Cook: 'The finest person I've ever met'

Cook: 'The finest person I've ever met'

April 16th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Outside the Times Free Press on Thursday, a portion of East 11th Street was closed. Orange cones. Signs. Repair work.

It seemed fitting. As local leader after leader after leader made their way that afternoon to the second-floor newsroom to shake hands with a man who has come to symbolize Chattanooga journalism, it seemed appropriate that the road was closed.

We ought to close some roads. We ought to shut down some part of the city. How else do you mark the end of an era?

This week, the city ought to pause - and reflect - like reading the last line at the end of a very long, remarkable book.

Lee.

"Lee has been one of those names," said Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond. "You say, 'Lee' and everyone says, 'Anderson."'

On April 18, 1942, 25 years before the first Super Bowl and only a few months after Pearl Harbor, Lee Anderson went to work at the Chattanooga News Free Press.

This Wednesday, 70 years to the day, he'll retire.

"I gave him a challenge coin," Hammond said. "We do it in law enforcement when an officer has gone beyond the call of duty. When someone is a cut above."

Cut above doesn't, well, cut it. Anderson is miles above. Thursday's guest list for his retirement party represented leaders from every aspect of our region: social, political, religious, economic.

And everyone spoke about two things: his contribution to journalism.

And his character.

"Lee Anderson is a giant in the world of journalism," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann. "Over the years, he has exemplified the greatest attributes of journalism. In addition, his service to this city as a civic leader and philanthropist is rarely matched."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Anderson has influenced his life for decades.

"I started reading his work when I was a teenager," he said. "The Free Press and Times Free Press are synonymous with Lee Anderson."

Anderson, along with Tom Edd Wilson, are believed to be the only two Distinguished Eagle Scouts in the Chattanooga area.

"He has a way of being kind to people. He's not a mean writer," said Wilson, chief executive of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "He gets to the heart of the matter, and has the personal respect of both parties and leaders."

After a video biography of Anderson's life played on big screens across the newsroom, several colleagues and local leaders approached the podium, telling stories, making jokes and paying vast compliments to Anderson, seated on the front row.

"The mayor asked me to give you this key to the city," said Councilman Jack Benson. "It will get you in every place but the Strut."

Earlier in the day, I spoke with Dr. Andrew Exum, Anderson's nephew.

"The irony here is that the newspaper was a family enterprise, and Lee was in the family by marriage," he said. "Yet more than anybody else in the family, he was a true newspaper man. Lee was a newspaper man in his bones.

"He is the quintessential newspaper man."

For the last 32 years, Linda Weaver has been Anderson's secretary.

"From the lowest man on the totem pole to the president of the United States, he treated everybody the same," she said.

Weaver remembers Anderson rarely firing any employee, and giving folks chances when others probably wouldn't have. She remembers him as a constant, someone who came to work each and every day, handing out kindness and respect to everyone he encountered.

"He is the finest person I've ever met," she said.

There is no place on earth like a newsroom. And for the last seven decades, Lee Anderson has been an anchor within Chattanooga newsrooms. Someone folks orbit around. His desk, with its massive Bible on the front, seemed like ballast.

"Even when the family sold the Free Press, it would have been unthinkable Lee would not have been there," Exum said.

Still is.

Always will be.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.