Spring has come again to beautiful Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, TN. As a Trustee of Old Gray, I have been researching the lives of people buried there and find them fascinating, as history older than one’s memory usually is. One of the more interesting is William Rule (1839-1928), whose spring birthday is soon approaching, May 10. Rule was a beloved two-term mayor of Knoxville and the editor of first the Knoxville Daily Chronicle and later the Knoxville Journal. He is best known for mentoring the young Adolph Ochs who started working for Rule at age 11 and famously bought the New York Times in 1896 at age 38. Because the 60-year relationship between these two men was influential in shaping the greatest, most powerful newspaper in the free world, it is difficult to examine the life of one without considering the other.
An easy assumption today is that the people buried in Old Gray in the early 20th century came from privileged backgrounds, but, for the majority, that is far from the truth. The next generation of Knoxville men and women may have moved into a higher socioeconomic status, but most of their parents worked hard to rise out of poverty. William Rule and Adolph Ochs are examples of the norm. Both Rule and Ochs were descendants of German immigrants, Rule’s great-grandfather having come from Hessen-Darmstadt to Virginia in the late 1700s and Ochs’ father from Fürth, Bavaria, to Kentucky in 1848. Both men were largely self-educated, both inherited their mothers’ love of reading and their fathers’ gentleness and profound respect for fairness and human individuality.
William Rule, the eldest of 7 children, was born in a log cabin (the same in which his father Frederick was born) in Stock Creek, about 7 miles south of downtown Knoxville. He helped his father farm until age 19 when he married Lucy Maxey and made an unsuccessful attempt to run a hardware store on Gay Street. At age 21 he went to work on William Brownlow’s polemical newspaper the Knoxville Whig. There, he did everything from writing news and setting type to mailing and delivering papers. When the paper folded at the onset of the Civil War two years later, Rule enlisted in the Union Army infantry. He was quickly promoted to Lieutenant then to adjutant. Throughout the War, he carried three volumes, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Burns’ poems. One of the few comments from Rule about his wartime experience was a humorous remark about a friend who was a Confederate soldier who, after the war, asked if he (Rule) had ever shot at him. Rule told him, “I did not for you were in the cavalry and I couldn’t catch you.”
For a time after the war, he was a correspondent for papers in Nashville, Memphis, New York, and Cincinnati, then was employed as city editor for three more years on the reinstated Whig. He married Lucy Ann Maxey of Knox County in 1858 and they had six children. For brief periods, Rule was county court clerk, pension agent, and postmaster. In 1870, he founded the Knoxville Daily Chronicle and in 1885 the Knoxville Journal. He was elected Knoxville Mayor twice, in 1873 and 1898.
Adolph Ochs was born in 1858 in Cincinnati, the eldest of six children. In 1864, the family moved to Knoxville in search of post-War opportunity. His father, Julius Ochs, one of nine children, had been the son of a prosperous diamond merchant and Talmudic scholar, was college educated and had a talent for languages and music. But when his father died, his older brother became heir and forced Julius to leave school and apprentice himself to a bookbinder. Discouraged by dull, unpromising work, he chose to immigrate to the US where, like most immigrants then and now, he was forced to take any work he could. He first became an itinerant peddler, then part-time teacher and drygoods employee, and, after the Civil War (in which he was made drill sergeant), he held various civic positions—alderman, tax assessor, Justice of the Peace, part-time rabbi—but was was never successful or lucky at any of these occupations. Adolph knew early on that he would have to augment the family income. He began his first job as a carrier at the Chronicle in 1869 at age 11. Like his boss, William Rule, had done before him, Ochs accepted any task no matter how menial and quickly impressed his superiors. Over the course of 8 years, the precocious lad moved from sweeping offices and delivering papers to being an office boy and then typesetter. Being a typesetter required four years of apprenticeship, but he did it in two. He called his years at the newspaper his “high school and university.”
Rule earned many distinctions in his long career. He was a charter member of the Lawson-McGhee Library and secretary of the board for 12 years, a charter member of the board of governors for Knoxville General Hospital, a member of the Republican National Committee from 1876 to 1884, and a delegate to the Republican national convention in 1876. As Mayor, he established the city waterworks and a smallpox hospital. Though not an alumnus of the University of Tennessee, he served 28 years on the board of trustees and was secretary for several years prior to his resignation. Passing the campus one day, he looked at the trees on the slope of the Hill and remarked, “There is one of the few things that reminds me of my age. I was one of the Trustees who authorized that many of those trees should be set out.” The University bestowed on him an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1901.
Rule spoke out against Appalachian stereotypes (which were beginning to take shape after the Civil War), arguing that people from the region had normal levels of intelligence but suffered due to Southern states’ lack of funding for schools. In 1873, wealthy Memphis financier Moses Wicks, angered over a column by Rule which criticized Wicks’ mismanagement of his railroad and banking enterprises, challenged Rule to a duel. Rule refused, saying, “I recognize no heathenish, so-called code of honor…. You might take my life or I might take yours and yet not a single feature of the publication complained of would be changed by the results.” The story was published in the New York Times and subsequently lauded in newspaper editorials across the country. After this incident, public sentiment caused the end of dueling as a means of resolving disputes.
In 1896, Ochs, taking control of the New York Times, mortgaged and risked everything to “conduct a high standard newspaper, clean, dignified and trustworthy.” The Times won the first Pulitzer Prize for Journalism in 1918. Ochs received honorary degrees from six universities and came to be known as the “Titan of Humanity” for his lifelong philanthropy. Probably the most famous of his charitable initiatives is the “Hundred Neediest Cases Fund,” a fund-raising campaign established by the Times in 1912 and which continues today. The Fund’s history is an interesting story in itself, a Christmas story that makes Adolph Ochs the George Bailey of his time. In its 105 years, the Fund has raised $288 million for those struggling in New York. The 2016-17 campaign, which ran from Nov. 13 to Feb. 10, raised $6,177,625 — more than half a million more than the year before. For the first time, it extended its reach globally when the International Rescue Mission, a worldwide aid group based in New York that helps refugees and vulnerable populations, joined the campaign.
Biographers of Adolph Ochs argue that the Times‘s commitment to objectivity may have originated in Ochs’s personal, almost reverent, admiration for William Rule. Like Rule, Ochs viewed his newspaper as a trust, upholding the principals on which the First Amendment is based. He established a code of ethics for the New York Times which he published as an oath in his first issue: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved.”
For a few years in the mid- to late-70s the Chronicle was owned by William ‘Parson’ Brownlow, and Ochs had the opportunity to witness both Brownlow’s and Editor Rule’s strongly differing views about the place of opinion in a newspaper. Writing in the Chattanooga Times in 1879, Ochs stated that his association with the two men influenced him greatly. He called Brownlow “a harsh man; a reliable hater; not particular to be politically consistent, eager to carry any point he set his head or heart on; endowed with a violent temper and a vindictive nature…. We confess no admiration, personal or other, for the dead Governor and Senator. His political methods were especially distasteful…. He was always, to our mind, the same violent, and if trusted with power, dangerous man.” As owner of the Times, Ochs chose to practice an objectivity that reflected the views of his “guide, philosopher, and friend,” William Rule.
In 1884, Ochs married Effie Wise, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, who was the leading exponent of Reform Judaism in America and the founder of Hebrew Union College. In 1928 Ochs built the Mizpah Congregation Temple in Chattanooga in memory of his parents, Julius and Bertha Ochs. When Adolph died in 1858, the best and most capable person to take over the Times was Iphigene, his beloved only child, but such an appointment would have been impossible in a patriarchal world–women were still unable to even to vote. Her husband, Arthur Sulzberger, became publisher, and her grandson, Ochs’ great-grandson, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., has been publisher of the New York Times since 1992. One of the longest and most interesting obituaries in the Times is that of Iphigene (“Iffey”) Ochs Sulzberger. Iphigene’s daughter, Ruth Holmberg Sulzberger, who died this month in Chattanooga, was publisher of the Chattanooga Times in Tennessee for nearly three decades.
By his last decade, William Rule was so beloved by his community that civic organizations hosted annual luncheons in his honor. He was esteemed and respected by journalists throughout the country and, at age 89, honored nationally after Time Magazine called him “the oldest active editor in the U.S.” Just weeks before his death, he was still arriving at the office every morning at 8am and leaving at 5:30pm. Ochs attended Rule’s 82d and 89th birthday celebrations. At the latter, Ochs, reading from a letter he had written for the occasion, said, “Captain Rule was a hero to me when I was a lad 10 years of age, and in the 60 years that have elapsed since then, he has not only maintained that eminence in my mind, but has steadily risen higher in my esteem.”
Just two and a half months later, on July 26, 1928, William Rule died in Ft. Sanders Hospital following surgery for a ruptured appendix. Ochs was unable to attend the funeral but sent a telegram, and the July 28 issue of the New York Times included a memorial headed “Tribute by Knoxville to Captain Rule; People of All Walks of Life at Funeral of Dean of American Editors.” The following year Ochs returned to Knoxville to attend a posthumous celebration of Rule’s 90th birthday. During that visit, he asked Henry Collins, the man who taught him how to set type 50 years earlier at the Chronicle, to accompany him to Rule’s grave in Old Gray where he placed a large wreath.
Ochs died suddenly on April 9, 1935 at age 77 while visiting Chattanooga. Even after nearly 40 years of living in New York City, he always called Chattanooga “home.” For decades he planned to be buried there, but in 1933, he purchased a gravesite in Temple Israel Cemetery at Mount Hope in Westchester County, NY. He chose Temple Israel primarily because it would be easier for Iphigene to visit his grave and her husband’s family, the Sulzbergers, who were also interred in Temple Israel.
Archived in the New York Public Library, among 137 boxes of the Adolph S. Ochs papers, is the four-decade-long correspondence between Rule and Ochs. Also included is a scrapbook Ochs assembled during the year following Rule’s death. In it are obituaries and clippings about the career of Captain William Rule, Knoxville, Tennessee.
The New York Times has been awarded 122 Pulitzer Prizes (three in 2017)—more than any other news organization—and, in these troubling times, continues to uphold Och’s promise to give the American people “the whole story, without fear or favor.” As William Rule’s 178th birthday approaches, Old Gray pays tribute to the man who devoted over sixty years of highly principled editorial service to Knoxville, a contribution which continues to influence journalistic excellence and integrity worldwide today.
William Rule and Adolph Ochs were among the first ten journalists inducted into the Tennessee Newspaper Hall of Fame in 1969.
Sources: The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution that Influences the World by Gay Talese; Knoxville News-Sentinel Archives 1922-1990; The McClung Digital Collection of the East Tennessee Historical Center; Findagrave.com; Standard History of Knoxville, ed. William Rule; Metropulse and Knoxville Mercury articles by Jack Neely; and the New York Times digital archives.