Citizen Brumby 

Last week, Otis Brumby said he would step down as Board of Education chairman. But have we heard the last from him?

When Otis Brumby Jr. announced his resignation last week from the state Board of Education, no one saw it coming. Even Gov. Roy Barnes, the man who appointed Brumby to the position in 1999, didn't know his friend of 30 years would step down until just hours before, when Brumby dropped by his office during the board's lunch break.

Brumby, the hot-tempered publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, the Cherokee Tribune and 28 weeklies in metro Atlanta, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made him re-assess his priorities.

"During the last month or so, I've been trying to reflect on what was important in my life," he tells CL. "I want to spend a lot more time with my family. I missed my friends and business associates in Marietta."

Brumby's announcement shocked fellow board members and caught the governor's office so flat-footed it didn't issue an official reaction. Even on Monday, the executive office was quiet. Offered the chance to comment on Brumby's surprise departure, a Barnes spokesperson said there just wasn't time in the governor's schedule to make any such statement.

If Barnes is too perplexed for words, he's not alone. Otis Brumby is, in many ways, a throwback to the old days of journalism, when a publisher's political agenda was as apparent on the front page as it was on the editorial page. Like the fictional Citizen Kane, Brumby is a child of privilege who has used his newspaper and a lifetime of contacts as entree into the circles of power. It was his friendship with Barnes, after all, that led to Brumby's appointment to the state Board of Education, a stepping stone to what some associates say was Brumby's highest goal -- the state Board of Regents.

Now, with the surprise resignation, Brumby must reconcile his ambitions with a new, more modest, reality. The Marietta Daily Journal, his flagship paper, has seen its circulation drop while its target audience has exploded in number. It's a newspaper that reflects the style of its owner -- conservative and very slow to change.

At 61, Brumby possesses a power to evoke disdain -- and even hatred -- that is undiminished. An ex-writer once put a secret message into a sports column, so that the first letter of each paragraph spelled out "Otis Brumby is a son of a bitch."

That was Aug. 19, 1974. A few weeks ago, Bill Byrne, chairman of the Cobb County Commission and a Republican candidate for governor, reaffirmed his antipathy: "The next time I'm in three feet of Otis Brumby, he's going to hit the ground."

What is it about Otis Brumby that makes even a candidate for governor want to punch his lights out?

The Brumby name is O.M., or Old Marietta. O.M. families go back generations, even centuries, in Cobb County. To be O.M. is to come from money and influence. Barnes, as in Gov. Barnes, is another O.M. name.

Otis' grandfather, Thomas M. Brumby, put the family on the path to wealth by co-founding the Brumby Chair Company in 1875. Otis Brumby Jr. is president of the company, which to this day makes the Brumby Rocker, a rocking chair that sells for up to $805.

Otis Brumby Sr. founded the Cobb County Times back in 1916, and later merged that paper into the Marietta Daily Journal, founded in 1866.

Brumby is a fourth-generation Cobb Countian, born April 9, 1940. He graduated from the University of the South in Sewannee, Tenn., in 1962.

Brumby planned on practicing law, and even graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1964. He was admitted to the bar the same year.

In 1965, at the request of his mother Elisabeth, he took the reins of the Marietta Daily Journal when he was just 25.

In 1968, Brumby launched the Northside Neighbor, the first of his suburban community weeklies that would become his media empire in the metro area.

"It was a very exciting time because those were the years of great growth," says Carrol Dadisman, retired publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat and the MDJ editor from 1966 to 1972. "He really wanted the paper to excel. He took great pride to win for three straight years the Georgia Press Association General Excellence Award."

Brumby's "title technically was assistant to the publisher. But Otis was clearly in charge and influenced the paper quite a bit," Dadisman recalls.

Eventually Brumby would own two dailies and 28 community weeklies in Bartow, Cherokee, North Fulton, Paulding, DeKalb, Clayton, Fayette and Henry counties, as well as the cities of Roswell and Rockdale.

Brumby and Barnes, then a Cobb County lawyer, were clumped into a group of Cobb comers known as the Young Turks, which included Bill Bullard, a mortician and former director of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce who died in 1998, and Harold Willingham, who's credited with bringing Kennesaw College and Southern Tech to Cobb County and creating the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority. Willingham died last year at the age of 84.

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