Justus F. Craemer, one-time mail clerk, packing-plant worker and wholesale paper warehouse clerk, was 23 years old when he borrowed money to buy a half-interest in the Orange Daily News in Southern California.
Using his incredible drive, boundless energy and unwavering enthusiasm, he taught himself the newspaper business, watching and talking with other newspaper publishers, learning how to promote circulation, sell advertising and manage a growing daily.
Later, during the Roaring Twenties, the Depression and the post-World War II boom years, he devoted almost 40 years in faithful public service, working to improve highways, transportation, utilities, finance and agriculture in California.
The son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, he was born Oct. 18, 1886, in his father’s parsonage at St. Paul’s Church in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
One of his friends, William O. (Bill) Hart, whom he met when he worked as a janitor at the public grammar school, stoking the furnace every morning before going onto his own classes at the Lutheran school, later became his business partner. The two fatherless boys became closer than brothers, never needing a written business agreement between them, always watching out for the other’s interests, and later even keeping an eye on the other’s family.
After graduating from school in 1904, Craemer became a mail clerk and Hart a letter carrier for the local post office.
Three years later, after toying with the idea of becoming a banker, but deciding he “wouldn’t like an indoor job,” he and Hart started out for California where his maternal grandmother owned an orange grove in Orange County.
In the fall of 1909, when Hart was offered a chance to buy the financially troubled Orange Daily News, Craemer returned to Southern California and borrowed $1,300 from his grandmother along with $700 from a bank to join Hart as co-owner of the daily.
In 1909, the Orange Daily News’ circulation was less than 500. By the time Craemer relinquished his interest in 1946, it exceeded 10,000.
In the early 1920s, Craemer helped organize the California Newspaper Publishers Association, becoming president in 1929. In 1923, he was elected vice president of the California Press Association, a post he held until becoming president 20 years later.
In 1923, Gov. Friend W. Richardson, a former president of the CPA, appointed Craemer to the State Agriculture Board (later renamed the State Fair Board), beginning a career in state service that spanned 33 years.
When his friend Harry Lutgens, editor and publisher of the San Rafael Daily Independent (Craemer had advised him to buy the publication in 1926) saw the folly of building only a three-lane tunnel on the Marin approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, he appealed to Craemer for help. Craemer quietly went to his engineer friends in his department and persuaded them to make the highway four lanes.
Lutgens, one of Craemer’s closest friends since their first meeting at a 1916 CPA meeting in San Francisco, announced he wanted to sell his San Rafael daily. Craemer, foreseeing the growth that the Golden Gate Bridge would bring to Marin, advised his old friend against the sale.
When Lutgens persisted, Craemer, Hart and Roy A. Brown formed California Newspapers. Inc. to buy the San Rafael paper. Craemer and Brown, the young publisher of the Sanger Herald, had first met at a convention in Los Angeles in 1926.
In 1937, the San Rafael Daily Independent circulation was less than 3,000. During the 29 years Craemer was co-owner, circulation grew to 40,650. The paper that had 15 on the payroll at the time of the sale grew into one of Marin’s largest home-owned industries with 236 employees working in a multimillion-dollar plant that covered almost a city block.
In 1942, his lifelong friend and partner, Bill Hart, was killed in a commercial airliner crash. In 1946, Hart’s family sold its interest in the San Rafael Daily Independent to Craemer and Brown.
The Hart heirs took over sole ownership of the Orange Daily News.
In 1948, the Independent was merged with the Marin Journal, one of the oldest papers in the state, to become the Independent-Journal.
After Craemer’s death at 79, on May 25,1966, the California Legislature paid him a final tribute: “A public spirited and civic minded citizen, his superlative ability, constant attention to work, high concern for public service and journalism, and engaging personality won him the praise of all Californians.”