Tom Gish, Dead At 82, Was Rural America’s Best Journalist

Tom and Pat Gish owned The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, since 1956. They created a great local paper that also changed the nation.

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Tom Gish in 1968 at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Photo: Thomas N. Bethell

Tom Gish died last week. He was 82 years old.

Tom and his wife, Pat, owned The Mountain Eagle, the weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Whitesburg is a small town — maybe 1,500 people — in the far southeastern corner of Kentucky. Tom Gish was probably the best-known rural newspaper editor in the country in part because his paper was in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields and because, as his son Ben said, “He was the most honest and brave man I ever knew.”

What’s known in the Eagle’s office as “the fire” brought the Gishes to the nation’s attention. In 1974, an arsonist hired by a Whitesburg policeman had burned the Eagle to the ground. The cop was angry because of editorials that had appeared in the Eagle. Tom had been on an editorial rampage of sorts, objecting to the treatment of teenagers who were being harassed by the local constabulary.

This was typical of Tom. Soon after he took over the paper, floods ravaged all of Eastern Kentucky and the Eagle began writing about a region of the country the country had forgotten. When Tom and Pat first bought The Mountain Eagle, the newspaper’s motto was, “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday.” The Gishes substituted their own two-word description of the paper they wanted to publish: “It Screams.” And it did.

The day after the fire, Tom and Pat moved the newspaper office to their front porch. “Here he was not far away from his heart attack, having quit a five pack a day habit,” former Eagle contributor James Branscome recalled. “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.”

The next issue appeared on schedule, but the paper had a new motto:

“It Still Screams.”

The Mountain Eagle offices, circa 1960.
Photo: Andrew Stern

Those who paid attention to Appalachia had known about The Eagle for years before the fire. Tom and Pat wrote some of the first stories about the poverty that came with the post-war depression in the coalfields. Other reporters followed the Eagle’s reporting. They would read a story in the Whitesburg paper and then trek down to Eastern Kentucky to see things for themselves. Invariably they’d wind up in Whitesburg and following Tom on a personally guided tour of the region. The War on Poverty began with stories coming from Eastern Kentucky. In reality, Lyndon Johnson’s attention to the nation’s poorest people was directed by reporting done by Tom and Pat Gish.

This pattern continued on through the years. The Eagle would publish stories about the destruction caused by coal strip mining, on unsafe mining practices, on hungry families and the failures of federal programs. Reporters at the big city press would read the Eagle and then book their trips to Eastern Kentucky. (See stories here , here and here for other accounts of Tom’s life and work.)

The lesson Tom and Pat (the two were and are inseparable) taught rural America is that you can work locally and have a national impact. “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,” writer and Eagle contributor Tom Bethell explained. “That, surely, should be a model and a mantra for rural journalists wherever they are.”

Tom Gish was born in Seco, a Kentucky coal camp named for the South East Coal Co where his father worked as a superintendent. He left home for college, found a job as a metro journalist and married Pat Burnett, his college sweetheart. He was a wire service bureau chief in the state capital and Pat Gish worked as a reporter for the metropolitan daily in Lexington.

In 1956, however, Tom came home. He and Pat bought the newspaper in the county where he was born.

Tom Gish in 2007 at his home in Thornton, Kentucky.

The Gishes were city journalists when they published their first edition in January of 1957, and they decided to bring a city style to the Eagle. The newspaper they had purchased was filled with community columnists, mostly women, who wrote the news of their small towns — who was visiting, the successes of children, the illnesses of elders.

Tom and Pat concluded the Eagle’s columnists violated every rule taught in their university journalism classes. The columns (from places like Ice, Blackey and Millstone) weren’t written in “news style.” They weren’t “objective.” And often they weren’t even about what city journalists would define as news, unless you considered the bounty of somebody’s garden to be worthy of newsprint.

So the Gishes stripped the columnists from the Eagle”¦and the Eagle’s circulation dropped like a very heavy rock. Nobody wanted a weekly newspaper that didn’t have “the news.”

Tom and Pat quickly relented and resumed printing the columns from the little coal camps dotted up the creeks that ran between the mountains. They realized that the definition of “news” used by their sophisticated professors at the university was just plain wrong. What the columnists wrote about — the day-to-day life of a community — WAS news. It was the most important news the Eagle could ever publish.

Tom and Pat spent the next 50 years practicing the most democratic form of journalism the country has ever seen. Everybody and anybody could be a reporter for the Eagle. The paper wasn’t written FOR a community. The Eagle was written BY a community. In the “˜90s, Tom began collecting phone messages people would call into a special line at the Eagle. The messages were often silly, crude at times and they appeared in the paper unfiltered. Unless the messages were libelous, they went onto the page headlined “Speak Your Piece.”

Like the columns, Tom’s Speak Your Piece feature was filled with the life of the county and often with news by anyone’s definition. In the 1990s, state police used information that appeared there to aid a criminal investigation of county officials. Speak Your Piece helped indict a handful of local officials.

Rural communities are exciting combinations of people, attitudes and beliefs all packed together in a small space. The Eagle’s goal was to reflect this diversity exactly. So on some pages were news reports and editorials about the most pressing issues of the day — joblessness, coal mining, the schools. On other pages were the stories about a joyous party for a grandfather’s birthday, the death of a favorite dog and a plea for more gravel on a particularly rutted road.

Tom Gish was one of the great rural journalists because his paper published stories copied by The New York Times and because it was proud to be the place where the people of one county could read about themselves and write their own news.

Tom had an unwavering faith in the people who lived in Letcher County. He said over and again that if the people in his county could only know the facts they would make the right decision. Tom’s trust in the good judgment of his readers wasn’t always fulfilled. But he never stopped believing that his hometown, a county bedeviled by every problem found in rural America, was just as good as any place in the country.


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