Al Smith: ‘No Bigger Job’

'Somewhere that night, between consciousness and dreaming, I told myself that Logan County was a microcosm of Kentucky, maybe even of the world. There was no bigger job than the one I had.'

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Editor’s Note: We can’t say enough good things about Al Smith’s memoir, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism. Smith was a Kentucky weekly newspaper editor who served as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If there was something to be done for rural arts or education, Al was there. He was named a “Rural Hero” at the first National Rural Assembly in 2007. He learned that there was “no bigger job” than editing a rural newspaper.

Here are three excerpts from Wordsmith. You can buy a copy here

Editing a Weekly

Russellville was no New Orleans. I was physically closer to my Kentucky writers and our three thousand readers than I ever had been in my earlier career.

In rural journalism, unlike at the big dailies, there is no guard in the front lobby, no elevator separating the newsroom from the folks on the street. Visitors who are mad over something don’t sign in; they barge in.

Running a small town paper is very personal. The country editor who criticizes the mayor or the county attorney in print may be sitting next to him or her at the Rotary Club lunch the next day. Their kids play ball or go on Scout trips together; their spouses may work in the same office.

If you can’t stand confrontations, editing a rural newspaper will take the starch out of you. If you stick to telling the news in full, the unpleasant facts you publish will keep you on a hot skillet with something.

The flip side? Some of your readers may agree with you….

Delivering the News

On press nights, as Dan Knotts delivered bundles of papers around town, I took a bundle to Perry’s Café where I usually went for a late supper.

Elvis Perry, a portly gent with a fetching smile, sold hamburgers, puny salads, bakery pies and two kinds of stew. The basic fare was also available behind a side door for “colored.” The place was so segregated that I never saw a black face inside it. Nor was there a restroom for black customers, although I don’t remember one for whites, either. When “Popcorn” Carter, our assistant press foreman, got his dinner at Perry’s, he and I ate the same food. We just couldn’t eat it together.

At Perry’s front counter, where I deposited my stack of freshly printed News-Democrats, rows of gleaming pistols were for sale in the glass display case. I never bought one, but I witnessed those who did. When Elvis made a firearms sale, no paperwork was exchanged — just dollar bills.

Elvis greeted me the same way every press night. Shoving a cup of coffee at me without being asked, he would say, “Hi, Al. What’s in the old scandal sheet tonight?”

Then, before I could answer: “Don’t tell me what’s in that paper. I bet I already know. But can you tell me what you didn’t print? Tell me — who got caught?”

A Job in the Big City?

Norman Isaacs, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal’s executive editor, had shown he was interested (in me) when he commissioned me to write an article on rural journalism for the Bulletin of the Society of American Newspaper Editors.

Still carless (for that matter, I had no driver’s license either), I took the bus to Louisville for an interview. Isaacs said he’d like to hire me if I were interested. First, though, I would have to be cleared by two of his rising managerial stars.

George Gill and Michael Davies, both talented men, were Isaacs’s young tigers. But I, too, had been a young tiger — at two big city dailies — and had managed reporters when I was younger than they.

Reflecting about the Isaacs interview on the bus for Russellville, I rebelled at the thought of further scrutiny by Bingham company managers. (Editor’s Note: The Louisville paper was owned by the Bingham family.)

It was like being back at Vanderbilt again. I was different from many students on that campus, and I made little attempt to conform. No fraternity if that meant some sort of social test. No classes unless I taught them (admittedly, a bad joke which concealed the real truth — I was an alcoholic). I did it my way, or I didn’t do it at all.

I admired The Courier-Journal immensely and was flattered when Isaacs sought my opinion about small papers. But I was startled to conclude that I wouldn’t be happy working for Gill, Davies, or even Isaacs himself.

That night I called Nat Caldwell, the top reporter at The (Nashville) Tennessean. 

Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader
Al Smith and Martha Helen, his wife and business partner.
I had first met Nat when I was a boy; my father had called him the best reporter in Tennessee (“even if he is a Socialist”). He had come back into my life when he visited The News-Democrat the first year I was in Russellville. The Tennessean had assigned him to write stories promoting TVA development and the creation of jobs in his paper’s circulation area. He was impressed with Russellville’s new industrial plants and was writing about them for a special edition on progress in the Tennessee Valley.

Nat and I had become warm friends. He was my role model. He was the kind of “engaged” journalist I wanted to be for the rest of my life: a reporter with a purpose who made things happen, even if he sometimes became a part of the story.

I asked Nat to set up a meeting for me with his editor to talk about a job at The Tennessean, the same paper that had encouraged me to wait for an opening when I got out of the VA hospital in 1957.

“I will if you really want me to,” Nat said that night. “But I don’t see why you should start working again for someone else who picks your stories and tells you how much to write. Think about it, and call me back next week.”

After he hung up, I began to wonder if any of those city guys really wanted me, or if I wanted them.

Wordsmith
Hanging on the wall by my roll-top desk was a framed copy of an ad I had written about Russellville for that “Progress Edition” of The Tennessean on which Nat was working when we had first reconnected.

Over a green-tinted map of Logan County, the ad’s headline read “LAND OF LINCOLN.” The ad’s text extolled the community’s diversified attractions, beginning with its history.

“Where Jesse James robbed a bank, and Andrew Jackson fought a duel…Where the Great Revival of 1800 was preached on the banks of the Red River…”

Musing over those words I had written five years earlier, I realized I had used Logan County’s history to stake a claim for its future. I was predicting new growth for new times in a region where we were building industry to balance agriculture and create jobs to keep our children at home.

Snapping off the lights, I locked the office door and headed across the square toward the Kaintuck (hotel where Al lived at the time), wondering if I knew what the hell I’d been writing when I had put together that ad.

Up in my room, reflecting on the day, the epiphany came as I turned off my room lights.

Why would I leave a community where they had taken me in — a drunk, itinerant editor no one knew?

The people of Logan county had saved me from myself: first in the local hospital, and then again when I asked for help in a church basement when it wasn’t even Sunday.

They read my paper when I told them their schools weren’t good enough. A lot of folks disliked my politics, but our circulation was growing.

What was this place I was trying to leave?

Somewhere that night, between consciousness and dreaming, I told myself that Logan County was a microcosm of Kentucky, maybe even of the world.

There was no bigger job than the one I had.

 

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