Publishers of Mountain
Eagle get award named for them
Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle
in Whitesburg, Ky., accepted on Feb. 28, 2005 the first Gish Award,
which the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
will give to rural journalists who demonstrate courage, tenacity
and integrity often needed to render public service through journalism.
The award was presented at the Institute's first conference for
journalists, on covering health care and health in Central Appalachia,
at the University of Kentucky's Center for Rural Health in Hazard,
Ky. The following article is adapted from the tribute to the Gishes
at the presentation of the award.
Tom and Pat Gish spoke in October at
an event announcing the establishment of the award.
By Rudy Abramson, Advisory Board Chair,
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
On November 22, 1956, The Mountain Eagle carried a front page
story reporting that W. P. Nolan and his wife Martha had sold
the newspaper they had published since 1938 to Tom and Pat Gish.
Tom was a Whitesburg boy who had made good. Ever since graduating
from journalism school at the University of Kentucky he had worked
for the old United Press, mostly covering the state capital of
Frankfort. Pat, a Paris, Ky., girl, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate
of UK and a former editor of the Kentucky Kernel, had been a reporter
for the old Lexington Leader, covering a variety of beats for
The Mountain Eagle purchased by the Gishes was an unremarkable,
fairly typical weekly paper. Its masthead accurately proclaimed
it “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every
Thursday.” To give you its flavor, I will read you the lead
from its story at the top of Page 1 not long before Tom and Pat
“On Thursday, March 4, the Kiwanis Club of Jenkins has
the pleasure of presenting Mr. P.L. McElroy, vice president of
Consolidation Coal Company, Pittsburgh, Pa., who will deliver
a lecture entitled, ‘The Future of Coal.’ . . . Mr.
McElroy is well versed on all phases of the coal industry and
is thoroughly qualified to speak on all aspects of our most abundant
There was no reason for folks in Whitesburg to expect that new
ownership at the Eagle portended great change. But that’s
exactly what was in store.
The Gishes had put out just two issues of their paper when Whitesburg,
Hazard, and other communities were devastated by the worst flooding
in a generation. Their coverage was fantastic. It equaled that
of the Lexington and Louisville papers and it followed up on the
story long after the city papers had forgotten it.
But notwithstanding the natural disaster, there was not a lot
of obvious breaking news in Whitesburg and Letcher County in the
late 1950s, and the so the Gishes turned to seriously covering
the business of public agencies. They had not bought the Eagle
with a strategy of launching crusades, but they quickly found
themselves in an inevitable role of crusaders.
In those days in Whitesburg, as in many if not most small towns
of Appalachia and elsewhere, public business was conducted with
little public knowledge. Tom and Pat surprised city and county
officials by showing up for their meetings. They surprised them
even more when they began to report what was said and done, and
this went against the grain of a lot of them.
The county school board, for instance, was the biggest public
employer in the county. It had its meetings in a little room with
seating space only for its members. Citizens who had business
with the board were called in one at a time. Often they were dismissed
with their issue left to be addressed by the board in private.
No doubt to the astonishment of board members, Pat Gish began
standing in a corner through these meetings and reporting the
proceedings in the Eagle.
It didn’t take long for the board to adopt a resolution
saying press coverage of its meeting was not permitted, and it
didn’t take long for other public agencies to follow suit.
But this outrage was only the beginning. There followed, as most
of you know, efforts to drive the Gishes out of business with
advertising boycotts, competition, and eventually even arson.
The doctor who delivered Tom Gish into the world was the school
board chairman and the political boss of Letcher County, and he
put out word that school board employees were not to buy the Mountain
Eagle. Along Main Street in Whitesburg, word was spread that Tom
was a Communist. The Eagle lost for all time its major advertiser,
an automobile dealer, which had been largely responsible for keeping
the paper’s books in the black.
All of this took place at an extraordinary time. Appalachia’s
wartime and post-war coal boom had collapsed. Throughout the fifties,
families left Whitesburg and Letcher County in droves. The population
had fallen by half, and thriving communities, such as Seco where
Tom Gish grew up, withered away.
Mechanization of the mines not only threw tens of thousands of
miners out of work, it brought environmental havoc to the mountains.
The Gishes’ Mountain Eagle, having replaced its “Friendly
Bipartisan Newspaper” label with the defiant slogan, “It
Screams,” became perhaps the country’s most defiant,
most consistent, and most compelling voice against strip and auger
mining in Appalachia.
The Eagle pulled no punches.
In 1960, its editorial leveled scathing criticism at Bert Combs,
a mountain neighbor who would long be regarded as one of Kentucky’s
most progressive governors, for failing to take a stronger stand
against strip mining and for doing too little to address the economic
distress of the mountains.
There were times when anarchy and insurrection loomed. The National
Guard had to be sent in to prevent violence in the coal fields;
The Eagle reported meetings in which citizens seriously suggested
withdrawing from the state.
One Mountain Eagle editorial opined, “If five or ten thousand
Letcher county residents went to Frankfort and pitched tents on
the governor’s lawn and stayed until he put in an appearance,
Combs might pay some attention to us.” Perhaps anyone who
presumes to teach journalism in Appalachia ought to require a
reading of editorials in The Mountain Eagle during the bad old
days of the Sixties.
It quickly became one of the first news organizations to charge
the federal government itself — specifically, the Tennessee
Valley Authority — with being one of the major causes of
With the publication of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes
to the Cumberlands in 1963, the ravages of strip mining,
mountain poverty, and the condition of schools became national
news stories, and Whitesburg became a frequent destination for
magazine and newspaper reporters and television crews.
Readers of the Mountain Eagle were already familiar with places
such as Beefhide Creek, which Caudill made famous. They already
knew about TVA coal contracts that accelerated the spread of strip
mining across Appalachia. They already knew about the deplorable
condition of schools. Letcher County had nearly 70 one and two
room schools when the Gishes began writing about the system, and
The Eagle called most of them unfit for human habitation. Tom
bitingly observed that Albert Einstein would have lacked qualification
to teach algebra at Whitesburg High School.
In November 1963, shortly after the publication of Caudill’s
book, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Homer Bigart
traveled the hollows and mountain roads of Eastern Kentucky and
wrote that Christmas would find many citizens facing serious hunger.
His article brought an outpouring of food and clothing from across
the country and became a landmark as the federal government considered
an economic aid program for Appalachia. Interestingly, four years
before Bigart’s article, a piece in the Mountain Eagle had
begun with almost the same sentence: “ Many Letcher County
homes will miss a visit from Santa Claus this year unless some
of Santa’s helpers get to work immediately. Some may even
do without a Christmas Day.”
As the national press, the White House, and Congress discovered
Appalachian poverty, Tom Gish and Harry Caudill became the most
prominent spokesmen for the region. Caudill’s law office
and the Gishes’ newspaper office became the places outside
reporters went first for tips, for information, and for quotes.
Bill Bishop, a 1970s Mountain Eagle reporter who now writes for
the Austin American-Statesman, remembers the day after the 1976
Scotia mine disaster when a New York Times reporter arrived in
Whitesburg on deadline. The pages for the next day’s Mountain
Eagle were already made up and were about to be loaded into Tom’s
car and taken to the press. The Timesman grabbed and phone and
dictated a story directly from the article written for the next
Not surprisingly, a great many local people deeply resented the
national spotlight, and some blamed Gish and Caudill for negative
portrayals. One local official threatened a BBC film crew filming
citizens lined up to receive government food handouts. Later,
a producer for a Canadian television crew was shot to death.
Through it all the Gishes remained stubbornly undaunted. Jim
Branscome, who was the point man in pressuring TVA to open its
board meetings when he was a young stringer in Knoxville for the
Eagle, still recalls arriving in Whitesburg the day after an arsonist
hired by a Whitesburg policeman had torched the newspaper’s
offices. He went to the Gishes’ house and there sat Tom
on the porch hunched over a typewriter, composing a story for
the next issue. The issue appeared on schedule, with a famously
altered motto on its masthead: "It still screams."
“Here he was not far away from his heart attack, having
quit a five pack a day habit,” Branscome recalled recently.
“And here he was determined to get out a few pages, just
to let all the bastards know the Eagle was still screaming. Was
it an incredible act of courage, commitment, or just plain mountain
stubbornness? I still haven’t figured out the proportions
of these three things, but I am leaning toward the last one as
explaining a lot.”
It should also be said that The Mountain Eagle has done much
more than fight for open access, expose strip mining, and expose
Every reporter and editor who came to work at the paper was instructed
that the community columns by Siller Brown, Mabel Kiser and the
other columnists who reported the illnesses, doings, and deaths
from Millstone, Neon, and elsewhere around the county were not
to be touched. Community columns continue to be an Eagle mainstay
even though Mabel and others who first worked for the Gishes have
gone to their rewards.
It’s very hard to sum up Tom and Pat. I have not even touched
upon the things they’ve done outside the Eagle, the fine
family they have reared, or their contributions such as Tom’s
work on behalf of education in Kentucky, including a term on the
state school board.
Others who presented awards to them have talked of many of the
same things I have mentioned here. But the most cogent statement
I have seen was sent to me last week by Tom Bethell, another fine
editor and journalist who worked at the Eagle during the turbulent
sixties, and I would like to quote him:
“They have produced week after week, nearly 3,000 times
so far, a living, breathing, working definition of what good rural
journalism is all about. They have always paid close attention
to what could be described, wrongly, as the small stuff. In the
pages of the Eagle you can count on knowing when the redbuds are
blossoming and how the mist looks on Pine Mountain, who has come
home for the holidays, who owes back taxes, and who has died.”
Recalling how the Eagle covered TVA, the War on Poverty, the
Vietnam War, and the Watergate caper, Bethell went on: “One
of the many reasons why Tom and Pat are great journalists is that
they have always understood that there is almost no such thing
as a strictly local story, and they have been willing to follow
the story wherever it takes them. That, surely, should be a model
and a mantra for rural journalists wherever they are.”
Over the past several years, the Gish team has received awards
from professional associations, universities, civic organizations,
and other publications, and national honors named for people from
Helen Thomas to Elijah Lovejoy. Now, the fledgling Institute for
Rural Journalism and Community Issues institutes an award —
maybe we should call it a Prize — named for the Gishes.
From time to time, it will be bestowed upon a person or persons
considered to have demonstrated the courage and tenacity that
have made Tom and Pat icons of community journalism, and that
are often necessary to render public service through journalism
in rural America.
Frankly, I think this overlooks an even more important Gish trait
— integrity. It has been their personal integrity that has
made their courage, commitment, and tenacity so meaningful.
And so, I am honored to present the first Tom and Pat Gish Award
to its namesakes — two great journalists, two fine people,
and two sterling citizens of Appalachia and the Commonwealth of