Leadership is sometimes understated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not strong.
Former Chattanooga Times publisher Ruth Holmberg has been a pioneer in arts, education and civil rights for decades.
She’s garnered respect for her humble guidance and dedication to just causes.
“Ruth’s leadership style is not out-front and loud; she is a quiet leader with many enthusiastic followers,” ArtsBuild President Dan Bowers said. “When Ruth speaks, others listen.”
Holmberg is the granddaughter of Adolph Ochs, who bought the Chattanooga Times in the late 1870s, according to the Ochs Center.
Ochs turned the local paper around before borrowing about $75,000 to get controlling ownership of The New York Times, which he transformed into a product that set the bar for journalism standards.
“I was allowed to hold a lot of jobs that were first for women because everyone revered my grandfather,” Holmberg said. “So I rode in on their shoulders.”
-Recognize what the arts bring: “The arts touch every part of life. If you can be comfortable understanding that, I think it makes you a more sympathetic and engaging person,” she said.
-Follow your passion.
-If you aren’t happy with what you’re doing, stop doing it.
-Nothing is ever done alone. Find your allies, because they are there.
-Get a dog.
The early years
Holmberg got into the family business as a teenager. She was a researcher for the editorial department and then a cub reporter at The New York Times.
“I was amazed at the questions people asked the newspaper,” she said.
She recalled one woman who was setting a table for an engagement party and wanted to know where to place the fork. Another person wanted to know how much water a battleship displaces.
“You just have to be ready for anything,” she said.
She went to Smith College and spent two years with the American Red Cross.
“My father was a very patriotic person, and he wanted me to be in the service since he couldn’t,” she said.
After a period of training, she was on a five-day boat ride to London.
“London was getting bombed on a regular basis, so I learned a lot about getting under the desk and [thinking], ‘This too shall pass,'” she said.
Because she spoke French, she was chosen to work as an interpreter, she said.
She met an officer named Ben Golden, whom she would eventually marry.
When the couple came back to the United States, they made their way south because Golden was from Knoxville. He was going to resume his job at TVA.
“The Chattanooga Times was a family-owned newspaper, and there was no family member on the premises,” Holmberg said. “[Ben] was asked to leave TVA and come to work at the Chattanooga Times, which he did. And I began to have babies.”
The couple had four children together.
Golden managed the paper while Holmberg mothered and later worked as a movie, play and arts critic for the Chattanooga Times, she said.
“But the marriage wasn’t going awfully well, and I filed for divorce,” she said. “When the divorce was final, Ben left town and I kept working at the paper. I had to learn what he had been doing.”
She didn’t remember what title she initially had, but she was leading the paper-with or without the title.
In the 1950s, “Chattanooga was a sorry town,” Holmberg said.
Women got little respect in business during those times, she said.
Holmberg’s family background meant she was afforded opportunities other women weren’t.
“I had to run twice as hard to stay in the same place, but I got a lot of jobs that I wouldn’t have-the head of the chamber of commerce, that sort of thing,” she said.
She didn’t pay much attention to naysayers-a lesson she learned in part from her father.
“I discovered there’s almost nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it,” she said.
The Chattanooga Times became one of the only newspapers in the South to editorially support the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held that racial segregation in public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“My theory was things are right or they are wrong,” Holmberg said. “And if they are wrong, they need to be looked at and made right.”
Supporting desegregation was unpopular, she said. People would call Holmberg’s home to complain.
“[We heard] lots of ugly words,” she said. “And we lost a lot of circulation immediately.”
It was difficult to watch her business suffer. But there was no other choice, in her mind.
“It certainly was the only decision,” she said.
There are countless ways that Holmberg has contributed to the community, often quietly.
When asked about her greatest accomplishments, she mentioned trees.
“There were no trees in downtown Chattanooga,” she said.
She worked to change that, “and it’s made a great difference,” she said.
ArtsBuild recently named an award for Holmberg.
The Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award “recognizes an individual who has made significant contributions to the arts in Chattanooga and who is actively engaged in the cultural life of our community,” Bowers said.
“Virtually every meaningful arts initiative over the past six decades in Chattanooga has Ruth’s fingerprints on it,” Bowers also said.
Cartoonist Bruce Plante worked under Holmberg at the Chattanooga Times.
In 1983, Plante did a cold interview with her after he noticed the local paper didn’t have a cartoonist. Holmberg hired him in 1985.
“She’s a fantastic woman,” he said via Facebook message. “She always gave me complete freedom. She led without me ever knowing about it.”
Plante’s political leanings were in line with Holmberg’s, but it was her leadership style that won people over. She treated staff like family, the award-winning cartoonist said.
“Because she was so nice, fun, compassionate and loving, I always thought she deserved my respect,” he said. “It didn’t hurt that she took a big chance hiring a young, dumb cartoonist.”
Plante no longer lives in Chattanooga, but he said Holmberg made a lasting impression on him.
“My colleagues here in Tulsa get tired of me saying, ‘Mrs. Holmberg did it this way or that way, without seeking recognition,'” he said.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles on Chattanooga business leaders.