Ruth Holmberg was a force of nature.
Usually when you hear about her, she is portrayed — as she was in Thursday's Chattanooga Times Free Press story about her death — as a gracious and strong civic leader and philanthropist.
But that's such an understatement.
The New York Times, of which she was a board member for 37 years, was more on point:
"Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg, who challenged racial barriers, political skulduggery and environmental adversaries as publisher of The Chattanooga Times in Tennessee for nearly three decades, and who was a member of the family that controls The New York Times, died on Wednesday at her home in Chattanooga. She was 96."
I first met Ruth Holmberg when I was in my early 30s.
I was applying for a job at The Chattanooga Times, and I'd made it through two tiers of managers before then-managing Editor Paul Neely said he wanted me to meet the publisher.
Despite far more confidence than I should have had for a home-town girl with little to boast about save a few years' news experience and lots of heart for journalism, I found myself struggling to breathe evenly.
Ruth Holmberg was Chattanooga's version of The Washington Post's Katharine Graham. Ruth was gracious, patient and understanding, yes. But she also was tough as nails and completely unafraid to use her magnificent gift of quiet grace to consistently call out nonsense, lies and exaggeration.
Her grandfather, Adolph S. Ochs, moved with his family from Cincinnati to Knoxville as a child and at 11 went to work at the Knoxville Chronicle as office boy to the editor, who became a mentor. At 19, Ochs borrowed $250 from his parents to buy the controlling interest in The Chattanooga Times. It was his first newspaper. Some 20 years later, he would buy The New York Times. Mrs. Holmberg's mother, Iphigene Ochs, married Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as the publisher of The New York Times from 1935 to 1961.
"Growing up in a newspaper family in New York, Mrs. Holmberg was imbued from adolescence with journalistic traditions of social responsibility, and that heritage became manifest in Chattanooga as she presided over a newspaper known for aggressive, analytical reporting and editorials that denounced racial segregation, exposed government corruption and demanded cleaner air in a city of heavy industry and belching smokestacks," the New York Times story of her death stated Thursday.
"For years she was a pariah in a city where many regarded her as an Eastern liberal interloper," The Times continued.
That was true. But so unfair.
Ruth Holmberg loved this city. She had roots here. She lived out two marriages here. She raised her children here. She made a newspaper strong here. She fostered arts, culture and community here. And she continually nudged our leaders and each of us toward the tougher daily decisions that have made Chattanooga a better place to live.
She became publisher of The Chattanooga Times in 1964 and her paper championed the racial integration of schools and universities, supported civil rights legislation in Congress, chronicled police brutality, sought peace not riots, helped force the cleanup of Chattanooga Creek, and pushed for safer substitutes for toxic chemicals that polluted the city — all the while shouldering resentments in a town where the mountains disappeared into brown smog and diversity was thought to be akin to communism.
Along the way, Mrs. Holmberg (who at our first meeting said, "call me Ruth) became the first woman president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and gained her own star in the journalism world: She was elected president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in 1984, and in 1987 became the second woman (after The Washington Post's Katharine Graham) to be elected a director of The Associated Press.
I'd been at the Chattanooga Times about a year when I was named city editor — a meat-grinder of a job that is in essence the traffic cop, mid-wife and word perfecter for most of what readers see every day on a paper's front page and in its local section. I was the first woman (and likely the youngest person) to hold that job.
My marching orders had been to breathe some new urgency and diversity into the pages of the paper. It is a kindness to say that I was not the most popular person in the newsroom.
About a month or so into my tenure and on a day when my shoulders were sagging, Ruth called me up to her office.
She took a measure on my attitude and proceeded to give me a pep talk about being a female manager and change agent. Then with a wink and a smile, she handed me a gift.
Someone, she said, had given her one some time back, and she loved it.
The present was a variation of a campaign button — almost two inches in diameter and green with white lettering.
I can't quote here in a family newspaper what the button actually says. But the first line is "Beyond," and the second line starts with a B and rhymes with itch.
Wear it when you need it, she advised. I knew she meant it, but I also knew the underlying message was speak softly — after all, I carry the big button.
We had a long happy laugh.
Ruth Holmberg was — and always will be — the classiest, strongest, kindest, toughest and most graceful professional role model and mentor anyone could have. I was blessed to know her.
But most importantly, Chattanooga was blessed to have her.
Without her love, concern and determined leadership, this city could not have become the place of promise it is today.
Pam Sohn is the opinion editor of The Chattanooga Times editorial page.