Said former Gov. Roy Barnes of Marietta, “I can think of no single person who’s had bigger impact on Cobb County and this state than Otis. He excelled as a community leader and in education reform. And I think that a giant oak has fallen that will be very difficult to replace.”
Otis A. Brumby Jr. was born April 9, 1940 in Atlanta, son of the late Otis A. Brumby Sr. and Elisabeth Dobbs Brumby of Marietta. The family he was born into had a long history and deep roots in county history. One member (Col. Arnoldus V. Brumby) had served as commandant of the Georgia Military Institute on Powder Springs Road in Marietta (now site of the Marietta Hilton and Conference Center). Otis Jr. was the great-grandson of Thomas Micajah Brumby, who with his brother James had co-founded the Brumby Chair Company here just after the Civil War (a company that Otis Jr. would successfully resurrect in the mid-1990s). Both Thomas and his son, Thomas Jr., served as mayors of Marietta, the latter dying in office.
Thomas Jr.’s son Otis Sr. had founded the weekly Cobb County Times in 1916 and acquired the MDJ in 1951.
The publisher and his young family, which also included daughter Bebe in addition to Otis, lived on then-rural Terrell Mill Road just south of Marietta.
Despite growing up around the newspaper, Otis Jr. had planned on a legal career. After graduating from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., with a major in political science and a minor in economics, he earned a law degree from The University of Georgia in Athens (where his roommates included future famed criminal defense lawyer Ed Garland, banking tycoon James Blanchard of Synovus and prominent architect Wyck Knox of Augusta).
But shortly afterward he returned to Marietta in 1965 as assistant to the publisher (a training period that also included a lengthy stint as a “cub” reporter) and two years later was named publisher.
He wasted little time making his mark. In 1969 he launched the Neighbor Newspaper group, which ultimately grew into a chain of 27 free suburban weeklies circling metro Atlanta, with satellite offices in each county feeding copy back to Marietta.
“Otis Jr. was still in his 20s when he made the visionary decision to start the Neighbor newspapers,” retired Kennesaw State University history professor Tom Scott, Ph.D., told the MDJ. “In the competitive world of modern reporting, with so many alternatives to print journalism, it’s hard to see how the MDJ could have been so profitable without the mass circulation of those suburban newspapers.”
Meanwhile, with delivery issues in mind and with an eye on the need for better access to then-new Interstate 75, Brumby moved the newspaper’s offices from their traditional Marietta Square location to a new plant on Fairground Street just downhill from Lockheed.
Brumby’s newspaper, with its emphasis on short stories and readability, became a model for the industry. When Gannett began laying plans for what would become USA Today, it sent a team of editors to spend a week in the MDJ newsroom studying the Marietta newspaper model.
The MDJ’s meat-and-potatoes was and is coverage of community events that are too routine for bigger media to pay much attention to: the rezonings, the road widenings, the church news, the school news, the new business openings. But unlike many community-oriented newspapers, and unlike many bigger ones as well, the MDJ under Brumby’s leadership also kept its editorial eye riveted on the doings of its local governments. The MDJ hammered home through the years the need for leaner government and lower taxes.
“He was always a populist in his views and opposed what he deemed to be wasteful spending on any level of government,” recalled state Senator and former Cobb school board Chairman Lindsey Tippins.
Added former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “Otis was consistently one of the strongest voices for more efficient government, for smaller government and for creating new jobs. He was a passionate advocate for the development of northside Atlanta. Just look at the amount of what in his youth was farmland that now is full of homes and factories and schools. He was integral to the growth of Cobb.”
Said legendary retired Georgia journalist and syndicated columnist Bill Shipp of Kennesaw, “Of all the publishers and editors I met and worked for, he was far and above the best one. He had a model daily newspaper. He not only reported the news, his newspaper was an active, dynamic watchdog in this county.
“He ran a newspaper that appealed to local newspaper readers and was a cause for community good. And the MDJ is without equal in the entire state in that regard.”
Added Barnes, “We have not had any major government corruption scandals in Cobb, and the reason is that Otis was a vigilant watchdog making sure the public knew what was going on. We’ve escaped embarrassment, corruption and scandal because of his efforts.”
Like most editors and publishers, Brumby felt strongly about First Amendment issues. But unlike the perfunctory support sometimes heard from such quarters, Brumby’s front-and-center push for government transparency was unwavering.
“His legacy in journalism was his consistent, unrelenting effort to ensure government transparency and open meetings and records,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) “There’s not a journalist or publisher or editorial writer in this state that did more than Otis to ensure the public’s business was done in the open. There wouldn’t be an Open Meetings and Open Records Act without Otis.”
Continued Isakson, “When the publisher of your hometown paper and your personal friend has a passion for open government and you’re an elected official, if you don’t embrace that concept too, you won’t last very long.”
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens of east Cobb described Brumby as “a great teacher and mentor. His love of the First Amendment and his desire for elected officials to be held accountable are much appreciated.”
Retired ambulance company owner Bo Pounds was part of a group that successfully brought suit against Cobb EMC regarding misuse of corporate assets, an effort that was fueled by the MDJ’s close coverage.
“Otis is the best I’ve ever seen at letting the public know what in the hell the government is doing,” he told the MDJ. “Otis is as responsible for openness in Georgia law as anyone.”
The newspaper went on to win prestigious annual Freedom of Information Award numerous times from the Georgia Associated Press and the Georgia Press Association.
As Brumby saw it, the Sunshine laws were tools for use by the public and media to help hold elected officials accountable.
Shipp, the retired columnist, said that public officials “were and are absolutely terrified of the MDJ, and that’s a good thing. We don’t have much of that kind of journalism anymore. It’s the kind of journalism that keeps people in the middle of the road.”
Said Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, “I had one rule with Otis as a politician: Tell the truth early on and hide nothing, as he knew it or was going to know it anyway.”
It’s notable that the three Georgia elected officials who arguably worked the hardest and most successfully to strengthen the sunshine laws — Barnes, Olens and Isakson — had something in common.
“They were all under tutelage of Otis Brumby,” Barnes said. “He impressed upon us and all who would listen the importance of making sure that government is open and conducted in the sunshine. He always argued that was the best way to keep government from becoming too bureaucratic and to try to prevent corruption. I could have had no better ally on that than Otis Brumby. It was not just lip service, but something he was passionate about.”
Former state Sen. Chuck Clay (R-Marietta) recalls Brumby as “an absolutely uncompromising warrior on behalf of open government and open records. The people of Georgia have been well served by his efforts. I just hope they know what a legal quorum is in heaven or there is going to be trouble, and I bet on Otis.”
Brumby also was passionate about education reform and strong public schools. The result was, first, his appointment to the Marietta School Board by then-Mayor Joe Mack Wilson and the City Council in 1993; and later, his appointment as chairman of the State School Board by Barnes in 1999.
“I went to his house and said, ‘I want you to be chairman,’’’ Barnes recalled. “That’s a tough job, but he thought about it and said, ‘That’s not the job I want, but it’s a job I can’t say ‘no’ to. Education is too important.’ He was always willing to serve, and he always gave 100 percent.”
But perhaps Brumby’s biggest contribution to public education was the “vote of confidence” in them by virtue of the decision he and wife Martha Lee made to send all five of their children to the Marietta School System, rather than to private schools as many Mariettans were doing.
“He chose to send them to public school when he could have afforded to send them to any private school in the country,” observed former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden (D-Marietta).
Brumby was fond of quoting former Mayor Joe Mack Wilson’s observation that the city school system “is the glue that holds Marietta together.”
Brumby was fascinated by politics, an interest honed when he served in the 1950s as congressional page for his cousin, U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell in Washington, D.C. (Brumby went on to graduate from The Capitol Page School in Washington.)
“Other than his family, which he was more proud of than anything, I think he was most proud of his days as a page for Richard Russell,” recalled syndicated columnist Matt Towery of Vinings. “He didn’t have as many pages as the other senators, and not many could say they paged for him. And that relationship helped form many of his views on politics and life.”
Russell was one of the most powerful senators and was the intellectual force behind the Southern bloc that then controlled the seniority-driven body. Russell also was a confidante of both then- President Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senate Majority Leader (and future President) Lyndon B. Johnson. The young Brumby would recall in later years that he was routinely designated by Johnson to answer his personal phone on the floor of the Senate.
Cobb and Georgia politics in that era were overwhelmingly Democratic. But Brumby took the reins of the MDJ just as Cobb’s previously next-to-nonexistent Republican Party was first beginning to stir. Fueled by an influx of residents from other parts of the country into east Cobb, the county GOP would be a force to be reckoned with by the early 1980s.
“Otis always thought that a strong two-party system was in the best interest of the state,” said Isakson, who first ran for office in the early 1970s. “And being part of the minority party early in my career, he gave us the chance to make our case. He didn’t prop us up, but he made sure the access was there. We had a chance, and in a lot of communities, you never did.”
Added Gingrich, who in those days represented a district on the southside of Atlanta, “Otis was a warrior for conservatism who by the creation of the Neighbor Newspapers on top of the MDJ dramatically offset the impact of the Atlanta newspapers. You can’t understand Georgia politics over the last 30 years without understanding how important a figure he was.
“It’s hard for folks now to remember how dominant the liberal voice of the Atlanta newspaper was back in the 1970s, and how exciting it was to have Otis and his newspaper as a conservative voice. And it was great for our morale, too. Later, when I was Speaker, I always felt like he had my back.”
But Brumby’s personal politics remained somewhat amorphous. He endorsed and gave financial contributions to candidates of both parties. Although personalities sometimes figured into the equation, for him the bottom line usually was not party label but whether the candidate was suitably conservative, especially on fiscal matters.
A similar rule of thumb determined whether to editorially support various proposals floated by local officials. The main criterion was whether the project or referendum made financial sense for taxpayers.
“As a politician, I’ll miss the question that I’ve heard over and over, both in Cobb and in the state Capitol: ‘“What does Otis think about this?’” Tumlin said.
It’s hard to be a crusading journalist without making one’s share of enemies, and Brumby made his share — and then some. But he not only was possessed with bulldog tenacity when it came to following a story, but also with the rare gift of retaining the friendship and respect of those who were momentarily feeling the heat.
“He doesn’t have a single friend who didn’t have a disagreement with him, but we all learned to put those behind us,” Darden said. “And he had the ability to move forward. We didn’t always agree, but it didn’t come in the way of what I consider one of my closest friendships in my entire adult life.”
Said Isakson, “I’ll be the first to say we didn’t agree on everything, but I learned that it was best to focus on what we agreed about and move on.”
Numerous others told the MDJ the same thing, including Barnes.
“Johnny and I are two of his close friends and he’d hammer both of us from time to time, but we understood what he was doing,” he said. “As I used to kid him, I never forget that you’re first and foremost a newspaper man. The ink flowed through his bones and blood. But we remained friends. That is a unique ability, to continue to have a close relationship. I knew his secrets and he knew mine. He never betrayed a confidence of mine or vice-versa. But at same time I understood he had a job to do. …
“In my world, loyalty is the coin of the realm, and Otis was loyal to me and I was loyal to him. That does not mean there would not be criticism. But in the end, we remained friends. He told me once that Johnny and I were the only ones that understood completely what the press needs to do and has to do.”
Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon said he understood the awkward position Brumby would sometimes be in.
“Being an editor and living here locally has got to be a tough job.”
There were two sides to Otis Brumby — the one as the publisher that the public saw, and the private one as a man utterly devoted to his community, to his church, to various other charities and, above all, to his family.
He is survived by his wife Martha Lee, daughters Spain Gregory, Lee Garrett, Betsy Tarbutton, Anna Brumby and son Otis Brumby III; 10 grandchildren; and his sister, Bebe Brumby Leonard.
The late Mr. Brumby was a trustee of the University of Georgia Foundation, the Arch Foundation of UGA and the Kennesaw College Foundation. He represented the Seventh Congressional District on the state Board of Transportation from 1985-90. He endowed a professorship in First Amendment Law for journalism and law students at UGA in 2004. He was for decades an avid member of the Marietta Kiwanis Club, serving as its president; and past president of numerous professional organizations.
He remained an avid UGA football fan, and often remarked that there was nothing like enjoying a game at Sanford Stadium “with 100,000 of your closest friends.”
He was a lifetime member of First United Methodist Church of Marietta.
“Otis was a faithful and generous churchman and he served where he was needed, whether helping plan the church’s future or ushering and greeting newcomers on Sunday morning,” said pastor the Rev. Sam Matthews. “I witnessed profound gestures of kindness and consideration from him, gestures that most of us would be challenged to match.
Former Congressman Darden, a fellow member, noted Brumby’s steady giving to the church, and quoting the Book of Matthew, said, “If you want to find out where someone’s mind is, look where his treasure is.”
Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Conley Ingram sat in the pew just ahead of the Brumbys for years.
“He did the smallest job to the greatest job at our church,” he said. “He was a greeter at the door, or took up collection, but you could always count on him to be there.
“His life was one of love and dedication to his family and his church and to the First Amendment and to UGA. He was a great friend, and he never tried to take credit for the many things he did for our community. He was a great family man and a great church man and above all, a loyal friend. It’s not going to be the same without him.”
Many of those who shared their reminiscences for this story remarked on the contrast between Brumby’s muscular journalistic presence and his personal preference for staying out of the spotlight.
“For all his greatness, the greatest thing about him was that he was so humble,” Towery said. “He could be tough in the business place, but when he got out in public, he was shy. You couldn’t get him to talk about himself in front of other people.”
Remembered Barnes, “To have held the position of influence he did in this community, he was one of the most humble guys I’ve ever been around. He never overstated his influence or importance.”
Brumby also was recalled by Barnes and others as a terrific storyteller.
“He had a lot of fun in him,” he said. “A lot of those who didn’t know him didn’t realize what a great sense of humor he had.”
Brumby’s middle name, “Arnoldus,” had been passed down through the generations, and he joked to an editor this summer in mock surprise that, “I offered it to all my kids to use as a name for their children, and none of them wanted it!”
And Brumby, whose hairstyle and sartorial choices were nowhere close to “cutting edge,” could be self-deprecating, too.
“He used to jokingly call himself ‘the Marietta Square,’” Towery said. “But he wasn’t just ‘the Marietta Square.’ He was Cobb County. And life without Otis Brumby is not going to be as much fun.”
Added Isakson, “I’m going to miss my friend Otis.”
A private burial will be held at Dawson Cemetery Wednesday at 10 a.m. followed by a memorial service at the First United Methodist Church of Marietta at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to First United Methodist Church 56 Whitlock Avenue Marietta, GA 30064 or the Georgia Press Educational Foundation 3066 Mercer university drive Atlanta, GA 30341. Mayes Ward-Dobbins Funeral Home in Marietta is in charge of arrangements.
Additional reporting by Jon Gillooly.