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 2004 at an event announcing the establishment of the award. This article was posted in 2005. Rudy Abramson died in February 2008.

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 eight years.

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 bought it:

“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 natural resource.”

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 strip mining.

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 day’s Eagle.

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 corruption.

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 Kentucky.



Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-3168

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: June 1, 2006