Former McDowell News owner/publisher Gene Fowler dies at 91

Gene Fowler

A man who was the guiding force of The McDowell News throughout the decade of the 1970s has died.

Gene Fowler, former president of Great Southern Media Inc. and publisher of The McDowell News from 1969 until 1982, died Monday at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia at the age of 91.

Fowler took over the newspaper from former owner-publisher John W. Setzer, who had overseen operations since 1944. Fowler came to Marion from Spartanburg, S.C., where he had been classified advertising manager for the Spartanburg Herald Journal with previous newspaper experience in Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio, Washington, D.C., Georgia and Florida.

Fowler remained publisher until the paper was purchased by media executive Roy H. Park in 1982. Since then, The McDowell News has been owned by Media General and is currently owned by BH Media, part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

David Setzer, who would himself became publisher of The McDowell News, was advertising director from 1969 until 1972, working closely with Fowler.

“He took a liking to McDowell County and Marion and to the people of the community,” Setzer, now retired, said on Tuesday. “He was energetic and outgoing and quickly became a part of the community.”

Setzer left to oversee newspaper properties in Mississippi before later returning and becoming publisher.

Susan Gossett, advertising assistant for The McDowell News, also worked with Fowler.

“I owe my 40-year newspaper career to Gene Fowler,” Gossett said. “Upon graduating from MHS in 1978, I applied for a job at The McDowell News and it just so happened there was a typesetting position available. Other than the journalism classes I had taken in high school, I had no newspaper experience whatsoever, but Mr. Fowler must have seen something in me, and hired me on the spot for the position and for that I will always be grateful.”

Gossett said Fowler “could be very intimidating with his very stern voice as he made sure deadlines were met and the press was rolling on time. He was however, a fair and respected man who was always willing to listen to his employees even if he didn’t always agree with them.”

Gossett said in winter months when the roads were icy and snow covered, Fowler would pick up anyone who needed a ride to work.

“And then would make sure each of us got safely back home,” she said. “That was just the kind of man he was, and he will be missed.”

Scott Hollifield, editor of The McDowell News since 1996, grew up with Fowler’s oldest son, Gene Fowler Jr., who followed in his father’s newspaper footsteps and currently serves as publisher of The Watauga Democrat in Boone. He recalled visits to the newspaper office with young Gene when he was a child.

“It was a wild, noisy, chaotic place when deadlines neared and the press started running,” Hollifield said. “It was filled with big, colorful characters, and Mr. Fowler was the biggest, most colorful character of all. I figured it would not be a bad place to work someday and it turns out that was true.”

Funeral arrangements for Fowler were incomplete at deadline.

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