Texans win award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

The Ezzell family of The Canadian Record, a weekly newspaper in Canadian, Texas, are this year’s winners of the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, established the award to honor the couple who this winter celebrated their 50 th anniversary of publishing The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. The Gishes were the first recipients of the award.

Their son, Eagle Editor Ben Gish, was among the judges who unanimously voted to give the award to the Ezzell family. “The Ezzells clearly demonstrate the tenacity, courage and integrity I've been privileged to witness in growing up around and working with my parents,” Gish said. Other judges agreed.

Author and former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent Rudy Abramson, chairman of the Institute’s advisory board and a longtime friend of the Gishes, said “One cannot but notice a number of similarities between the Ezzell family and the Gish family, not the least of which is the continuity their newspaper represents in their community.”

Retired publisher Al Smith, a founder of the Institute and chairman of its steering committee, said: “The story of this gutsy Texas family is as comparable to the Gishes of Kentucky as anyone could imagine.”

The Canadian Record has held local, state and national politicians accountable, fought political extremism, opposed unwise military adventures and helped protect the environment, often against organized and violent opposition. All are “great examples of courage, tenacity and integrity,” Smith said.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was founded to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary, and tries to hold up examples for rural journalists to follow.

Laurie Ezzell Brown, pictured below with her mother, will receive the award on behalf of her family at a dinner Friday, April 20, at the Crowne Plaza Lexington - The Campbell House, 1375 Harrodsburg Road. Other finalists for the award, and Tom and Pat Gish, will be recognized at the dinner. The guest speaker will be John Seigenthaler Sr., founder of the First Amendment Center.

The Gish Award Dinner is part of the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, which the Institute is holding at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill between Lexington and Harrodsburg. Attendance at the summit is limited, but there will be plenty of additional seating at the dinner. Tickets are $75. Proceeds will support the work of the Institute, which has academic partners at 16 universities in 12 states. For more information on the dinner, the Gish Award or the Summit, contact Institute Director Al Cross at 859-257-3744.

The Ezzell Family and The Canadian Record of Canadian, Texas

Based primarily on a nomination letter by Bill Bishop of Austin

The Ezzells, Ben and Nancy, and now their daughter Laurie Ezzell Brown, have been the sole proprietors of The Canadian Record, a weekly newspaper, for more than 50 years.

Ben and Nancy moved to Canadian, a small Texas Panhandle town named for a river, in 1949 when Ben became editor of the Record. Seven years later, they bought the paper. The Record is distinguished by news coverage and commentary. Laurie Ezzell Brown has succeeded her late father as editor, and it seems whatever gene it is that makes for outstanding weekly newspaper editors has been passed on to her. The Ezzells are kind and courageous, probably the reason they have been able to put out the kind of paper they have for more than half a century.

Ben’s first show of courage was a piece he wrote about the John Birch Society. Hearing about a new, secret organization meeting in Amarillo, he drove 100 miles to attend and wrote one of the first stories in the nation about the group in 1961. He warned his readers not to join “if you place any value on your own freedom.” The story was reprinted around the country, and the Record was showered by praise and by hate.

Ben was originally a West Texas conservative who supported Eisenhower and Nixon, but the Vietnam War changed him, and he and his paper vigorously opposed it. Opposition to the war was not a theoretical exercise for a journalist in a small Texas Panhandle town in 1970. After an editorial that ran in May of that year, one of the Record’s largest advertisers published an open letter in the paper and organized an advertising boycott. Ben offered to run his letter at no charge. Following another editorial against the war in 1971, someone fired 19 shots from a pellet gun through the newspaper’s door and plate-glass window. Ben said of the gunshots, “Someone was expressing an editorial opinion. It is a great American privilege.” Another “opinion” was tossed into the Ezzells’ yard and exploded under Laurie’s bedroom window.

In 1993, Ben Ezzell died at the age of 76. He wrote his last editorial in his deathbed at a hospital in Oklahoma City. After his death, Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a man of few kind words for journalists, said “Ben Ezzell was more than just a legend in Texas journalism; I think he was the conscience of the journalistic profession, of the readership and of the politicians.” Nancy still works at The Record every day. Her column, Petticoat Patter, is a Record staple.

Laurie quickly picked up her father’s mantle. She got the man who wanted to be the Panhandle’s newest district attorney to admit that he had a drug addiction. He lost, but sued for libel, costing the Record several thousand dollars in legal fees.

In 1995, Laurie began writing about large-scale corporate hog framing when several operations proposed to move to the Panhandle. Her reporting and editorials over a two-year period prompted Hemphill County commissioners to pass a resolution saying they would not offer such farms any tax incentives for locating in the county. Her reporting also raised the awareness of water rights and groundwater protection in the area.

In 2004, the Record uncovered a plan by the state highway department to cut down more than 1,000 trees that lined a Panhandle highway. Laurie’s research revealed that trees were less hazardous than objects placed along the highway by the state. Eventually the highway department revised its plan, targeting only 97 trees for removal.

One of Laurie’s brothers is the local hospital administrator, and they have fought publicly over how to interpret the state open-meetings law. Journalism in a town of 2,000 people is personal, in a way that urban reporters and editors find difficult to imagine.

“There is no job like this,” Laurie says, “You can make a difference. You can see the changes. You can really stop bad things from happening, which we’ve done a few times. A good newspaper is essential for a small town. And it’s never dull.”

The Ezzells have overcome personal and financial challenges to give rural readers good journalism, just as Tom and Pat Gish have in Whitesburg, Ky., so they are the 2007 winners of the Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.


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) 323-9879

Al Cross, director , al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated:
February 16, 2006