Longtime Newspaper Executive, Famed Cookbook Author Helen McDonald Exum Dies At 89

Friday, August 29, 2014
Helen Exum
Helen Exum

Longtime Chattanooga newspaper executive and author of a famous Southern cookbook, Helen McDonald Exum, died Thursday night at her home on Lookout Mountain at the age of 89.

Her son, Roy McDonald Exum, penned this eulogy:

Helen McDonald Exum, a grand Southern matriarch whose grace, beauty, wisdom and grit were the stuff of legends, died Thursday, August 28, 2014 at her home on Lookout Mountain, Tenn., exactly in the way she most wanted -- surrounded by her family, comforted by the amazing love of Jesus Christ, and very excited about an eternal life with so many she has loved during an absolutely phenomenal lifetime.

Helen, who was 89, never suffered during the brief illness that allowed many of her children and their offspring to gather in time to celebrate a Holy Communion performed by The Rev. Hunter Huckabay and his wife Pristine around her bed. It was only fitting -- her sense of her impending adventure never once wavering in the anticipation and excitement of entering the presence of her risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
Due largely to her deep and abiding faith, she had a marvelous journey on earth. She was Vice President of the family-owned Chattanooga News-Free Press, a world traveler, a famed cookbook author, and a mother to six children, five grandchildren and eight great grandchildren who she loved and adored.
Her home and office were filled with pictures of many famous people and storied characters she has interviewed over the years but her favorites were her many personal friends sprinkled all over the globe -- especially across the South -- who shared far more than their stories and delight, leading to many further adventures and memorable occasions.
She was quite accomplished, her civic and philanthropic efforts overshadowed by her abiding love for the Lord. She also possessed a deep inner well of fortitude that was tested by the premature deaths of two of her sons but freely shared her victory over the deep grief with many who have faced and conquered similar trials. She was a cancer survivor, a staunch advocate of Israel, and cherished her first-hand knowledge that “Nothing bad ever happens that something better doesn’t result.”
Such faith and its grace sustained her throughout her life and her love for her family, her employees and her friends was her most heart-felt possession. She also treasured her Bible and was convinced by the verses in Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things there is no law.” (5:22-23)
Born Helen Jane McDonald at Erlanger Hospital on Dec. 18, 1924, she graduated from Girls Preparatory School and Randolph Macon College before marrying her husband, Kinchen Exum of Vaughn, Miss., and joining him is his graduate studies at Princeton and Stanford. The couple returned to Chattanooga, where he taught at The McCallie School for several years before both joined the staff at her father's growing newspaper.
While she worked closely with her father in business and family affairs, she headed the Lifestyle section and was the newspaper's first food editor, a position which spawned her famous cookbooks that she wrote to help pay her children's tuition. She had no way of knowing "The Chattanooga Cookbook" and "Helen Exum's Cookbook" would make her a celebrity of sorts and up until her death she delighted in autographing many now-worn editions.
She was awarded numerous honors but always claimed her greatest “prizes” were the cooks who graced her kitchen for over 60 years as her family grew up, most especially the late Ruth Kinnebrew, the late Mattie Sinkfield and the late Annie Lee Lewis, each becoming a cherished and full-fledged member of her immediate family.
She attended the First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga at a young age and was so influenced by "Miss Ellen" Poindexter's teaching she named her youngest daughter for the legendary Bible teacher and counselor. Years later, Helen taught the Poindexter Class for a number of years and later served on the board of Robert Shuller's famed "Hour of Power," which at its apex was heard by 90 million every Sunday.
A special delight in Helen's life was her monthly gathering with her closest friends who called themselves "The Floosies" and she regaled not only in their love and stories but in their families as well. One of her favorite life-rules was, "Help your friends, your friends’ children and the children of your friends' children."
Helen was the oldest of five children born by Roy and Elizabeth McDonald and loved family gatherings that included members of their families throughout her life. Her father and mother hosted huge lunches every Sunday for years at the family's farm in Sale Creek., Tenn., and after lunch the closely-knit family members would often continue the conversations and merriment for hours.
She was preceded in death by her parents, her brother, Frank McDonald, her sister, Dr. Martha McDonald, her sister, Nancy Reinke, her husband, Kinchen W. Exum, and two of her sons, Kinch (2004) and Franklin (2001).
Her survivors include:
* -- Her sister, Betsy (Lee) Anderson of Chattanooga, Tenn., and the members of Betsy, Frank and Nancy's families.
* -- Her son, Roy McDonald Exum of Lookout Mtn., Tenn., and his two children; Dr. Andrew (Natalie) Exum of Washington D.C., and Mary Cady (Brian) Bolin of Nashville. Mary Cady and Brian have two children, Caroline and Harper.
* -- Her son, Jonathan L.A. Exum (Karen) of Rising Fawn, Ga.; and their son, Jonathan Jr. (Kayla) of Chattanooga. Jonathan and Kayla have three children, Harper, Jacob, and Ethan.
* -- Her daughter, Susan Elizabeth Exum of Conway, S.C., and her daughter, Lauren (Jason) Eslinger of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Lauren and Jason have three sons, Rylan, Mason and Chase.
* -- Her daughter, Ellen Mason Exum Raoul of Vandalia, Ohio, and her son, William.
Helen also leaves behind Karubah Carnahan, who she married briefly late in life; dear friends Sally Carter, Cookie Siskin, Norma Beerman, Carol Brown, Bryant Crowder, Brian Campbell and Dillon Tate, and special caregivers Tammy Smith and Kelli Blevins. She appreciated the care of Dr. Melanie Blake, nurse practitioner Maggie Green, the kindness of the staff of Erlanger Hospital, and, in her final days, the staff of Hospice Amedisys of Chattanooga.
Funeral services will be held at the First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Tenn., on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. with Rev. Joe Novenson and Rev. Tim Tinsley officiating. Visitation will be held one hour prior to the service. A private family burial will take place at the family cemetery at McDonald Farm where her parents, sons, and other family members are among the generations who have been laid to rest since 1836.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made in the name of Helen Exum to the First Presbyterian Church, 554 McCallie Ave., Chattanooga, TN 37402; to the Lookout Mtn. Presbyterian Church, 316 North Bragg Avenue, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350, to Christians United for Israel, P.O. Box 1307, San Antonio, Texas 78295, or to the charity of one’s choosing.
Arrangements are being handled by Heritage Funeral Home, East Brainerd Road, Chattanooga, TN

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