Former Chattanooga Free Press Vice President Helen McDonald Exum, who died Thursday at age 89, was — in parts — pioneer newspaper executive, cookbook queen, world traveler, bon vivant and family matriarch.
The oldest of five children of Roy McDonald, founder and longtime publisher of the Chattanooga Free Press (one of the forerunners of the Chattanooga Times Free Press), was the newspaper’s food editor before supervising its Lifestyle staff and eventually becoming the paper’s vice president, one of the few female newspaper executives in the country at the time.
One of the surprise successes of Exum’s early time at the newspaper was the publication of “The Chattanooga Cookbook” and “Helen Exum’s Cookbook.” Including recipes from area residents of all stripes, the books were published to help pay her children’s tuition but wound up being staples in the homes of many Chattanoogans — especially young marrieds — from the 1970s into the 1990s and making her name known in wider circles.
Those who worked with her noted how she affected many lives along the way, in Chattanooga and wherever her myriad travels took her. Her colorful sagas of those travels filled many pages in newspapers through the years, delighted those who dreamed of visiting such lands, and brought her in touch with the rich and poor, the weak and powerful. Along the way she met the televangelist Robert Schuller and was invited to serve on his “Hour of Power” board.
Beyond the newspaper and all that it afforded elsewhere, though, was her status as a Christian, as a friend of many in Chattanooga and as the mother of six, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of eight, in all of whom she found delight.