EVERY YEAR AT THANKSGIVING I pen a column listing the things for which I am thankful. I’m writing that column a little early this year, and the reason is the late Otis A. Brumby Jr., who passed away Saturday.
I mentioned Otis in last year’s Thanksgiving column, noting that he was the kind of publisher who believed in printing all the news about his community — not just the good, or just the bad.
The following Monday he thanked me for what I wrote, wryly adding with a big smile, “I hope you didn’t have to perjure yourself when you wrote that.”
Otis was a giant among Georgia newsmen and, to my mind, had a more direct impact on Marietta and Cobb County than any other figure of the past 50 years, even the late Ernest Barrett. But that’s not why I’m writing about him.
This column is meant as a more personal tribute to a man who was part teacher, part mentor and as time went by, part collaborator. No one other than him and MDJ Associate Editor Bill Kinney has had a more important impact on my journalistic career.
Their goal was to get the news, get it right and report it before anyone else did. And Otis continuously stressed the need to get to the essence of a story, or as he often put it, “the meat of the coconut” or “down to the lick log.” He wanted stories written in a simplified fashion so that “an eighth-grader in a pizza parlor can understand it.” He had little use for reporters who settled for quotes from PR flacks or from lawyers for government bodies, who he referred to as “hired hands.” He wanted quotes instead from the chairmen and mayors and superintendents themselves. And he had no use for public officials who refused to reveal their position on an issue, or for reporters unable to pin them down. “Is he fer it or agin’ it?” he would ask.
His legal training and lifetime spent running a multi-million dollar business gave him a skill set far different from most editors and reporters. His wealth was diversified, not solely dependant on his newspaper chain, and that gave him the freedom to pursue stories and targets with little fear of financial retaliation. And unlike the publisher of a bottom-line driven chain-owned newspaper, he was covering his hometown. Its future was more important to him than his newspaper’s bottom line.
He had tremendous analytical skills and could do math and calculate percentages faster in his head than most people can do on a calculator. Add in a healthy dose of skepticism, more tenacity than a pit bull, and a newsroom full of reporters at his beck and call and the result was a journalistic force to be reckoned with.
Yes, he could be demanding as a boss. And he was often frustrated by his reporters’ inability to analyze issues as deftly as he could. When debriefing reporters he had a way of firing off questions in rapid succession, expecting them as the “experts on their beat” to have the answers on the tips of their tongues. That was how it was supposed to work in theory. In practice, at least in the case of yours truly, it was just as apt to lead to stammering, stumbling and brain lock. I’m sure there probably was more than one occasion when he went away wondering why his editors had hired such a moron as a reporter.
OTIS AND HIS FAMILY have always tended to look at those of us who chose to hang around as being part of their “MDJ family,” and have willingly repaid such loyalty in ways both professional and personal. People like myself (25 years) and advertising guru Jay Whorton (40 years) and VP of Operations Harris Kettles (44 years) and the “grandaddy” of us all, Bill Kinney, who started delivering the MDJ in 1936 and starting writing for the newspaper in 1941.
Otis was very supportive of my various book-writing ventures, generously shared photos with me from his personal and company archives, and repeatedly said he hoped the books would do well.
On an even more personal level, when doctors put me into a drug-induced coma during an unexpected two-month hospital stay in 2002 following a botched medical procedure, Otis cut short his vacation on the Georgia Coast to hurry back to Marietta to check on me. I didn’t learn until much, much later about the interrupted vacation — and not from him. He never said a word about it. I finally heard about it a year or two afterward from a mutual friend. That’s just the kind of man he was.
Yes, there were those who disliked Otis, but they were far outnumbered by those who loved him and enjoyed his company. Any doubts on that score were erased in the course of interviews I did last week with local leaders and others as I prepared his obituary. It has been a long time since I have heard so many grown men so emotional, many of them choked up, others sobbing.
MY 2002 HOSPITAL STAY included battling a Methicillin-Resistant Staph Infection that damaged my aortic valve. One morning in October 2010 I went to my cardiologist for my semi-annual stress test and was dumbfounded when he told me I would need open-heart surgery in the next couple of weeks to have it replaced.
Shell-shocked, I went back to work that morning and made a bee-line to Otis’ office to commiserate about my bad news and let him know I would be out for a while.
But Otis had news to share that morning that was even worse. He had just gotten back from his doctor and had just been told he had prostate cancer. Stage 4 prostate cancer. He was devastated, and understandably so.
But by the next day he was his usual self again. And though the experimental treatments of the next 22 months would eventually leave his mind clouded and his body ravaged, he never — not once — expressed to me, or anyone else I know, any anger, any resentment or any despair. There was no “Why me?” or “Why now?” Rather, Otis fought the disease with the same vigor that he had brought to running the newspaper. He wasn’t overly optimistic about his chances, but said that if nothing else, his decision to undergo the grueling treatments “might help somebody else” fight the disease later on.
His faith was an inspiration to him, and he was and will remain an inspiration to us.
He kept coming to the office, just like the workhorse he’d always been. Many people with such a dire outlook might have spent their remaining time on frivolous things. Not Otis. He told me he’d had a friend who’d been given a terminal diagnosis and afterward spent every night “going to parties.”
Said Otis, “I like going to parties too, but that’s not all I like to do.” He preferred to carry on as he always had. As he told 150 or so community leaders and friends at a special prayer service sponsored by Vinings Bank on his behalf just after his illness was diagnosed, “I may have cancer in my bones, but I still have ink in my blood.” He continued to weigh in on editorial issues, helped guide the newsroom’s coverage and took part in editorial board meetings until his final weeks. His sense of duty brought him to the newspaper nearly every day late this summer, even as his body grew so weak that he had to rely on a walker to get around.
I sensed his time was growing short when at a meeting last month I realized that for the first time in our 25-year relationship that I, not he, was carrying the weight of the conversation. Always before his brilliant mind had caromed from topic to topic so quickly that it was hard to keep up; and with such analysis and flashes of insight that you were left wondering “How did he get from A to Z so fast when it’s all I can do to make the connections from A to C?”
His mind continued to slow over the course of recent weeks and while we were all desperately hoping that was just a side-effect of the pain medications he was reluctantly taking, that was not to be the case.
Otis is gone now and will be deeply missed. It’s normal for newspapers to “flower things up” in obituary features. But Otis, if you’re reading this column in the “Heaven Edition” of the MDJ, I can assure you that I meant every word you just read — and I didn’t have to perjure myself while writing it.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Lockheed Plant.”