Roy Ketner McDonald, founder of the Chattanooga Free Press, was a man with the common touch, yet he was a very uncommon man. This newspaper is a continuing chapter of his lengthy and varied civic legacy.
The McDonalds were grocers. Roy McDonald’s father, Frank, had operated the Rolly Red Stores – little groceries on wheels – and later was involved in the White Stores in Knoxville. Roy, the first of six children, was trained by his father to calculate items of stock in his head. Sometimes Frank would purposely make a mistake, but young Roy was sharp and would catch him.
Born in 1901, Roy attended Central High, traveling by streetcar from home in St. Elmo. He had a paper route and gave conductors free copies to win their favor, a strategy he would find helpful throughout his life. At Central, he loved bookkeeping. After a year and a half at Georgia Tech, he was no longer challenged, and was needed to help in his father’s business. Teenager Roy came home to a future in the grocery game.
By 22, he had opened his own store – the Home Store – in the 400 block of Market Street. Many locations followed, mostly of the small neighborhood variety, just what was needed for people who walked to the store. In time, Roy and a raft of managers ran 71 Home Stores. He gave tons of food away to the needy.
A few years into the Great Depression, Roy and a friend thought they ought to start a “shopper’’ to advertise goods sold at Home Stores. Roy, who had come to be called “Mr. Roy,’’ a term of friendship, yet respect, began to tell others of the plan for a shopper.
When banks closed across the nation, Mr. Roy’s would-be partner pulled out of the shopper arrangement. Mr. Roy, alone, had to make good on his brag of starting a shopper, so he bought the first of a long series of presses and came out in 1933 with a publication that advertised Home Stores commodities, but also had some news features. He hired E.T. Bales to write sports stories and Hilda Spence wrote a weekly Sunday school lesson. The 65,000 free papers – called the Chattanooga Free Press — would be distributed by his many store managers on Thursdays.
In 1935, personal friend Everett Allen began selling outside advertising. By then, printer’s ink was beginning to flow in Mr. Roy’s veins and he wanted to add a Sunday edition, for which he would charge a nickel. That came about in early 1936, but only fostered a desire to go daily. This he did on Aug. 31, 1936, head to head with The Chattanooga News in the evening and The Chattanooga Times in the morning.
In those days and throughout his life, Mr. Roy loved a challenge. If he set his mind to accomplishing something he saw it through with confidence and determination.
Three years later he absorbed The News and changed the name of his publication to Chattanooga News-Free Press. It became the first choice of readers for decades. Two new papers were brought out in competition but soon fell by the wayside.
Wartime economies led to a joint operating agreement (JOA) between the News-Free Press and Times in 1942 and the morning and evening papers settled into a complementary situation for some 20 years.
But Mr. Roy did not just sit and watch his Home Stores and his newspaper hum along.
Erlanger hospital was having financial trouble – even then. Mr. Roy, viewed as a financial wizard who could right a wayward ship, was brought on the Erlanger board. He set up a pre-pay plan that was good for the hospital and good for the public. He was chairman many of his 20 years on that board.
That introduced him to patients’ financial needs across the city and state. Almost singlehandedly, he studied the Blue Cross-Blue Shield organization and shepherded a plan for Tennessee that started in 1945. He brought in full-time leadership but became the first and only chairman for the next 45 years.
In 1964, he decided to go it alone again in the newspaper business and purchased a vacant hosiery building to which he would move his news organization. It was America’s first dissolution of a JOA and it launched an intense four-year economic battle.
In 1970, the Justice Department found for the News-Free Press in a predatory pricing lawsuit. The small-town groceryman prevailed over the paper backed by the powerful and prestigious New York Times. Some 10 years later the two papers entered into a new JOA, with Mr. Roy as the leader.
He would die on the morning of June 19, 1990, at age 88, prepared to head for the office and the work that he called fun.
Eight years later the Free Press was sold to Walter Hussman, owner of the Little Rock, Ark., paper who then bought The Times and merged the two competitors into the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
ABOUT THE WRITER David Cooper is former news editor of the Chattanooga Free Press and Times Free Press. He was the last newsman to see Roy McDonald alive, the night before he died.