Hollywood — Hollywood -- James M. McKay describes himself as a plain-spoken farmer who doesn't look down his nose at other people. He's an octogenarian who has traded his car for a Gator, a golf cart-like vehicle he drives down a dirt road to get to his office in this old Southern Maryland tobacco town.
He's a former politician and a business executive who owns a chain of four grocery stores. And he's a garrulous, squiggly browed great-grandfather of 23 who lives on the farm where he was raised and goes home every day to eat a homemade lunch on flowery china with his wife of six decades.
As of this month, McKay has a new claim to fame: He's a newspaper publisher.
Though he has a head of shining white hair, his hands are crooked from arthritis and he is losing his eyesight, McKay has little taste for leisure. In a frisky mood after overcoming some health problems a couple of years ago, he decided to pour his excess energy into fulfilling a longtime dream of owning a paper. He launched the weekly County Times, an earnest if amateurish publication about St. Mary's County, on Nov. 2 -- just days after his 87th birthday.
"I've always been an avid reader of the papers, and I thought, 'Well, gee, I'd like to publish a paper,'" McKay said.
As a young politician -- "and I wasn't too young at that" -- he would muse about how, with the power of the press behind him, he could "put myself in a different light."
"Most people who read about themselves in the paper would like to change words around to suit themselves," he said.
For a long time, thanks to the exigencies that come with raising eight children, he wasn't financially fixed for such an undertaking. But with his children grown and business humming, he was ready to "take the bit in my mouth."
"What do you do when you're my age and still feel vigorous and want to do something?" said McKay, who until recently awoke at 3:30 a.m. once a week to scrub the floors of his Hollywood grocery.
He says he is putting about $500,000 into what he describes as "a total community paper, one devoted to telling people what's happening around them."
St. Mary's County, a once-sleepy farming enclave, has grown along with the rest of Southern Maryland in recent years. As development sprouts and the population increases, the community has had to deal with such problems as traffic and sprawl -- and those are among the issues McKay hopes to cover.
"I want reporters to be fair and to report the truth whether it's good or bad," he said. "I don't want them to make up a damn lie."
The publishing business is virgin territory for McKay, but he says he is not the least bit anxious.
"Hell, no!" he said. "I get nervous when I get in the car with my wife driving." Running a paper pales in comparison, he said, but hurriedly added, "She's a fine lady. I call her 'my angel.'"
McKay's grand aspirations were met initially with some scoffing. McKay's son, Thomas McKay, has been president of the St. Mary's County commissioners and was in the midst of a campaign to become a state senator when his father announced his publishing plans. Many dismissed the paper as a thinly disguised vehicle to buy good news coverage for his offspring.
McKay played down the criticism, pointing out that if his sole purpose was to help his son, he would have published sooner -- not a week before the election.
His son lost, but not before a small tempest. The county is home to two other papers, The Enterprise, a twice-weekly broadsheet published by Post-Newsweek Media Inc., and St. Mary's Today, a tabloid with screaming headlines and bright yellow covers intended to denote a love of yellow journalism.
St. Mary's Today discovered that Thomas McKay's campaign literature incorrectly stated that he had graduated from college, a misrepresentation for which the younger McKay eventually issued an apology. The story broke right before publication of the first issue of the County Times. The paper dutifully, if ungracefully, reported the story under the headline, "Senate race exposes candidate oversights."
"It was awkward, but to protect the newspaper's reputation, it was necessary," said managing editor Bryan Jaffe. McKay has been insisting the paper isn't a "political football," Jaffe said, "and I wanted to make sure we didn't make a liar out of him."
McKay is an old-fashioned gentleman who is good on his word, Jaffe said -- and many in town will say as much. Even the St. Mary's Today publisher, who derided his competition as a "snoozepaper," was willing to dish out a few compliments.
"He's a nice guy, well thought of. He's courteous to people. He carries groceries to their cars," said Kenneth C. Rossignol of St. Mary's Today. "There's nobody who won't say legions of nice things about the McKay family and how they run their grocery stores."
McKay's story, as he tells it in his booming voice -- and he can be a rambler -- is a humble one. He grew up with 11 siblings on the old Woodpecker farm, where he lives today with his wife. His parents grew tobacco, corn and wheat, and his mother raised gobblers.
As a young man, McKay worked at Bethlehem Steel and Consolidated Engineering Co. before serving for two years in the Navy during World War II. He opened his first grocery store while working at what is now the Patuxent River Naval Air Station until 1968, when he left his government job to run his food stores full time.
McKay served one term in the House of Delegates in 1970 and was the president of the County Commission from 1974 to 1978 before dropping out of politics. He switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1994.
"As people get old and people start to do leisurely things, their minds start to relax and they get older," said Ed McKay, his youngest son and a partner in the publishing company. "This keeps him going. If it can keep him going for another 10 years, more power to him."
Though the senior McKay puts a bright face on it, the paper got off to a wobbly start.
A mix-up with the printer about ad design caused major headaches; the tiny staff missed deadlines as they raced to pull together the first edition. And McKay already has a disgruntled former employee: Debbie Kelly, the woman initially hired to be the advertising director, had to undergo emergency back surgery, then complained of medical discrimination when McKay refused to sign her job contract. She called McKay "nasty" and "unprofessional" and said she is filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. McKay said he didn't want to comment on personnel matters.
"We've been busy," a weary-looking Jaffe said with a sigh. McKay himself acknowledged that the paper's content -- while improving -- could stand some polishing. He was dismayed to see people thumbing quickly through the paper without stopping to read anything carefully.
On the other hand, 11,000 copies of the free paper did come out and find their way to potential readers through the mail and various outlets. The paper has published articles about standard bread-and-butter local issues such as elections and school overcrowding, as well as obituaries and sports stories. McKay is talking about breaking even in 18 months and possibly going to a twice-weekly publishing schedule.
"My knowledge is limited, but if you hire good people and have good intentions, you can be successful," he said.
It was just about lunchtime, and McKay was standing outside. Fall is such a beautiful but sad time of year, he said with a farmer's wistfulness, looking around at the golden leaves.
Then he left his office, hopped into his Gator and drove home to have beef stew for lunch with his wife.