Roy Exum: About My ‘Silver Spoon’

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Several days ago, I wrote about a flock of brazen criminals who have torn the United Auto Workers union apart. The UAW came within 57 votes of representing Chattanooga’s Volkswagen assembly plant last summer but only now do we realize how big a bullet the VW workers dodged. An ongoing federal investigation has exposed an ever-widening scandal among the union’s top leaders. The damning evidence already presented will most assuredly require the American government to step in and seize the control of the union on behalf of 390,000 victims who are its members, and over half-million more who are retired pensioners.

Almost immediately, I received an email: “I’m proud to have been a union member all of my working days.

I’ve made a good living for my family. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth like you with a super-rich grandfather Roy McDonald who made his money off the backs of working people. I heard but don’t know for sure that Roy McDonald said, ‘All a working man needs is a pair of overalls and a dollar a day.’ I know the unions are far from perfect but I’m glad I had mine.” (name withheld)

* * *

Sir: I am delighted to learn your union affiliation has enabled you a full life, to provide for your family, and has allowed you to take pride and pleasure from your experience in organized labor. I recognize your feelings in this great country of ours, and your embrace of an American democracy where the labor unions have been such an integral part of the fabric of our nation.

I acknowledge your slur that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and fully understand that in today’s society a prerequisite in any letter or email is to slander the recipient from the onset, but I have a far different view of labor unions. I have lived on the other side of the violence, heard the graphic and hateful slander as my mother would walk across a picket line, and witnessed the deep hopelessness of a union that literally died before my eyes. I saw over 100 friends of mine have their lives ruined by the International Typographical Union during a 5½-year strike against my family and our newspaper. I saw the ITU lead our employees to their peril – some who had been with us for years -- and I am very resentful to this day.

My grandfather, as you pointed out, was Roy McDonald. I am his namesake and I find your narrow view of what he did and achieved for so many is disappointing. I am sure you know of his life; the Home Stores grocery chain and the Chattanooga News-Free Press. Perhaps you do not know that his father went bankrupt three times, the last forcing him to drop out of Georgia Tech in his second year, but he revived the grocery chain and thus began a life he enjoyed very much. You may also know that shortly before he purchased the former Chattanooga News and entered the newspaper business, a group of men including the Hamilton County Executive, Chattanooga’s Mayor, and three of the city’s most affluent leaders approached him to beg he would use his business acumen to save the floundering Erlanger Hospital.

Every Sunday afternoon for many years I would watch as he would take a huge stack of Erlanger’s financials, a hefty list of the hospital’s biggest problems, and its most glaring errors to his desk at our family farm and do what he could to manage our largest public hospital. Usually it took the better part of every Sunday afternoon and it was hardly because he made his money “off the backs of working people.” He employed over 1,000 on most weeks and our lack of turn-over was quite legendary. Sadly, you have no earthly idea how much he strived to help others.

Please, try to remember: this stuff was pre-World War II. This was in the ‘30s, shortly after the Great Depression of ’29, and that’s when he said the often-misunderstood, “Every man needs a pair of overalls and a dollar in his pocket,” because at the time there was a good number of good and honest working men who had neither.

While he was tasked with Erlanger’s woes, he came to realize the day would come in the not-so-distant future when the working man, you know, the one “in overalls with a buck in his pocket”… would be unable to pay his medical bills. My grandfather flew to Cuba and, with $1,000 of his own money, bought the charter for Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Tennessee, which you know by now has benefited many millions of people. He was the chairman of the Erlanger Board for 38 years, and the founding chairman of Blue Cross-Blue Shield for 42 years. During those years, it is well documented he never accepted as much as a dime in compensation from either entity, must less a pair of overalls with a dollar in the pocket, so – not to be flippant – you might chew on that until it loses its taste.

When I was 12 years old, I had asked my mother for 75 cents. A bunch of us boys were going to a movie at the old Martin Theater on Market Street, and then going to the Krystal at 7th and Cherry for hamburgers and orange drink, and then – although I’d never tell mother --to “The Big Four” pool hall where I was never too shy to ask if on some early afternoons we might beg a front table. But, no, on this day mother drove my older brother Kinch and myself to my grandfather’s office at 117 East Tenth and we were told, in the very gentlest way, the days of the “hand-outs” were over. There were no silver spoons, much less any gold, titanium, or copper. This was rubber-meets-the-road.

At age 12 I went to work for one dollar an hour. From that day until after high school, I worked construction, custodial (yeah, mops,  toilets, urinals, and all else the inconsiderates would throw in the trash), elevator operator, or … as my grandfather liked to boast … “the kid who knows how to grease any wheel that squeaks.” Every moment I wasn’t in elementary school, junior high and high school, I was working. When I went to City High, I would catch a bus to Eleventh Street, walk to the old Davenport Hosiery Mill we were refurbishing, and my grandfather would come by between 7 and 8 on his way home and give me a ride. On Saturday’s and days schools would be closed due to snow, I’d ride to work with my dad, who – because the News-Free Press was an afternoon paper – he would leave the house around 4:30 a.m. He would come back home in the early afternoon every day. His day was done, mine never was. I would never leave until after 6.

Oh, how I have wished every child in our hemisphere could gnaw my silver spoon. During my junior high and high school years it was dawn to dark, under the tutelage of the greatest men who every walked the earth. I was taught to get to the job before everybody else, to jump to the heaviest part of anything that had to be lifted, to grab the dirtiest and greasiest part of any assignment, and to never, ever, walk off a job site until all the tools were clean and in order. Every machine was gassed for the next morning, the work site was policed for trash and raked, but most importantly, not until every other man had already left. Respect is earned, never requested or, God help, ever mentioned. “Be the first to get there, do more than anybody, and be the last to leave.” Yes sir, that was my silver spoon rule. That’s the way I was raised, not just during the summers or on spring vacation, but Every. Single. Day.

We had “the gazelle rule:” Every day on the African plains a gazelle wakes up knowing it must out-distance the fiercest lion. Not far away, the lion wakes and knows it must catch the slowest gazelle. The moral of the story? The minute you get up in the morning, you better be running.

By the time I was 14 I could operate any machine and master any machine on our farm. From Cat bulldozers to dragging cultivators, changing an eight-foot cycle blade to a hay rake, I knew what each one was for, the desired goal, and what came next. Do you use a seed drill rather than plow? Turn the soil to turn a dollar. If it is to be, it’s up to me. It is that simple. And the footprint of the owner is far and away the best fertilizer.

I’ve spent more than my share in a 90-degree hay field. I love farming and I started my tractor as a near-religious vow at 7 a.m. sharp, only to gather the last bales of hay after dark many a time. I helped turn the old Davenport Hosiery building into where the Times Free Press is quartered today. I’ve delivered yards of concrete in a sloppy motor jenny, actually constructed the walls in the sports department where I would later delight, and my life’s education has never stopped all because of my silver spoon. As a member of the family, more was expected and you should never mention it – others will.

The very day after I got my driver’s license, I pulled out of the loading dock of our grocery chain’s creamery in Sale Creek around 5 that morning in a big milk truck with a heavy load of milk, ice cream and cottage cheese. I got it to our store in Summerville, Ga., early enough so we had it “shelved” by the time the store opened. Don’t know what I would have done without that silver spoon, and would you believe I got back to our farm in time to eat heavily-peppered slabs of tomatoes between two pieces of light bread before we spend the afternoon with a manure spreader?

During my senior year in high school, I was assigned to our sports department. I couldn’t spell c-a-t but I knew the one thing that Frank Sinatra, Hank Aaron, Ronald Reagan, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and Willie Mosconi had in common was one very distinct thing --  on their very first day they weren’t worth a crap, either. My dad provided stacks of the greatest writers – Hemingway, O’Henry, Willie Morris, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, Jay Searcy of the Chattanooga Times, Jim Murray of the LA Times, Alf Van Hose and Benny Marshall in Birmingham. I read every Sports Illustrated and Reader’s Digest cover-to-cover.

I’ve never sat in a journalism class in my life but when my game is on, no apologies needed. Two of my greatest teachers were union proof-readers in our composing room. It would be a stretch to believe either sat the first day in college but, man, they taught me how to make one paragraph flow into the next, to quit using too many adverbs, how to place commas and, best of all, how to lure the reader into a literary corner where the last sentence would jump out and turn ‘em to tears or laughter. I’ve been told by hundreds that’s my gift, writing emotion, but the truth is it was taught by those who cared about me.

One day in 1972, at 7:28 in the morning, I was darting up the stairs from the second floor (editorial) to the third (composing) to give the page layout when this boisterous rush of our typographic union came storming down the stairs and out the front doors. They had gone on strike. I remember searching the faces of men and women who I loved. Many couldn’t hold my gaze. Not a one who loved me would stop, and the riff raff amongst them loved cussing me, the vulgar insults, the language they hid on Sundays, the totally out-of-character behavior. And I wanted only to sit on those stairs and sob because I knew they were beaten from the very get-go.

In the 10 years after I hired on at age 12, my grandfather and I developed a huge affinity for one another. We would talk two or three times a day. Outwardly he was “Mr. Roy” and I was sometimes called “Little Roy” but it was several years before I found out I was called the “whip hand” behind my back. Had our newspaper been a big Texas cattle operation, he was the owner and I was the foreman. My two uncles, one the newspaper president and the other a distinguished editor who I adored, deeply resented the bond my grandfather and I had, but Mr. Roy and I thought alike, we approached each day alike, and we relished every challenge, every opportunity and every triumph just alike.

We knew that no matter what we offered the typographical union, it would be turned down. The union leadership – a group of people far away from Chattanooga didn’t give a rat’s tail about the local union members who, to be honest, were members of our newspaper family. The ITU knew they had lost the traction and were determined to make Chattanooga the union’s defining moment. But the idiots had let time pass them by. The new technology, the change in America’s landscape, computers with warp speed, meant nothing to the Typographical union, or almost all of the other unions that flounder today, so we prepared for the donnybrook.

When the union went on strike, they had no idea we were flush, cocked-and-loaded, and we were ready.

Before the inevitable, “Mr. Roy” and I made clandestine trips across the country – never gone more than 36 hours at the risk of being noticed – and learned about a new process called ‘cold type.’ For years we had been ‘hot type,’ this where a Mergenthaler linotype machine could spit out nine lines of hyphenated and justified type cast in molten lead alloy in one minute. We had over a dozen that the Typographical union managed. But ‘cold type,’ based on a photographic page that could be produced into an image that could serve equally well on our printing press, could give 128 lines of type a minute. It was faster, cheaper, better and so easy any member of our family could produce it … and that we did.

We created a lab, hidden within our circulation department, and we practiced and practiced so that on the morning that our high-hopes union went out on strike, four hours later we hand-delivered each of them a 36-page edition of that day’s newspaper. “We knew at that very minute we were fools, that we had been conned by a union representative we never saw again and had been used badly,” one who struck would tell me later.

The bitterest moment in Chattanooga’s newspaper history occurred in the short hours after the Typographic union struck us. For several months the leadership at the Chattanooga Times deferred all negotiations with the union to my grandfather. It was well known he was negotiating for both newspapers, even though the News-Free Press and the Times were in an all-out brawl where there would be a definite loser for the Chattanooga marketplace. The very morning the typographic union went on strike, the publisher of the Times signed a contract with the union in the most nauseating double-cross I have ever experienced in my life.

The Times battle for dominance with the News-Free Press is legendary in newspaper circles. The Times had unlimited resources while we were constantly searching for cash. We had 14 employees refinance their homes, at one point, to keep us afloat and the Times wasn’t beyond stooping low for an advantage. My grandfather had been called to Washington to testify on an insurance issue, per Blue Cross-Blue Shield, and mentioned the fight in his comments, saying it was our belief our opponent would sell advertising at deep discounts. After his talk, he was approached by two men in navy suits who wanted to learn more about the Times selling ads cheaper than their actual cost. They were from the Department of Justice and soon the DOJ charged the Times with a direct and predatory violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

As “Justice” shared their evidence with us, it was incredible how far out-of-bounds the Times had gone to defeat us. Just before the trial was to begin, their lawyers hammered for an out-of-court settlement, which would have been a Godsend but, no, we knew if we could expose the devils for what they really were, the ramifications in the newspaper industry – not to mention the New York Times board room – would be to our advantage. The last out-of-court settlement was offered at the top of the Hamilton County Courthouse steps and, when the amount was disclosed, my grandfather thought for a moment and said we’d better take it. That afternoon I held that Cashier’s Check for $2.5 million in my hand.

About the same time, we got word the International Typographical Union was dissolving, the last remnants aligning with the Teamsters Union. We didn’t break the ITU – that suicide had been predictable. In our final negotiations with the ITU, I heard my grandfather offer every union employee a job for life with a three percent raise every year until they retired. But, no, some drunk out of Chicago couldn’t come to our shop and roll a guy who had worked for us for 15 years by claiming seniority and, no, once a union member retired or left, that union position would not be filled by another union member. We knew we could be union-free.

The truth? The Typographical union had never had such a lucrative offer, but the union wouldn't budge on the seniority or replacement clauses. Driving back to our office, my grandfather told me, “I will never understand … our union people wouldn’t do this for their God, their country, or their families … but they are going to ruin themselves with their loyalty to the union.”

That’s what happened. I was there. The ITU, a belly-up dinosaur not 10 years later, ruined over 100 of our employees who I had loved for years. I have no heart for any union because after what I witnessed happen to us. But I’ll remember my silver spoon… don’t you wish every boy could be as lucky?

* * *

In the summer of 1980 about 2:30 in the afternoon I got a “call me immediately” page from my grandfather and was told, “Get your coat and meet me outside right now.” Bewildered, it wasn’t until we were in the car and headed downtown that I was told Sydney Gruson was in town and needed to meet. “What for?” I asked, because Mr. Gruson was the vice chairman of the NY Times board. When we arrived at the meeting, Guy Beatty was with Gruson, there were warm pleasantries and then Mr. Gruson said he had the Sulzberger family’s authorization to cut an exit deal. “We are finished. We are through,” said Gruson. (The Sulzberger family owned the New York Times.)

Of course, we were floored, we never saw it coming. Guy handed my grandfather a legal pad and “bare bones” of the deal was this: The News-Free Press would take over the complete operation of the Times, all except their editorial content. We would sell the advertising, deliver the Times newspapers as well as our own, and handle every business aspect. After our weekly expenses, we would give the Times a percentage of the net – allowing them to pay their editorial employees and the like - and then we would keep and administer the rest.   

Adolph Ochs founded the Chattanooga Times and then went to New York where he acquired the New York Times, becoming its publisher in 1896. Ochs and his wife had a daughter, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, who married Army Lt. Arthur Hays Sulzberger in 1917, and they had four children. The only son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, affectionately known as ‘Punch,’ was the publisher of the New York Times on the afternoon my grandfather and I met Gruson, and one of Miss Iphigene’s three daughters was Ruth Holmberg, the publisher of the Chattanooga Times, if that helps to connect the dots.

Miss Iphigene and my grandfather had been acquaintance for years and, as the two Chattanooga newspapers moved into a Joint Operating Agreement, the two spoke regularly. She died in February of 1990 at age 97, and Roy McDonald died four months later at the age of 88.

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