Eleanor McClatchy
McClatchy Newspapers

C.K. McClatchy taught his children that owning newspapers was a public trust, a way of insuring services for those who might not otherwise get them.

So when C.K. became ill in 1936, Eleanor McClatchy returned from New York where she was studying playwrighting at Columbia University to assume leadership of the family company.

She explained in a memorandum, “Father wrote me about six months before his death and told me what he wanted me to do. His last words to me were that I should become president of the organization.

“Although I am not familiar with the details of the publishing business, I do know my father’s ideals and principles. I will see that these are continued.”

She learned the “details” of the business and carried out those principles for 42 years until a fall in 1978. By that time the company included five daily and four weekly newspapers, an interest in a sixth daily, four radio stations and a television station in Fresno.

Playwrighting might seem an odd preparation for journalism, but when Miss McClatchy turned to reporting, she acquitted herself like a professional.

One of her first reporting assignments came in 1934 when her father sent her to the Max Baer-Primo Camera heavyweight match. Baer, of course, was a Sacramentan. “handsome and debonair.” according to the novice sportswriter.

The theatrical aspects especially appealed to her. She described Baer as “a dancing satyr coolly annoying the big giant. His sense of drama is great. ... But with all his acting and comical flippancy, Baer has a poise that carries him along.”

When she visited Europe in 1947, she sent back reports from July to November. From postwar Germany, where her familiarity with the country and language helped her talk with those living in the bombed remnants of the Third Reich, she reported, “In the main they are feeling hopeless and terribly sorry for themselves. They want leadership. They feel lost and confused.

“Only a few seem to be trying to do any clear thinking about their own situation. Of course, it must be borne in mind that they are hungry, and empty stomachs do not often produce clear thoughts.”

From Moscow, she wrote, “Here spread before you are many newspapers and beautifully illustrated magazines, but all written according to the party line in Russian, in Chinese; from East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and other satellites of Russia.

“You still hope you can find a paper whose news has not gone through the Communist sieve. ... You feel trapped, cut off in thought from the rest of the world. It gives you for the remainder of the day a peculiar kind of deadening loneliness, possibly like the loneliness of exile.”

With Roy Bailey, she compiled her father’s editorial columns for book publication and contributed to “Sacramento: An Illustrated History” published in 1973 by the California Historical Society.

She directed publication of The Sacramento Bee’s Centennial Album in 1957, which won that year’s national award of the American Association for State and Local History.

These reflected her great interest in California history and her pride in her own pioneer heritage. She referred to this when she was named the California Press Association’s Publisher of the Year in 1971: “My family’s association with Sacramento journalism dates to the Gold Rush years. When my grandfather arrived in Sacramento in 1849, his first job was with the Placer Times, the first newspaper to be established in the new city, and which was housed in a wee structure just outside of Sutter’s Fort.

“He was to be associated with five other early-day Sacramento newspapers before he became editor of The Bee in the year of its founding, 1857.

“My father took over as editor when his father died. He carried on under principles he learned from his father. I succeeded as president when he died in 1936. We hope we are guided by the same concern.”

Miss McClatchy never lost her love for the theater. During World War II she joined with others to form a touring company to entertain servicemen at Sacramento’s military installations.

This led to the organization of the Sacramento Civic Repertory Theater in 1942, involvement in the construction of the Eaglet Theater in 1949, establishment and underwriting of the Sacramento Music Circus and inauguration of the Eaglet Children’s Theater productions.

But her primary concern was the three newspapers in Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno. Under her leadership, new buildings were erected for all three, they moved to computerization and morning publication, and the first pension program in the newspaper industry west of the Mississippi was begun.

At the flagship Sacramento Bee, one of the country’s first ombudsmen was named in 1975.

A subsidized cafeteria that provided inexpensive meals for employees was a special interest of hers. She was one of its most loyal patrons, proudly taking visiting dignitaries there rather than to exclusive restaurants.

Miss McClatchy loved talking to people and often joined her employees in the cafeteria— especially ink-bespattered pressmen— for coffee or lunch after a polite, “May I sit with you?” Her admiration for the pressmen was reciprocated. On April 4, 1956, she was made an honorary member of the Sacramento Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union No. 60.

The membership card read, “This honorary membership card is presented to Miss McClatchy in appreciation of the harmonious relations that have existed over the years between The Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union No. 60.”

Proof that Miss McClatchy made the Bees pleasant places to work are the 550 members of the 25-year club.

The McClatchy Newspapers also made their cities pleasanter places in which to live. They sponsored community forums, science fairs, ski races, spelling bees, scholarship programs, Christmas shows and scheduled regular school-related offerings, the first ecumenical programs, farm news and Spanish lessons over their broadcast facilities.

They established and gave major support to the Secret Witness Program.

In their editorial columns, the Bees campaigned successfully for a deep water port, a four-year college, a community center, a railroad museum and a history center in Sacramento; the city-manager form of government, a metropolitan flood control district, a school desegregation plan and redevelopment in Fresno; and a river regional park, school bonds, a street tree program and a storage dam in Modesto.

These were concerns important to Miss McClatchy, but she never dictated editorial policy. About Walter Jones, who edited the Bees between the two C.K. McClatchys (her father and nephew), she said, “My grandfather and my father were strong editors. Do you think I would wish upon The Bee a weak editor who let others think for him? Walter and I knew what my father expected of us and wished of us, and we set out to do it.”

And they did it, no matter how many powerful forces wanted to stop them. At one time The Bee had 19 libel suits on its hands.

“We went right on telling the truth,” Miss McClatchy said and quoted her father’s admonition, ‘The Bee shall never be run from the counting house.”

“If The Bee ceases to be a newspaper, first, last, always, independent of all, then it will be time to take down the family name and sell the papers to others to do with as they will,” she continued. “So long as it bears the name, it must remain independent.”

This editorial integrity gained respect and trust. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson went down to defeat everywhere except in seven counties. Six of those were in the circulation area of The Bee, which had endorsed Stevenson.

Although she spent most weekdays in her office at The Sacramento Bee, Miss McClatchy made frequent visits to the other newspapers where she spent long hours talking to company personnel and city leaders. She was determined her newspapers would be persuasive forces in community dialogue.

A continuing interest of Miss McClatchy’s was collecting printing memorabilia. This started in the 1930s when she was able to purchase a number of newspapers from the Gold Rush period, and she became acquainted with the well-known antiquarian booksellers John and Warren Howell.

After Warren Howell steered her to a retired book dealer with a lot of early printing specimens, the idea of a printing museum developed.

Through the years she gathered books on printing and papermaking, theater bills and letter sheets from the 1850s and examples of fine press work. In 1968, a curator was appointed.

After Miss McClatchy’s death, the collection was given to the City of Sacramento with half a million dollars to build the long-dreamed-of History Center.

Now visitors enter through the pillars salvaged from the old Bee building when it was razed to view the hand press used by the famous Grabhorn brothers and exhibits changed every three to six months.

Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.