CHARLESTON, W.Va. — John McGee, local philanthropist and former publisher of the Charleston Daily Mail, died Friday afternoon.Strong, dynamic and generous were words used by McGee’s former colleagues to describe him.
A native of South Carolina, McGee was known for his work in the news business and his generous gifts to Charleston, the city that became his home in 1967. McGee graduated from Davidson College, in North Carolina, before getting into newspapers.
A former executive of Knight Newspapers, McGee often said he was lured to Charleston by Lyell Clay, who was, at the time, leading the Daily Mail. The two built Clay Communications, which was the parent company of the Daily Mail until its properties were sold to Thomson Newspapers in 1987. McGee stayed on as the Daily Mail’s publisher until 1990, when he retired.
“He invigorated the Daily Mail and Clay Communications when he joined Lyell Clay,” said Sam Hindman, former Daily Mail publisher.
Hindman was the executive editor at the Daily Mail when McGee was president of the company and also served as vice president of Clay Communications at one point.
“He pushed the newspaper to become stronger and more competitive with the [Charleston] Gazette and he developed a strong acquisition arm with Clay Communications, which led to them owning three television stations and four other newspapers.”
McGee served on the board of The Associated Press, which was a “tremendous honor” for a publisher in West Virginia, Hindman said.
He said McGee was larger than life in any setting, and while he enjoyed traveling the world with his wife Ruth, who died in 2014, he also had some off-beat pursuits.
McGee enjoyed the circus and, years ago, invited the performers from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to his Charleston home for a party, Hindman said. The performers didn’t end their last show until late, but McGee said they’d come, and they did.
“He wanted to have the animal trainer and the ringmaster and all the high-wire people and clowns,” Hindman said with a laugh. “Otis Laury catered all of his events, and he was there for that one, too. It was very indicative of John McGee. He never thought anything about it. It was his lifestyle.”
The McGees traveled the world, to China, South Africa, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. He produced “supplements to the newspaper” that chronicled their adventures, Hindman said. He met Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in Africa.
Hindman said McGee’s stories were incredible and that he was a good photographer, much to the enjoyment of McGee’s friends, who were invited over to watch slide shows and view photos from the trips.
“He met with world leaders and often pulled off what others would have said was impossible,” Hindman said. “He was an incredible individual and very much a gentleman.
“He was always trying to make Charleston better.”
The McGees paid for the lighting on three of Charleston’s bridges, the South Side Bridge, the Kanawha Boulevard Bridge and the Lee Street Bridge.
The idea for the lights came from one of their trips to London. He and his wife loved London’s bridges, whose beauty was showcased by gleaming lights. They wanted to do the same for Charleston’s bridges.
“The city has been so good to us,” McGee said in 2007. “This is our way of giving back to the community.”
The McGees enjoyed sharing their love of art. They donated “Hallelujah,” a 65-foot-tall metal sculpture that greets visitors at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.
They collected pieces by more than 25 African artists in their travels to the Southern Africa region. The pieces were displayed in the gardens of their South Hills home for years, until the couple donated the art, valued at more than $1 million, to West Virginia University.
The couple also donated funds for a new organ at First Presbyterian Church, their home church, because they missed the old organ that once was there.
McGee was awarded the YMCA’s Spirit of the Valley award in 2003.
Nanya Friend, a retired publisher of the Daily Mail who worked for McGee, said he was a good leader.
“He was a strong, dynamic personality and leader who pushed us to publish the strongest newspaper possible for our readers,” she said. “I considered him both a mentor and friend. Even after retirement, he would stop in to pass along story ideas and tips, or just to give me a pat on the pack.
“It meant a lot.”
She said one of the things she admired about McGee was his devotion to his wife.
“The way he spoke about her in such a loving way, you couldn’t help but admire that,” she said. “She was a big part of who he was.”
Hindman said McGee lived a full life. Friend said McGee lived a big life.