J.B. Collins, longtime City Hall reporter, dies at 103

Contributed Photo / J.B. Collins

James Bennett "J.B." Collins, who covered Chattanooga City Hall and 10 mayoral administrations for the Chattanooga Free Press and briefly for the Times Free Press, died Wednesday at the age of 103.

He joined the then-Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1940 and fit the mold - favored by newspaper founder Roy McDonald - that "newspaper reporters are born, not made."

Collins covered the sensational - snake-handling among the Pentecostal faith in Birchwood, Tennessee, in the 1940s, and the "Battle of Athens," when returning World War II veterans organized to defeat the entrenched political machine in Athens, Tennessee, in 1946 - as well as the sometimes mundane weekly meetings of the Chattanooga City Commission and later the Chattanooga City Council.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Pat Rose said he struck up a relationship with Collins when he joined the City Commission in 1969 and had been "a good friend since."

"I enjoyed my relationship with him as much as anybody I know in Chattanooga," he said. "I never [saw] anything I questioned that he wrote. He was a very honest person - unbiased. He would take notes and did not misquote you. He was tops in my life."

John Vass, who worked with Collins as a reporter and editor at the newspaper, said the longtime urban affairs editor was a "people person" who considered the people who would be reading his work as he wrote. "He never lost that touch."

"He was a fine reporter," Vass said, "and I was fortunate to have him as a mentor for years. He took me under his wing and was a good counselor and teacher."

"J.B. was already a legend at the paper when I came to the newsroom in 1968," said David Cooper, a former Free Press and Times Free Press reporter and editor, "and he still worked 30 more years."

Collins graduated from old Central High School on Dodds Avenue in 1935 and majored in journalism at King College in Bristol, Tennessee. There, he earned magna cum laude honors and was class valedictorian.

In August 2000, Jon Kinsey, the then-Chattanooga mayor, and four previous mayors honored Collins at City Hall with a celebration of his 59-year career.

Former Mayor Ralph Kelley recalled the reporter's coverage of the "kidnapping" by city officials of the Civil War locomotive "The General" as it moved through Chattanooga on its way to Kennesaw, Georgia. Rose thanked him for "always giving an objective evaluation of the involved issue." And former Mayor Gene Roberts credited him and his Chattanooga Times colleague Springer Gibson for publicizing the city's former air pollution problem.

Kinsey, who had not held public office before becoming mayor, said Collins was "a treasure trove of facts about the history of Chattanooga City government."

A conference room at City Hall is named for him.

"When J.B. retired," Cooper said, "he said he had outlasted every employee who worked for the city of Chattanooga when he started covering City Hall."

In 1991, the Society of Professional Journalists honored the longtime newsman for his contributions to the media.

Collins was an avid golfer and regularly walked and played at Brainerd Golf Course until age 96.

"I enjoyed the game," he said in 2017, "but I wasn't very good."

Collins was a deacon at First Presbyterian Church and, according to Cooper, served as an usher there into his mid-90s. He was the oldest member of the church at his death.

He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Polly, whom he met at the newspaper, and sons, Benny and David.

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com.