Now in her 80s, women’s leadership trailblazer Ruth Holmberg still has a number of things on her to-do list.
“I’d like to go to Australia,” she said Wednesday. “And I’d like to play the piano. It might be too late, I don’t know.”
At the fourth and final installment of the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s luncheon series, Ms. Holmberg responded with candor to questions posed by facilitator Dr. Carolyn Thompson and audience members.
During the event, held in the Chattanooga Choo Choo’s ballroom, Ms. Holmberg discussed her groundbreaking role as a woman in the newspaper publishing industry, as well as her time working for the American Red Cross as a young, American Jewish woman in Germany during the aftermath of World War II.
“I was billeted in a house that was not happy to receive me. I can’t say I was afraid, but it was not pleasant,” she said. “We didn’t go to Germany until after peace had been declared, but it was very soon after that.”
Ms. Holmberg seemed at ease in front of the packed room of about 200 attendees, though after the event she admitted she gets a little nervous before big speaking engagements.
AN ACCOMPLISHED LIFE
Among her many accomplishments, Ruth Holmberg was the first woman to serve as president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and as president of the Chattanooga Symphony Association. Ms. Holmberg was a founding member of the Tennessee Arts Commission, and she previously served as chairwoman of the Hunter Museum of American Art’s board of directors and president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. She is on the board of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Public Education Foundation, RiverCity Co., the Community Foundation, Tennessee Aquarium and the Women’s Leadership Institute. Ms. Holmberg was named Tennessee Woman of the Year in 2003.
Ms. Holmberg is former publisher of the Chattanooga Times and granddaughter of Chattanooga Times publisher Adolph Ochs, who purchased the paper in 1878 and bought the New York Times in 1896. She has acted as director of the Associated Press and the New York Times Co.
Since moving to Chattanooga in 1946 to oversee the development of the Chattanooga Times, Ms. Holmberg’s philanthropic support of the arts and education and her encouragement of women in leadership positions have earned her much reverence in the community, said Marj Flemming, managing director of the local Women’s Leadership Institute.
The institute aims to increase the number of women in leadership roles in public and private sectors.
During the luncheon, Ms. Holmberg spoke of her experiences working at the Chattanooga Times during the fallout from the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which paved the way for the end of segregation. The Times’ unflinching support of racial integration and the court’s decision came at a price, she said.
“We lost a good deal of circulation practically overnight and got threatening phone calls and all the rest,” she said. “But actually the city weathered the storm rather well, considering what happened in other Southern cities.”
Dr. Thompson asked Ms. Holmberg if, as a member of the family that still owns part of the New York Times Co., she was concerned about people such as Rupert Murdoch, who last year talked the Bancroft family into selling Dow Jones & Co., parent company of the Wall Street Journal.
“Well, sure,” she said. “He’s amassed a huge fortune and is amassing an empire of newspapers, but we keep on keeping on.”
Ms. Holmberg advised young women seeking advancement to “just keep on. Your opinions are absolutely as good as anybody else’s. You can’t be made to feel inferior without your consent.”
Luncheon attendee Deborah Levine, managing editor of the American Diversity Report in Chattanooga, said Ms. Holmberg’s comments were inspiring in their forthrightness.
“I think people are curious to see and to hear what a trailblazer looks like,” she said. “You can see the directness of her responses, the reflection, the depth of knowledge and experience that we as a country so badly need.”
When asked how she would like to be remembered once she has passed on to “the newspaper heaven in the sky,” Ms. Holmberg’s reply earned a hearty round of laughter.
“Well, I gave it my best shot,” she said, adding, “Give it yours, or I’ll come and haunt you.”
Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...