Friends, admirers remember Rudy Abramson as role model for reporters, advocate for rural people

By Al Cross

Rudy Abramson was a role model for reporters and an advocate for rural America who put on no airs and treasured his small-town roots, his friends and admirers said at his memorial service in Washington.

Abramson died Feb. 13, 2008 of injuries suffered in a fall at his home. He was 70 years old. After a stellar career with The Tennessean and the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, he became an acclaimed author and a fighter for the public interest, usually through journalism. He co-founded the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and was chair of its national Advisory Board.

Above all, he was a storyteller, one who “understood the power of storytelling,” said Freedom Forum Chairman and CEO Charles Overby, who presided at Tuesday's service on the top floor of the Freedom Forum’s new Newseum.

With the Capitol dome in the background, and a bluegrass band creating a sort of virtual, aural bridge to rural America, a group of storytellers told stories about a storyteller who never stopped reporting – and at the end of his life was still urging and helping others to report, to serve the public interest that is the core mission of journalism.

“I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a role model or an inspiration to young reporters, but he was,” said former Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler, left. He recalled how, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Abramson fit easily into a newsroom of talented reporters like David Halberstam, Richard Harwood, Tom Wicker, Fred Graham and Bill Kovach. (The latter two were in the crowd of nearly 200 people, which included dozens of other former colleagues and admirers. “It’s a testament to Rudy that so many friends from so many places have gathered here this morning,” Overby said.)

“I don’t know that Rudy ever really knew how good he was – how good he always was,” Seigenthaler said. “There was about him the ability to capture the sense of a story,” no matter the topic, typically by putting it in the context of the people involved. “He captured the personality of every story.”

In their active retirements, Seigenthaler told the crowd, he and his friend, 10 years younger, reflected on the problems facing modern journalism.

“He was imbued with the ethic of his craft. He knew the potential of what he did and what we did,” Seigenthaler said. “He knew the power and the flaws, and he came to a sense, as we talked more recently, of the weaknesses and the loss of enduring values. He was a man who was loyal -- loyal, as I’ve said, to his paper, to his home ground, his place, his country, his craft. Loyal to his friends, and I was blessed to be one.”

“There wasn’t a mean bone in Rudy’s body, but he knew bunk when he saw it,” said Curtis Wilkie, the Overby Fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics in the journalism school at the University of Mississippi.

That blend of kindness and judgment served him well, said George Wilson, a retired Washington Post reporter. “He had this empathy and warmth, and yet he was this complete professional.”

Those qualities were obvious to political commentator Mark Shields, right. “He was a stranger to self-importance and a sworn enemy to smugness,” Shields said. “Rudy never, never forgot where he came from, or the people from who he came. Rudy understood that the one demographic group that could be caricatured could be ridiculed and could be condescended to with total impunity, are the white working-class Americans that did not go to college, and who often live in the rural United States. He was truly the voice for the voiceless.” To listen to a three-minute .mp3 recording of Shields's remarks, click here.

Jack Nelson, Abramson’s longtime colleague at the Times, said his friend “jumped at the chance” to write about his hometown of Cloverdale, Ala., when the Times started a Page One series in which reporters did stories about their hometowns.

Cloverdale, a country crossroads between Florence and the Natchez Trace Parkway, was “still a place where people take you at your word, where good intentions count above everything else, and where self-importance tends to be considered sinful,” Abramson wrote.

“He might as well have been writing about himself,” Nelson said. “You could always take Rudy at his word, his intentions were never in doubt, and . . . he never suffered from self-importance,” despite all the important people and events he covered.

Eventually, Abramson tired of Washington stories that were largely “slicing the same old, dead salami,” and “wanted to write in depth,” Wilson said.

That led him to write an acclaimed biography of Averell Harriman, Spanning the Century, which he finished at Berea College in Kentucky, thanks to a grant that Al Smith helped him get from Mary Bingham of Louisville. As part of the deal, he and Smith visited four other Appalachian colleges to talk with students about journalism and issues.

“Engaging them, Rudy honed his perspective on the region’s complexities,” Smith told the mourners. “It was a transformative experience. His journalism changed. He left the Times. He became a champion of the Appalachian region. Three more books followed – On Hallowed Ground, about the endangered Virginia landmarks like Manassas Battlefield where he led the successful fight against Disney’s proposed theme park; the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, an 1,800-page volume which was a 10-year labor of love for which he and a co-editor also raised the financing; and, still to come, the biography of [Harry] Caudill, who illuminated Appalachia’s woes for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.”

Shields said that in fighting the theme park and becoming an advocate, Abramson was extending one of the core mottoes of journalism: “When it came to comforting the afflicted, or afflicting the comfortable, just ask Michael Eisner whether Rudy Abramson could afflict the comfortable.”

While he was an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, writing an update on Appalachia in 2000 and 2001, Abramson reported to Smith that newspapers in the region, as Smith put it, “lacked the vigor to confront the issues” like poverty, disease, drug abuse, poor schools, local corruption and mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal. That led him and Smith to think up the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Smith quoted Abramson on the Institute: “We are not about crafting pretty paragraphs. We want to change lives for the better.” He concluded, “The Institute, we hope, will be his legacy to all of rural America.”

Overby revealed that Abramson was in line to succeed Wilkie at their alma mater, Ole Miss. “He was always looking to the future,” Overby said. He could have rested on his laurels, but he never did.”

That would not have suited a man who was interested in many things and always looked ahead, implied Jack Hurst, his friend of 47 years and a retired columnist for The Tennessean. “He had the most active, wide-ranging mind that I ever ran across,” Hurst said. “We all need to go forward, with his zestful grin and big appetite for what is ahead. That is the memorial that he would want.”

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.

For Abramson's obituary on this site, with links to other obituaries and stories, click here.

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: 03/05/2009