaper, keeping their fingers crossed that that week’s edition of Around Town did not include their names.
“His column was the first thing everybody in Cobb public life reads on Saturdays and will continue to be as long as written the way it is,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “I’m glad the paper is carrying on the tradition. It’s a great column.
“He had great insight into things. Politicians are famous for working every angle to accomplish things, and he could figure out and expose what the angle was if it was something nefarious. You knew it had to be something legitimate or he’d figure it out in a heartbeat. Bill Kinney understood government and politics better than anyone I’ve ever known in any medium. He has a great political mind.”
Kinney was given wide latitude by MDJ publisher the late Otis A. Brumby Jr. to call the shots as he saw them in Around Town. Brumby often would feed Kinney what bombshells and tidbits he’d heard during the week, but on other Saturdays, Brumby would be just as surprised as other readers at what Kinney had come up with.
“Bill’s writing style was a great gift,” Isakson recalled. “He could really get under somebody’s skin. When I was serving in the Legislature, there was one of our delegation that he kept writing about because of the way he was behaving, and (that legislator) would literally get up at 3 a.m. on Saturday mornings to go out and see if his name was in Around Town that day.
“And Bill knew he was getting up that early — so Bill made sure he used his name in the column every week!”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes of Marietta described Kinney as the epitome of a reporter.
“They didn’t call him ‘Scoop’ for nothing. He had more sources in the courthouse than anyone I ever knew. That courthouse leaked like a sieve, thanks to Kinney. You just couldn’t turn him down, even when you knew you (were) supposed to. He knew all the personalities involved. You’d tell him what you were supposed to say, and he’d answer, ‘I know better than that.’ He would have been a wonderful policeman, because you could never have failed to confess to him.”
Added former Congressman Buddy Darden (D-Marietta), “Bill has been the most knowledgeable political observer in Cobb for the last 50 years. There’s no one in the county who’s had his finger on the pulse of not only the politics, but the relationships and how things have worked and evolved in this county. He’s a living encyclopedia of Cobb politics.”
Former state Sen. Chuck Clay (R-Marietta) describes Kinney as “a great student of human nature.”
“Everybody either wants to see their name in the paper or is scared to death to see their name in the paper,” Clay said. “And if you had his level of skill, whichever way it was, you were going to call him — either to get something in the paper or to keep it out.
“He had that ability to tweak people, but there was always a twinkle in his eye when he did it. If you didn’t take it too seriously, you’d survive the hits because you knew you’d also get your plaudits from him.”
Marietta Councilman Philip Goldstein was a frequent target of Around Town’s focus, but retained strong relations with Kinney through the years.
“He would call and quiz me about facts on issues with which I was familiar, and he was also fair,” the councilman said. “If a position was not popular, he afforded an opportunity for that side to be heard and allowed the reader to make the decision. I can tell you from personal experience that he is a factual, fair, modest and respectful journalist, and his voice at the Marietta Daily Journal will be sorely missed.”
Kinney was born and raised in Marietta. He delivered the MDJ as a schoolboy and officially put pen to paper for the first time as a “stringer” for the weekly Cobb County Times in 1938 covering Marietta High School sports while still in school himself. (His byline back then? “Billy Kinney,” although many old-timers in town still refer to him by his better-known nickname: “Scoop.”)
Kinney graduated from Marietta High School in 1941, worked briefly in the PR department of the Bell bomber factory built here during World War II, then went to work full time for the Times under founding publisher Otis A. Brumby Sr.
After a brief stint in the Navy Reserves, he divided his time between night school (he has degrees in journalism and business from the University of Georgia), the Times and weekend work on the sports desk of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He also worked part-time in the late 1940s as a dispatcher for the Marietta Police Department — not a bad way to get leads on stories.
He cut quite a swath in Marietta even in those days, and among those watching with a keen eye was one of his neighbors, Bill Shipp, who was a decade younger and saw Kinney as an inspiration.
“Kinney was my idol at the beginning of my career,” said Shipp, who himself later earned a reputation with the Atlanta newspapers in the 1950s-80s as the premier journalistic chronicler of the state’s politics of that era.
“He lived right across Wright Street from me. He was a little older and I always thought he was very dashing figure who had an adventurous job at the newspaper.
“But I always wondered why the police came to his house every day to pick up and then later bring him home. I thought it was wonderful. I didn’t know he was working there as a dispatcher.”
Kinney has always surmised, however, that the main reason he was hired was to help the officers — many of whom were barely literate — write their crime reports.
Shipp remembers Kinney also as “a model of a successful journalist because he understood local news.”
“All news is local. If it affects you, that is an adequate definition of ‘news,’ and he was always aware of the local angle. It’s why the MDJ is still published out of Marietta and not out of another state,” Shipp said.
Kinney quickly worked his way up through the ranks, and served as the editor of the Times and later, after that paper purchased the Marietta Daily Journal in the early 1950s, of the MDJ. He also did a tour as the MDJ editorial page editor, wrote thousands of columns and handled a number of the paper’s largest sales accounts.
His job gave him a ringside seat for the transformation of Cobb from a pre-war backwater to the economic dynamo it became in later decades. He played a substantial behind-the-scenes role in that transformation himself, not just in what he chose to write but also as a pivotal member (and at times chairman) of the prestigious Business and Public Affairs Committee of the Marietta Kiwanis Club. That committee played a key role in the founding of what started out as Kennesaw Junior College and today is Kennesaw State University, and the move here from DeKalb of what is now Southern Polytechnic State University.
“That committee also built buildings, we sought funding and had parks built, we got $5 million in state funding for a new Regional Youth Development Center, we got the little park created next to the paper with the stairway that used to lead up to Bell bomber, we got improvements for the Marietta Confederate Cemetery and we got local highways named after former state Sen. Harold Willingham and Gen. Lucius Clay,” recalled state Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Marietta).
“I was chair of the committee for three years when we did a lot of those things, and he wouldn’t let me say anything about it to people, but everything I did was actually his idea,” Thompson said. “Quite frankly, he probably did more to improve Cobb than anybody knows. And he did the same thing with other people who served in public life, from Washington, D.C. to here.”
Added Thompson, “Whenever I did something well, he would call me ‘Little Stevie Wonder,’ and if he didn’t like what I’d done, he’d call me ‘Stevie Blunder.’”
And speaking of Kiwanis, it was a lifelong love. Kinney had compiled 55 years of perfect attendance until his poor eyesight made it too much of a chore for him to attend.
Kinney later purchased and published the Smyrna Herald until it was purchased by Times Journal Inc. (parent company of the MDJ) in the late 1960s, and enjoyed “growing” the Herald as that city grew.
“It was impossible not to make money back then,” the way the county was blossoming, he often said.
One of the mainstays of his newsroom in the early 1960s at the Herald was Becky Nash (now Paden) of Marietta, who has nothing but fond memories of the experience.
“It was a scream to work for him back in those days,” she recalled. “We used to play practical jokes on each other all the time. We had the time to do that back then. You didn’t have the instantaneous pressure of the computer like you do now. All the staff would yell at each other from one room to the other.
“We both knew who all the characters in Smyrna were, and they’d usually drop by the office. And if one of them that he didn’t want to talk to happened to call on the phone, I’d disguise who it was in order to get him to pick the phone up. Then he’d drag the phone across the room while he was talking to the person so he could glare at me. But it was fun. Him retiring is the end of an era.”
Kinney covered a “Who’s Who” of local figures and events during his career. While it’s not true that he interviewed Sherman, he met everyone from Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to Newt Gingrich and in between.
And let’s not forget Virginia Hill — the country girl from west Cobb who moved to Chicago in the 1930s to work as a “shimmy dancer” and prostitute and returned a few years later as what used to be called a “gun moll” — that is, a gangster’s girlfriend. She flaunted her success — and her cash — in what then was still small-town Marietta during her annual summer visits back home; scandalizing some by riding horseback through town sporting a sexy halter top, and bedazzling Kinney and his high-school buddies (and her younger brothers) by treating them to nights “out on the town.”
As he later recounted in a long — and very well-read — series of columns in the late 1980s, the boys and Hill would pile into her black Cadillac convertible and hit the night spots and honky-tonks that dotted Atlanta Road and then-new Cobb Parkway between Marietta and Atlanta. The boys drank only Cokes, according to Kinney — which may or may not be true.
Kinney later claimed he and his friends thought Hill was just “a rich heiress.”
In fact, Hill was the girlfriend of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who later built the first big “modern” casino in Las Vegas just after World War II and christened it after his pet name for Ms. Hill — “The Flamingo.”
One of the most memorable news events of Kinney’s long career was one he witnessed as an observer, not as a reporter: the deadly Winecoff Hotel Fire in downtown Atlanta on Dec. 7, 1946, which killed 119 people. Kinney was working that night on the sports desk of the Atlanta paper a few blocks away and was part of the crowd watching as victims fell or jumped to their deaths 15 stories below. The sound they made as they hit the pavement still makes him sick to this day.
He was not on assignment and thus did not file a story on the fire that night, but was assigned a day or two later by his editor at the Cobb County Times to interview the widow of a Marietta man who had died in the fire.
“It turned out the man had been shacked up with some other woman in the Winecoff, not his wife,” Kinney remembered last week. “So when I tried to interview the widow, she really cussed him out and cussed me out, too.”
Kinney also devoted a substantial portion of his career to writing about news events that had taken place in Marietta and Atlanta a decade before he was born — the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan and subsequent lynching in Marietta of her former employer, Leo Frank.
The two crimes cast a pall over Marietta for decades to come, and Kinney spent the early years of his career slowly unraveling the case. At one point he even took a week off from work and spent it in the Fulton County Courthouse reading the transcript of Frank’s murder trial in Atlanta.
Mariettans spent most of the 20th century speculating as to who was behind the kidnapping of Frank from the state prison in Milledgeville and his hanging the following dawn on the outskirts of Marietta.
Kinney finally unraveled that mystery in the 1950s, learning that the lynching was not carried out by a mob, but was a well-planned commando-style operation masterminded by residents bearing some of Marietta’s best-known names — both then and now.
(Incidentally, he learned that even one of his own uncles, Cicero Dobbs, had been a low-ranking member of the lynching party, although he could remember having met Dobbs only once as a young boy.)
But Kinney felt compelled to keep the identities to himself.
“There’s no way I could have continued to live and work here back then,” if he had published it, he told this writer on several occasions. The wounds left by the dual tragedies were still too close to the surface for too many people.
Instead, as the widely acknowledged expert on the case, he helped steer various other researchers and authors in the right direction.
“If someone wrote a book on the case without interviewing Kinney, it was incomplete, to say the least,” said Shipp.
But when one writer, Steve Oney, happened across a list of the lynchers in the course of his research, Kinney confirmed for him that the names listed were in fact the ones involved. (For more, see Oney’s book, “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.”)
Kinney banged out his column on a manual typewriter until the late 1990s when he reluctantly made the transition to computer. His computer skills were rudimentary at best, though, and he inadvertently drew laughs from his coworkers one day early on by referring to his mouse as his “rabbit.”
His computer was equipped with a disc drive, though he used it only for holding his coffee cups.
The clutter in Kinney’s office at the MDJ was legendary, with the desktop literally a foot deep in paper, bookshelves overflowing, two extra desks stacked piggyback so he could use their drawers as file cabinets and with stacks of old newspapers crammed under the desk.
When the MDJ building was overhauled in 2005, it meant every office had to be completely emptied — even Kinney’s. So newsroom clerk Damon Poirier spent a morning helping Kinney sort through the contents of the deepest, darkest corners of his desk drawers, coming across not just vintage candy wrappers and photos but even a (mostly) full bottle of Jack Daniels he’d also forgotten about.
“So that’s where that was,” quipped Kinney.
Kinney for years would share lunch almost every Saturday at Howard’s Deli in Smyrna with Barnes (then a state senator) and the late Joe Mack Wilson, who at the time chaired the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.
“Those Saturdays were some of the most fun I’ve ever had,” Barnes recalled. “Between Joe Mack and Kinney, it was just fun. They knew I worked on Saturday mornings, so they’d come by my office a little before noon, and Joe Mack would say, ‘Roy, you can’t make all that money, come on to lunch with me and Kinney.’
“I was younger than they were, but I was the last of what I call ‘the old crowd.’ I was the youngest of the old crowd, where you knew everybody and politics was up front and personal. Not just by long distance with mail and radio ads. It was shaking hands.”
Barnes recalled one of those lunches at which Wilson drawled that it was important in politics to remember that “Your enemies are as important as your friends.’”
“And Kinney added, ‘And sometimes, they’re much more helpful.’ It makes me laugh just thinking about it.
“Politics was a lot more fun back then. There was more mischief in it.”
Barnes also recalled a Saturday lunch at which Kinney needled Wilson regarding his then-election opponent, Marietta pharmacist Red Atherton.
“Kinney said, ‘Joe Mack, you and Red beat anything I’ve ever seen. You got each other opposition (in the coming election), and then you go out campaigning in the same car!”
And when Marietta renovated the little park behind the Marietta Welcome Center in the early 1980s, it was named “Red Atherton Square” after the former mayor. According to Barnes, that soon prompted a quip from Kinney.
“He said, ‘I see we’ve got our own ‘Red Square’ now!” Barnes said.
Joe Mack Wilson used to lament that people usually waited until after a prominent man was dead to honor him.
“Why wait till a man’s gone to start laying on the roses?” he would ask.
Bill Kinney’s not dead, thank heavens, just retired. And we decided not to wait to start “laying on the roses.”
Hope you enjoyed it, Bill.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”