The ranks of editor-publishers of family owned newspapers were few, and growing fewer when Harvey McGee was counted in those numbers. And there were few, if any, more involved in both the business and news of daily publishing.
For 39 years, Harvey ran The Sonora Union-Democrat for its Tuolumne County readers. In an anniversary edition in 1984, he described the responsibility of ownership: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that ‘the paper’ really isn’t ours. Long before we arrived, the readers claimed it and they’ve been good enough to let us remain as stewards.”
And the community accepted its role. Coverage of every local event was provided, expected, almost demanded.
Harvey’s stewardship of The Union-Democrat was lovingly described by community spokesmen in response to his death on Jan. 1, 1998:
“He was a major voice of reason,” said Harvey Rhodes, retired president of Columbia Community College. “He was so in tune with the attitudes, lives and dreams of those who live here.”
“He gave credit where credit was due and gave you fits if he thought you needed it, too. It helped steer the community in the right direction,” said Ron Stern, long-time Sonora city councilman.
“The most important opinion in Tuolumne County was Harvey McGee’s,” said State Sen. Patrick Johnson.
Harvey Cooke McGee was born in Oakland on July 26, 1923. His interest in journalism surfaced early, when, at the age of 12, he started a neighborhood paper printed on a gelatin duplicator tray. He advanced to be editor of his high school paper, then studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley before and after service as a U.S. Navy pilot during World War II.
While still a student at Cal, he was hired to start a newspaper at Ford Motor Co.’s Richmond plant. After graduation, he spent most of a year studying political science at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. There, he and a friend started an English-language weekly in Bern.
On returning to the United States, he worked on the city desk of the Schenectady, N.Y., Star and on weekends on the city desk at the New York Times. But, with the goal of newspaper ownership, Harvey and his wife Helen, then parents of two little girls, decided to return to California.
He worked for a year as editor of the Lindsay Gazette, then in 1950, purchased the weekly Folsom Telegraph. Four years later, he moved up Highway 50 as owner-editor-publisher of the Placerville Times, also a weekly that competed aggressively against the entrenched Mountain Democrat.
After he sold the Times to the Mountain Democrat in 1958, Harvey spent a year on the State of California payroll (as a research secretary for Gov. Goodwin Knight and in public relations for the Department of Education) while he searched for his next publishing opportunity. He found it in Sonora.
It was not without background that he moved to Tuolumne County in 1959. His mother, Vera, had taught at Sonora High School from 1911 to 1914. And his wife Helen’s great-grandparents had homesteaded in Columbia, where her grandfather, William Dick Pennycook, was born in 1861. Pennycook became the publisher of the Vallejo Evening Chronicle.
The Union Democrat was small in 1959, an eight-page tabloid published four days a week, expanding to full size on Wednesdays to accommodate grocery ads. The tabloids phased out in 1967, but until 1975 the full daily output was without the aid of a wire service.
In his column, The Sierra Outlook, Harvey once commented on the all-local content: “How can you find enough news for a daily in this small county?” visitors asked. “How can we find enough space to get it all in the paper?” was his answer.
In 1963, The Union Democrat, in Harvey’s words, exchanged its metal pots for paste pots” as a pioneer in the switch to offset printing. Although it was the seventh daily in California to move to offset, the paper (through acquisition in 1957) could claim it was part Sonora Daily, the paper that was the first offset publication in California.
Wire service was added in 1975 with the announcement in the Lookout: “Tuolumne County needs and deserves a complete newspaper of its own, and that can’t happen as long as the rest of the world is ignored. … We take this step only after pledging to ourselves and our readers that the Tuolumne County scene will continue to be our first concern.”
Some readers cried loudly, fearing world news would infringe on their local space, but the complaints quieted with time. And the daily continued its local emphasis. Harvey was the ultimate editor-publisher. Fellow publishers commented regularly on his daily hands-on involvement – from morning editorial sessions to page-one dummies to final paste-up, he did it himself. And in the afternoon, he would pull his mini black book from his chest pocket and go over his news tips. A Sonoran’s son had been named to the honor roll at a midwestern college. Congress was nearing hearings on a bill that would order removal of historic check dams in the Emigrant Wilderness Area. A long-time Sonora business planned to close its doors, yielding to pressures of chain stores. All stories, regardless of Nielsen rating, were expected the next day.
During Harvey’s ownership, the paper grew with the county he loved. The Union Democrat in those years climbed from a circulation of 2,000 to more than 13,000 and, by one method of measuring, rated the highest penetration level (percentage of readers by population) in the State of California.
Harvey’s column (a three-times-a-week treat until 1985) and his editorials in later years praised, criticized, informed and guided. Topics were wide-ranging: Washington, D.C., politics to Sonora’s Washington Street politics, family, pets, fishing, skiing, roads, people. His best often told of the beauty of Tuolumne County.
In a 1970s community conflict over a proposal to build county government offices outside the city, he favored expansion within the downtown area. He wrote eloquently of the need to consider “the health, vigor and dignity of an old and widely-cherished friend, Sonora.” The issue prompted a recall election that changed the majority vote on the board of supervisors and kept the offices downtown.
Other editorial efforts spoke for open public meetings, opposed scattered development at the expense of open space and criticized unnecessary legislation. He spoke for both urban and rural areas when he pleaded repeatedly for funding for long-delayed highway projects. In one response to congressional funding for small projects for local agencies, he observed the government had provided for gymnasiums, kitchens, sprinklers and showers. “But nowhere among them is there a mention, not a single whisper, of what the county needs most desperately – a highway bypass around Sonora.”
That bypass eventually came, a 2.3-mile Highway 108 routing around Sonora, in the spring of 1988.
Harvey was an informed and strong spokesman for the California logging industry, not at the expense of the environment but with conviction that the best of both could coexist. “With sound management, the Sierra can continue to produce timber forever and at the same time preserve beauty and wildlife,” he wrote in 1991. “There’s a need for production and preservation and there’s a need for both. The public’s best interest lies in a plan that assures the most of both.”
His column offered a healthy helping of humor. When small publishers were squeezed by a newsprint shortage in 1973, he told of his solution: a letter to Charles Gould, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, a paper continuing its plea for new subscribers. “Allow us to purchase 301 of those Examiner subscriptions,” he said. “Although we would expect to be billed at the regular price, we would spare you our share of the cost of writing, composition and delivery. We would pick up the subscriptions at your plant in the roll.”
He had computed that 300 subscriptions would provide newsprint for an eight-page Union Democrat five days a week. The 301st subscription? “Run that one through the press: we’d like to keep clipping your fine editorials.”
Not all views came from his second-story office on Sonora’s Washington Street. He wrote while traveling in the United States and abroad. Harvey was one of 10 U.S. newsmen selected to accompany the American and Russian astronauts on a two-week goodwill tour of the Soviet Union following the Apollo-Soyuz space meeting. He also participated in National Newspaper Association-sponsored tours of Eastern Europe, the Mideast and China and the California Newspaper Publishers Association visit to Taiwan.
Harvey was a past president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California Press Association and was active in the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Newspaper Association, the California First Amendment Coalition and the California Society of Newspaper Editors.
His writing was recognized with “best column” and “best editorial” awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association in 1979, 1981, 1984 and 1987. Among numerous other awards was one from the Associated Press News Executives Council citing the Union Democrat staff for best spot news in 1987. That plaque was earned in an 11-day period that included three Labor Day Weekend “extras” reporting on a fire that burned 147,000 acres of Tuolumne County forest lands. Although no homes were lost, hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate, and firefighting forces were called in from throughout the West. Harvey directed that news coverage and closed his days with a role in the circulation department. Without motor carriers for the three weekend editions, he loaded his pickup with bundles of newspapers and made the rounds – to businesses in all communities and to fire camps, including the command center at Buck Meadows, a round trip of 85 miles. Helen, who accompanied him, says she remembers “driving down the road and seeing trees burning on both sides.”
His sponsorship started two community events that will draw hundreds of participants. Service clubs, public employees, students and the general public gather in Sonora’s Courthouse Square annually for a noon-hour Christmas Sing. And runners come from a wide area of the state in April for the Old Mill Run in Columbia.
Through the years, Harvey won wide recognition for his efforts. He was named to the Columbia College Hall of Fame, was an original member of the Columbia College President’s Advisory Committee and was a life member of the Columbia College Foundation. He earned the Silver Beaver Award for service to the Boy Scouts of America and was named outstanding citizen of Tuolumne County by the Sonora Kiwanis Club. In the year before his death he received the first “Top Hand” award from the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse and the Presidents Award from the Tuolumne General Hospital Foundation. He served as president of the Sonora Rotary Club and the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce and was a founding director of El Capital National Bank (now part of Westamerica Bank).
The Union Democrat’s mission to report everything that happened in Tuolumne County had one limitation. Not a word of the McGees’ substantial financial contributions to worthy causes and those in need. Harvey and Helen wanted it that way.
The demands of his paper and community did not interfere with Harvey’s devotion to his family: Helen and their five children, 14 grandchildren and (at the time of his death) two great-grandchildren.
“A lot of times, when men are so busy and involved in their community, they are not very good fathers, but he was the best,” said daughter Susan Britton.
“He took time for us,” said son Tim McGee. “He often went back at night and worked late, but he was always home for dinner.”
Returning again to the community response at the time of Harvey’s death, Sonora attorney Ed Gorgas paid a well-rounded tribute:
“When it comes time for each of us to pack it in, I think we would like to have met two or three of the following benchmarks: good father, good worker, good friend, good citizen. Harvey met them all.”
*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.*