Hamilton, Ohio, may seem like a long way from our nation’s capital, but in the 1950s, Champion Paper and Fibre Company had garnered the attention of some powerful people at the top. “What people?” you ask. Oh, only Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Both Harry and Ike had a lot of respect for Champion Paper. They or people in their administrations would frequently turn to the company’s leadership for their expertise in business and matters pertaining to national defense.
You heard me. National defense.
Mostly, it had to do with the company’s president, Reuben Buck Robertson, Jr. Reuben Jr. was intelligent, innovative, and oh my gosh, the man had charm. He had looks too, especially in his youth. His dimples could stop traffic. (He was probably told that a lot.) You could say that he attained his position as a birthright—his father, Reuben Sr., had preceded him as company president—but Reuben Jr. was very good at his job. Exceptional, really.
Before I tell you anything more about Dorothy Craig’s larger-than-life boss, let’s have a quick run-down on the company’s history and how Reuben Jr. got where he was.
The Champion Paper and Fibre Company had its official start in 1893 as the Champion Coated Paper Company. Its founder, Peter G. Thomson, was a bookstore owner, publisher, and printer from Cincinnati. Because of Thomson’s love for the printed word, he had a high regard for paper as well. When printers started using halftones—tiny dots of ink—to reproduce illustrations instead of hand-drawing or etching them, Thomson knew that the paper needed to be coated to create a smooth surface that would hold the ink in place. If the paper weren’t coated, the ink would sink into little crevices and spread. In 1891, Thomson purchased 200 acres in Hamilton to build a coating mill, and in 1894, his new business was up and running. But there were a few snags: in order to operate a fully-functioning coating mill, he needed sufficient quantities of paper to coat. As a remedy, he constructed a paper mill in town. Next Thomson discovered that, in order to operate a fully-functioning paper mill, he needed a consistent supply of wood pulp. Thomson found an ideal spot in Canton, North Carolina, an area so thick with pine trees, it probably smelled like the world’s best car freshener 24/7. The pulp mill was constructed in 1908, and, with that addition, Thomson now had a self-sufficient paper-manufacturing operation that would continue to develop and grow.
The pulp mill in North Carolina was named the Champion Fibre Company, and Thomson’s son-in-law was put in charge. That son-in-law was Reuben Buck Robertson, and his marriage to Peter’s daughter Hope Thomson would be the start of the Thomson-Robertson dynasty of Champion Paper. Peter’s three sons, Peter Jr., Alexander, and Logan Thomson, would all assume positions of leadership in the company, as would other family members, including Reuben’s son, Reuben Robertson, Jr., who was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1908.
Reuben Jr. graduated from Yale Sheffield Scientific School in 1930 with a degree in chemical engineering. That same year, he started working at Champion Fibre for his father. Reuben Jr. was the ultimate Undercover Boss. He started low—as a laborer in the woodyard—and worked his way up the ladder. He toiled and sweated along with everyone else. He asked a ton of questions. In doing so, he developed a keen understanding of every aspect of the papermaking business and the people on whose backs the business relied upon.
In 1935, the two companies were merged to form Champion Paper and Fibre Company, which included adding a new paper mill in East Texas. With the merger, Logan Thomson was made president, Reuben Jr. was vice president, and Reuben Sr. was executive v.p. Two years later, Reuben Jr. moved from North Carolina to work in the General Office Building in Hamilton, a stately building on North B Street that housed roughly 75 Champion office staff. That same year, Dorothy Craig was hired by Champion to work in its General Office Building as an order clerk.
Seventy-five people is a relatively small number of occupants, and Reuben Jr. was a people person. He would make a point of knowing his employees—both those in the office building, and those in all the other buildings too. Dorothy strikes me as a people person too.
Why do I think that? A man named Bill McDulin used to write a folksy column for the Hamilton Journal-News titled “Got a Minute?” that shared newsy tidbits for the locals. McDulin’s guiding principle seemed to be to leave people with a good feeling about themselves and their community. Because they happened to be neighbors, Dorothy Craig, of Carmen Avenue, was mentioned several times in McDulin’s column. In one of his “Remember when” blurbs from 1976, he asked his readers “Remember when Charlie Betz was a member of the Hamilton police department?…Mrs. David (Geraldine) Adkins started writing poetry?”…[and so forth, and then]…Dorothy Craig worked at Champion?”
Literally thousands of people worked at Champion Paper and Fibre Company. For Bill McDulin to have singled out Dorothy over everyone else seems…well, it seems like she must have been known by quite a few people. So without question, Dorothy and Reuben Jr. would have known each other, and not just to say “hello.” Reuben Jr. would have asked Dorothy about Henry and the kids, or sometimes he likely would’ve wanted to know “How are the orders coming in today, Dorothy?” Dorothy would have felt at ease with Reuben Jr. and could answer him honestly, without sugarcoating, even if the news was less than favorable.
Reuben Jr. got his first taste of policymaking on the national stage in 1942, when he was asked to serve on the War Production Board. Although its name sounds as if it was a small group of men in suits sitting around a table and talking about war stuff, the War Production Board was an entire agency tasked with readying the country for WWII. The War Production Board was responsible for converting a variety of domestic manufacturing plants into weapons manufacturers. They’re the agency that coordinated the collection and recycling of aluminum, tin, rubber, steel, and other materials to be used for military purposes. For its part, the Champion Paper and Fibre Company had developed a paper substitute for the aluminum liner that went inside packs of cigarettes. They were brainstorming to that level of detail. And even though people today don’t normally think of foods like coffee and meat as commodities with implications for combat, the War Production Board did, and they formulated strict rules to ration certain foods to conserve resources.
But serving on the War Production Board didn’t stop Reuben Jr. from taking part in the war itself. He also enlisted. From 1942 to 1945, he was an officer in the Control Division of the Army Service Forces, advancing to lieutenant colonel by V-J Day.
Shortly after Reuben Jr.’s return to Hamilton, the Champion Paper and Fibre Company experienced another musical-chairs-style shift in leadership. Logan Thomson died in 1946, and with his death, Reuben Sr. became president. Four years later, Reuben Jr. would be elected president of the company, and his father would be elevated to chairman of the board.
Even with Reuben Jr.’s added responsibilities in running the entire company, Washington continued to call. Over the next five years, he was asked by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to serve in the following ways:
- He was appointed by President Truman to the Wage Stabilization Board, from 1950 to June 1951.
- In 1953, he was appointed by President Eisenhower and Mutual Security Director Harold Stassen to lead a team of businessmen to evaluate the effects of U.S. spending in Germany.
- From 1953 to 1955, he served as vice chair of the Secretary of Commerce’s Business Advisory Council.
- In 1955, he served as vice chair of the Hoover Commission Task Force Committee on Business Organization for the Department of Defense.
So, yeah. The people in the highest posts of all the land were interested in hearing what Reuben Jr. had to say. And…are you ready for this? In 1955, President Eisenhower asked Reuben Jr. to serve as deputy secretary of defense under Secretary Charles Wilson. Which. Was. Huge. Reuben’s company would continue to be in good hands while he was away, since Reuben’s father would take over as president in the interim.
Some have described the deputy secretary of defense as the secretary’s alter ego. The deputy secretary knows everything the secretary knows, including issues pertaining to national security. I would hasten to remind readers that the U.S. was now engaged in the Cold War, so there was a lot to know, national-security-wise. I would quickly add that, on an org chart, the deputy secretary is immediately below the secretary and above anyone else having to do with the Department of Defense (DoD), including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Research and Development Board, the heads of all the military branches, you name it. It was Reuben Jr.’s job to oversee the day-to-day matters involved with managing the largest agency in the federal government. Of course, he was a natural.
Still, while he was in that awesomely important role at the DoD in the middle of the Cold War, Reuben Jr. would commute between Hamilton and D.C. by plane almost daily, according to a knowledgeable source. This was made possible thanks to an airstrip on his home property in Glendale, a small community about 12 miles from Hamilton. With that airstrip, plus the use of the company’s fleet of aircraft maintained at Lunken Airport, and Champion’s team of licensed pilots, Reuben Jr. could rub elbows with the nation’s top brass in the morning and still be home in time for dinner with wife Peggy and their six kids.
Oops, my bad. Did I neglect to mention that Reuben Jr. was an amazing husband and dad? Well, dude was an amazing husband and dad. There’s a photo in the company newsletter, The Log, in which he’s walking hand in hand with two of his children, who were dressed like a cowboy and a cowgirl, and he’s beaming away, dimples fully deployed. It’s so clear that Reuben’s children adored their father, just as Reuben’s employees adored their boss.
You may be wondering what papermaking could possibly have to do with the nation’s defense (other than the manufacture of paper liners for cigarette packs, that is). It had to do with the times they were living in. Back then, paper was—let’s see, I need to be careful not to overstate this—paper was everything. If someone from the DoD had an idea they wanted to put into motion, then they were going to need a sh*t-ton of paper to get that idea across to other people. It’s how the government communicated. It was how information was disseminated. After all, they didn’t earn the name “paper pushers” for nothing. Those ration books? Paper. The Uncle Sam posters asking people to bring in their toothpaste and shaving cream tubes for the tin? Paper. And maps. Millions of paper maps. In an August 1995 article, Jim Blount, a former editor for the Hamilton Journal-News who was also a treasured local historian for many years, shared this information that he’d found in a Champion newsletter concerning the importance of paper during WWII:
“For army maneuvers in 1942 in the Carolinas, 95 tons of paper went into 4.5 million maps. Every soldier in that operation received 21 maps covering the 12,000-square-mile area.
‘All ration cards and instructions must be printed on paper, and there is hardly a branch of this defense wherein paper is not used wholly or in part,’ noted The Log, a Champion publication. ‘It is necessary to plotting systems, giving instructions for air raid precautions, first aid instructions, communications and records of all kinds. Bonds, tax stamps, notes, orders, correspondence, even money itself is paper required by the Treasury Department, and the chances are that the bond you buy or the revenue stamp which is canceled on the can of tobacco is made by Champion.’
The 1942 article said ‘in this greatest of all wars in the history of mankind, there is needed for this year alone, 18 million tons of paper.’”
And that was just WWII. The United States needed paper during the Cold War too, for which 1950 was a banner year. On June 27, 1950, which happened to be Reuben Jr.’s 42nd birthday, the United States had entered the Korean War. On September 4, 1950, then-General Eisenhower—he wouldn’t be president until January 1953—kicked off Crusade for Freedom, a CIA-backed endeavor to raise funds for Radio Free Europe, which, at that time, was a U.S. propaganda tool based in West Germany. Even though it was said to be supported privately by everyday Americans, government dollars were also invested into the printing of stamps, posters, and leaflets by the millions. Some leaflets were used for fundraising at home and abroad. Others were dropped from balloons behind so-called Iron Curtain countries, such as East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, denouncing communism and advertising radio wavelengths and program schedules. Crusade for Freedom, which ran from 1950 to 1960, was a paper-palooza, and Champion Paper was there for it. Reuben Sr. oversaw the crusade’s two-state region of North and South Carolina. You can watch a 5-minute video on the Crusade for Freedom on C-Span’s Classroom program.
There was talk that Reuben Jr. would become defense secretary after Charles Wilson stepped down, but Reuben wasn’t interested. He wanted to be more present for his family, and he tendered his resignation in 1957. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t still have an avid interest in defense. In 1955, the same year in which he started at the DoD, Reuben Jr. kicked off the Chapaco Council—“Chapaco” being the initial letters from the three words Champion, Paper, and Company—which was a series of retreats for company management at Lake Logan in North Carolina. The line-up of speakers was a mix of military might with big names in business, industry, higher education, and journalism.
Speakers representing the U.S. government for the five years in which the retreats were held were:
- 1955: Walter Williams, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce
- 1956: Donald A. Quarles, secretary of the Air Force
- 1957: Wilber M. Brucker, secretary of the Army
- 1958: Wilfred J. McNeil, assistant secretary for defense and comptroller
- 1958 and 1959: Admiral Arthur W. Radford, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Reuben Jr. also hired some of the highest military and intelligence officials the country had to offer to work for Champion Paper and Fibre Company. Conversely, one man, Thomas D. Morris, would be propelled from Champion to the DoD. Here’s the list that I’ve been able to assemble of Reuben’s most decorated hires. To keep things brief, instead of including their entire resume, I included the last position(s) held before they made their career change.
- Col. Kilbourne “Pat” Johnston
- Assistant director of CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, 1950-52
- Champion Paper and Fibre in Texas, 1955
- Champion Headquarters in Hamilton, 1957
- Vice president of Champion Paper and Fibre, 1962
- Thomas D. Morris
- Director of management and planning, asst. to the president of Champion Paper, and Fibre 1958-60
- Assistant secretary of defense
- Installations and Logisitics, Jan 29, 1961-Dec 11, 1964
- Manpower and Personnel, Oct 1, 1965-August 31, 1967
- Installations and Logistics, Sept 1, 1967-Feb 1, 1969
- Col. Karl Bendetsen
- Assistant secretary of the Army, 1950-52
- Undersecretary of the Army, 1952
- Vice president, Texas Division, Champion Paper and Fibre, 1955
- Vice president of operations, Champion Paper and Fibre, Hamilton, 1957
- Vice president, Champion Paper and Fibre, 1960
- Admiral Arthur Radford
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1953-1957
- Consultant for Champion Paper and Fibre, 1957, Washington, D.C. office
- Major General Frederick J. Dau
- Assistant for materiel program coordination to the commander, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, August 1952
- Deputy director of supply and services, WPAFB, November 1952
- Director of supply and services, WPAFB, May l954
- Awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest military award during peacetime, 1959
- Accepted position at Champion Paper and Fibre, 1959
I’d challenge anyone to find a similarly elite cadre of military brass working together at one civilian business anywhere. I have to believe that Reuben Robertson, Jr., was the reason.
Look, there’s no easy way to tell you what happened next. In the early hours of Sunday morning, March 13, 1960, Reuben Jr. was driving home with his wife Peggy from a social engagement in Cincinnati. On a dark stretch of highway, the Robertsons were startled by a car that was sitting in the center lane, unable to move. According to an Associated Press account: “Robertson swerved his Cadillac, but he clipped the stalled car and grazed a passenger who was standing outside.” Evidently, the other car had run out of gas. Of course, Reuben got out of his car to talk to the people in the disabled vehicle, probably to find out if they were OK and to tell them that his insurance would cover the damage to their car. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also offered to bring them back some gas. Suddenly, a drunk driver came careening down the road and knocked into Reuben, throwing him 50 feet into the air. Reuben Buck Robertson, Jr., died almost instantly at the age of 51.
I’m sure you can imagine the news coverage. Everyone who knew him was devastated, including, I’m sure, Dorothy Craig. His memorial service was attended by dignitaries, Champion employees, and family and friends. A memorial issue of The Log was dedicated to his life and career. (I encourage you to download it so you can view all of the pictures.) Miami University’s Board of Trustees, of which Reuben Robertson had been a member since 1957, issued a statement on the loss of their friend and colleague.
Oops, sorry. Did I neglect to mention that Miami University had known Reuben B. Robertson, Jr., quite well? My bad.
UPDATE: Two readers have asked for more details about the accident, wondering if its cause could have been more nefarious in nature. The driver of the car that killed Reuben Jr. was Willie Lee Griffin, age 31, of Rockdale Avenue, in Avondale, Ohio, which is part of Cincinnati. Oddly, he was only charged with drunk and reckless driving even though he killed someone. Vehicular manslaughter, a felony, was definitely a charge that could have been brought against him at that time. Later, in 1967, Ohio law divided the category into first and second degree vehicular manslaughter, with drunk and/or reckless driving considered to be first degree offenses, and therefore, still a felony. I don’t know why they didn’t hold him accountable for Reuben Jr.’s death.