Josiah Pollard Rowe III, the former owner and publisher of The Free Lance–Star, a two-time Fredericksburg mayor and tennis player who was a driving force to establish two local indoor tennis complexes, died Saturday afternoon at his home, surrounded by his family. He was 90.
Rowe was born Feb. 24, 1928, to Josiah P. Rowe Jr. and Genevieve Sinclaire Bailey Rowe in Fredericksburg. He grew up setting hot metal type for the family’s newspaper after school, and could recite a Linotype keyboard horizontally and vertically long afterward.
He graduated from Washington and Lee University and studied printing management at the Carnegie Institute of Technology for a semester. When their father died in 1949, Rowe and his brother, Charles S. Rowe, were called home to manage the newspaper. Under the Rowes’ leadership, The Free Lance–Star’s circulation grew from 6,437 to a high of 50,000 as a seven-day newspaper, and the business was expanded to include WFLS and fredericksburg.com.
Time magazine picked the paper as an outstanding small daily in 1984, citing among other things its “determined efforts in the area of freedom of information.” The paper earned similar recognition from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism in 1989.
Rowe worked at The Free Lance–Star his entire career, and was known for his keen attention to detail and concern for his employees.
“No one captured the spirit of The Free Lance-Star as a ‘family newspaper’ more than did Joe Rowe,” said Ed Jones, who retired as the paper’s editor in 2013 after 48 years at the FLS. “He was the one person who knew how to operate every piece of machinery in the building. He was as skilled at catching typos as he was at adjusting the settings on the printing press.
“He cared deeply about meeting the highest standards in every facet of his businesses, and that devotion inspired his staff—many of them decades-long employees—to care just as much,” Jones added. “We have lost an inspiring champion of our community with the passing of Joe Rowe.”
Elaine Satterfield, who worked in the newspaper’s advertising department for more than 46 years, said Rowe would mark mistakes in the paper with a red pen, and send her a note if he caught one in an ad. A misspelling of Fredericksburg was a particular peeve.
She also recalled that she was on maternity leave when the paper began offering a 401(k) plan and hadn’t signed up before coming back to work. Rowe called her into his office, explained the plan and told her that she needed to enroll.
“I’m glad I did,” she said. “He was an extraordinary man, and I was lucky to work with him.”
Rowe purchased his brother’s share of The Free Lance–Star after Charles Rowe retired as editor and co-publisher in 1997. He remained interested in adopting new technologies, and was instrumental in building Print Innovators, the company’s state-of-the-art printing plant. It opened in the Battlefield Industrial Park in Fredericksburg in 2010 just before Rowe retired.
Rowe served as president of the Virginia Press Association and on the Newspaper Association of America’s technology and communications committee. He was picked for induction into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in 1994, and was named to the AP Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame in 2010.
Ginger Stanley, the Virginia Press Association’s former executive director, said that VPA conferences were always a highlight for Rowe and his family, especially since The Free Lance–Star won the sweepstakes award in its division year after year. He also encouraged her lobbying efforts at the General Assembly, and would drive to Richmond to help out.
Following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Rowe ran for and was elected mayor of Fredericksburg. He served from 1964 to 1972.
During his tenure, the city purchased 4,800 acres along the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to protect its drinking water. That created one of the best preserved stretches of river in the East Coast, protecting wildlife and water quality and providing recreational activities for local residents and visitors in perpetuity.
“There’s a 30-mile stretch of protected riverfront upriver from Fredericksburg that make it unique in Virginia and probably in the whole East Coast,” Woody Walker with Friends of the Rappahannock was quoted as saying in an article about Rowe that ran in The Free Lance–Star’s Discover magazine in October 2017.
The Rev. Lawrence A. Davies, another former Fredericksburg mayor, remembered how the city mourned Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968 by holding a memorial service that began with a three-block march from Mount Zion Baptist Church to St. George’s Episcopal Church. Rowe joined him and other city leaders in a procession, which Davies credits with helping the community escape the violence and destruction that erupted elsewhere.
Rowe also served six years on the city’s School Board and did stints as president and board chairman of Mary Washington Hospital. He was active in a number of other organizations, as well, including serving as trustee of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, board chairman of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now part of Union Presbyterian Seminary), Mary Washington Hospital Foundation, George Washington Foundation, C & P Telephone Co. and First Virginia Bank.
He was also a leader in several roles for The Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg, and president of the Fredericksburg Area Community Fund and the United Community Funds and Councils of Virginia.
The Fredericksburg Jaycees named him outstanding man of the year in 1965, and he received the Fredericksburg Area Chamber of Commerce Citizenship Award in 1972. He was recently recognized by the Fredericksburg Rotary Club for 60 years of active service.
“I know of no one who has contributed so much to the betterment of this community as Joe Rowe. He was involved in almost every aspect, and he worked tirelessly to make the community better for everyone,” said Hilldrup Chairman Charles McDaniel. “He was not loud or outgoing, but reserved, dignified and a real gentleman. It was always a pleasure to be in his company.”
Rowe grew up playing tennis on a dirt court behind the family home, developing a lifelong love of the sport. He helped push for and finance indoor tennis complexes at the University of Mary Washington and the Massad Family YMCA facility in Stafford County.
“There’s no doubt that he’s been a pillar of the community in so many ways,” said Ed Hegmann, who retired in 2012 as UMW’s athletic director. “When the [Fredericksburg] Country Club was having a hard time finding a place for tennis, he called and asked if I wanted to have indoor courts at UMW. Two days later, we met with Dr. [then UMW President William] Anderson, and right on the spot, he said, ‘Tell you what. I’ll give you $1 million toward a center. How would that be?’ ”
Hegmann’s response was, “Absolutely,” and the university was able to raise the remaining $3.2 million to make the indoor courts a reality. At Rowe’s request, the facility is open to the public and doesn’t bear his name.
“That’s just the way he wanted to be, in the background,” Hegmann said.
Barney Reiley, the Rappahannock Area YMCA’s CEO, said Rowe also “pretty much single-handedly brought tennis to the Y, which is typically not the business model for a Y. Joe, as a catalyst, enabled the Y to serve as a hub of tennis for the community.”
Rowe’s financial generosity helped fund the Rowe Tennis Center at the Massad YMCA in Stafford County, and he asked Reilly to promise that outdoor courts would be built to complement the indoor center. Rowe got to attend the groundbreaking for six outdoor courts at the Massad YMCA in September 2017.
“I’m so happy that we were able to accomplish that while he was alive,” Reiley said.
Rowe and his wife of 53 years, the late Anne Wilson Rowe, were generous philanthropists who contributed to institutions that reflected their interest in higher education, faith and community.
“My father loved Fredericksburg,” said his daughter, Jeanette Cadwallender. “It was his hometown. He wanted the best for this city, and he did everything in his power to bring it along. It’s a huge legacy, and one that I’m very proud of him for having done.”
Besides his wife, Rowe was predeceased by his siblings, Charles and Diana. In addition to Cadwallender, he is survived by three other children, Florence Barnick, Sallie Roberts and Josiah P. Rowe IV; 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The funeral will be 11 a.m. Friday at the Presbyterian Church, with burial to follow in the Fredericksburg Cemetery.
Friends may call on the family from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fellowship Hall of the Presbyterian Church.
Contributions in his memory may be made to Union Presbyterian Seminary, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Fredericksburg Cemetery or Friends of the Rappahannock.