Otis A. Brumby Jr., a hard-charging newspaperman whose influence helped shape modern Cobb County, has died.
Brumby, longtime publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, died at home Saturday after an almost two-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 72.
The Marietta resident, one of Cobb’s best-known native sons, had a family pedigree that stretched back generations in the county.
Brumby made a name for himself as a prominent businessman and journalist who grew a small local paper into a thriving conglomerate during a time when Atlanta’s suburbs were beginning to expand.
He was a force in local politics as well, using his newspaper to promote his vision of progress in Marietta, Cobb County and the state.
Behind the scenes, Brumby influenced decades of important decisions in Cobb that drove residential and commercial development, and turned the county into a magnet for establishments of higher learning, such as Kennesaw State University.
“I think back to [the book of] Isaiah that mentions a giant cedar falling. When Otis does leave this earth, it will be a giant cedar that has fallen in our community,” Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines, a longtime Brumby family friend, had said. “I say comfortably that there has been no person in Cobb County that has contributed as much to the community as Otis Brumby.”
Brumby got his start in the newspaper business at the Marietta Daily Journal, working for his father and namesake as an assistant to the publisher in 1965. Two years later he took over the top job.
Brumby went on to start the Neighbor Group of weekly community newspapers in 1969, growing the company into a collection of 24 newspapers, two magazines, six websites and a weekly circulation of 375,000.
A diagnosis in 2010 of stage IV prostate cancer slowed Brumby but did not stop him. He was known to come to work almost every day, overseeing the pages and producing strongly worded columns about the goings-on of the county’s government and civic groups.
Brumby’s sway was evident throughout his career, extending to the recent regional transportation tax referendum that his Journal railed against and helped defeat.
“At his core, Otis was a journalist whose first commitment was to open government and protection of the First Amendment, and he did that,” said Hines, who began practicing law in Marietta in 1969 and met Brumby soon after.
“Otis was a giant in our community, he was a giant in our state and we will miss him deeply. He was the epitome of public service,” former Gov. Roy Barnes said Saturday night.
Barnes recalled that, as governor, he had appointed Brumby to the state Board of Education, where Brumby served as chairman.
Barnes said Cobb County, unlike several other metro Atlanta counties, “has escaped the corruption of its public officials.”
“And I give full credit for that to Otis and his Marietta Daily Journal,” Barnes said. “He demanded transparency. He was a guardian of open government, and he was what all newspapermen and women should aspire to be.”
In addition to his newspaper work and his service on the state Board of Education, Brumby also served on the state Transportation Board and the Marietta School Board.
Throughout his career, Brumby was known as a tough employer and no-nonsense community leader. Stories about his newsroom battles with employees were legendary, as were his well-publicized confrontations with state and Cobb County leaders.
When asked by a reporter years ago about allegations that he was an overbearing boss who fired workers over slight infractions, Brumby simply said, “We look ahead.”
“The newspaper business is a tough business to start with, and we’re in the toughest media market around, with all the competition from radio, TV and newspapers,” he said in a 2001 profile in Creative Loafing. “To survive, you have to be aggressive, you have to be tough.”
Brumby’s occasionally heavy-handed treatment of issues in his newspapers drew criticism from some in the community. But he refused to back down and relished his publishing power, rejecting offers of millions of dollars from The New York Times to purchase his business.
“People ask me for humorous stories about Otis, but Otis wasn’t funny. He was serious. Some of us learned sometime later rather than sooner, [Brumby] has always been a person who wants to know what is going on, wants to be part of it,” said longtime friend Earl Smith, a former Cobb County Commission chairman who guided the renovation of Marietta’s 1930s-era Strand Theater.
In a personal editorial in the Journal in November, Brumby reflected on his illness, thanked family and friends who had cared for him, and told readers: “I may have cancer in my bones, but I still have ink in my veins.”
He also had a rocking chair in his heart. In 1875, Brumby’s grandfather co-founded the Brumby Chair Co., known for the Brumby Rocker — which has graced porches nationwide, including at the White House. Brumby regained family control of the company in 1991, becoming its fifth president, and the next year opened a showroom on the square in downtown Marietta.
Brumby is survived by his wife, Martha Lee, daughters Spain, Lee, Betsy and Anna, son Otis III and 11 grandchildren.
Staff writer Michelle Bolar Miller contributed to this article.