Rudy Abramson, acclaimed author and co-founder of Institute for Rural Journalism, passes away

Rudy Abramson, a nationally known journalist who helped start Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, died Feb. 13 from injuries suffered in a fall at his home in Reston, Va. He was 70.

A Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times for 30 years, he wrote a highly praised biography of American statesman Averell Harriman, co-edited with Jean Haskell the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and was nearing completion of a biography of legendary Eastern Kentucky lawyer and author Harry Caudill. He also led an effort that kept an amusement park from being built next to a Civil War battelfield.

“Although he was always a big city reporter, Rudy never forgot his rural roots in northern Alabama,” said Al Smith, the Lexington journalist who co-founded the Institute with Abramson. “He was passionately concerned about environmental and economic problems in Appalachia. While writing stories about the region, he concluded that one major improvement might be to help local news folks do a better job covering the serious issues. That’s how we came up with the ideas for the Institute, which we sold to President Lee Todd at UK.”

The Institute did its first work in Appalachia and remains rooted in the region, which was the subject of the 2006 encyclopedia. He told Howard Berkes of National Public Radio in a 2006 interview about the encyclopedia that the word "hillbilly" first appeared "in the New York Sun about 1900 and the definition of it was a white person from Alabama without visible means of support, ambition or much of anything else. And I suppose that was one of the reasons that I got involved in this project. It seems that I'm the absolute hillbilly by that definition."

From humble beginnings, Rudy Abramson went on to touch many lives all over the country. Smith said, "I remain, with others, just stunned that this brilliant, dedicated and compassionate man is gone. He was so helpful, so engaged with fellow humans who tried to make a difference. In our friendship of 30 years, I never doubted he was one of the most important journalists in the country. In his death, I know more than ever, how much I loved him, and how vacant my life has become in the hours since I heard."

"It's a big loss for Appalachian journalism," said Ken Ward Jr., coal reporter for The Charleston Gazette, noting the reporting Rudy did on mountaintop- removal strip mining for coal with an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, and the help he gave Ward in getting his own Patterson fellowship to produce a series on coal-mine safety.

Abramson was born in Florence, Ala., on Aug. 31, 1937, one of 19 children. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1958, he became a political reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville. He joined the Times in 1965, when this photo was taken. At the Times, “He had a part in just about every major story for 30 years,” said a longtime colleague, Richard T. Cooper. He was hired to cover science and became one of the first national reporters assigned to the space program. He covered the development of the Apollo 11 mission and the first manned landing on the moon in 1969. He was the paper's White House correspondent when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and before that covered the Vietnam War policy debates, the bombing of Cambodia, the Watergate scandal and the Nixon impeachment hearings.

Abramson authored the widely acclaimed Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986, published in 1992, and Hallowed Ground: Preserving America’s Heritage, published in 1996, about the Piedmont region of northern Virginia, where some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place. While writing the book, he helped organize opposition to a plan by the Walt Disney Co. to build a history theme park near the Manassas Battlefield. As executive director of the ad hoc group Protect Historic America, he helped recruit prominent writers and historians such as including William Styron, Shelby Foote and C. Vann Woodward to defeat the proposal, which they believed would desecrate a region known for its natural beauty and historical importance. The effort made national headlines, and Disney withdrew the plan in 1994.

"After leaving the Times in 1996, Abramson became one of the most prolific and powerful voices for and about rural communities," says the Daily Yonder, the online rural news site that he helped start after getting the Institute for Rural Journalism off the ground. He was chairman of the Institute's national Advisory Board at the time of his death. He wrote about how coal mining in Appalachia had "outgrown human dimension," and in 2002, he wrote a column that sparked a successful effort to keep CBS from producing a reality version of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Abramson's latest subject was Caudill, a Kentucky lawyer, author and environmentalist whose 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the underdevelopment of Appalachia and helped start the War on Poverty. Caudill committed suicide in 1990 when he was 68 and facing an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease. In researching the book, Abramson came to appreciate the strong alliance between Caudill and Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle, the crusading weekly newspaper in their hometown of Whitesburg. "I don't remember my parents ever being this upset over the death of a friend," said the Gishes' son, Ben. "Harry Caudill's former law partner walked in and said the news of Rudy's death left him feeling just like he did when Harry died — that the community library had just burned down." This photo shows Rudy helping with the presentation of the Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism to the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Texas at the Institute's April 2007 National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. Laurie Ezzell Brown offered this reflection on Rudy's death: "There are no great losses, though, without there first being great gains."

Rudy Paulk Abramson is survived by his wife, Joyce; daughters Kristin and Karin; and three grandchildren. Cremation was chosen. A memorial service was held Feb. 26 at the Freedom Forum's new Newseum in Washington. Speakers included Freedom Forum Chairman Charles Overby; political commentator Mark Shields, Curtis Wilkie, former Boston Globe political writer and fellow of the Overby Center at the journalism school of Rudy's alma mater, the University of Mississippi; Jack Nelson, retired correspondent for the Los Angeles Times; John Seigenthaler, founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and former editor and publisher of The Tennessean and former editorial director of USA Today; Jack Hurst, retired columnist for The Tennessean; and Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute and chair of its Steering Committee. Watch this space for a report on the service.

The family asks that memorial gifts be made to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, at the address below, or the New Opportunity School for Women at Berea College.

You are invited to post memories of Rudy Abramson on The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com/2008/02/rudy-abramson-author-and-co-founder-of.html

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 02/29/2008