Pat Gish, the impressario of the nationally acclaimed Mountain Eagle newspaper, died this week at the age of 87. She put out the paper, raised a family and knew the quickest route to the printer.
In the mid-1970’s I was making $78 a week as one of the editors of a literary magazine, Mountain Review. A filmmaker named Allida Herrick offered me half of her second job, driving the Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg’s weekly paper, to the printer. That was another 40 bucks every other Wednesday. Groceries and/or beer.
The Mountain Eagle was famous. It had already won the John Peter Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press. The New York Times had won for the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post for Watergate, and the Eagle next for pluck. The downtown office had been burned to the ground by cops after reports on police abuse and local corruption. The paper then moved up to what was once a hardware store on Tunnel Hill, the quarters made even tighter by stacks of newspapers and months of Congressional Records that shaped a makeshift anteroom.
That’s where I sat, because it was rare that the paper was put to bed by the time it was supposed to hit the road. I loved that waiting part. Tom and Pat Gish would preside over the last-minute business of finishing the make-up, getting stories and ads to fit. And I would read through those Congressional Records and crack wise trying to get a grin out of the more taciturn Tom at his desk or acknowledgement from Pat, who was the impresario giving directions and making last minute changes. She had both a knowing smile and a winning laugh. That I strived for. Then with a nod toward fatalism, she would entrust me and the camera-ready proof sheets to their weathered station wagon. Each time she told me in detail about the shortcut past Pyramid and David that saved 15 minutes to Prestonsburg. And each time I flew passing overloaded coal trucks on nearly straight stretches, switching back and forth between the two cassettes in the front seat, the Eagles “On the Border” and Dicky Betts “Highway Call.” That was good work.
This week Pat died at age 87. The list of honors overwhelms. The journalists who cut their teeth at the Eagle are as impressive again: authors of books, labor and corporate leaders, a Pulitzer winner, and among them one of the founding editors of the Daily Yonder. Pat and Tom were outstanding reporters, fierce advocates and true public-minded citizens. Pat spent years providing low-income housing for families in East Kentucky where low incomes rule the roost. There are generations of kids who never knew her name who grew up warm and safe because of the work she led when she was also putting out the paper and raising a family cut from the same cloth.
I sat in on film interviews with Tom and Pat in different eras. The dearest lesson I learned from their reflection was something they took from Tom’s dad, a Letcher County mine foreman. People here are smart. They have had to make do with less. They are creative. They work hard. Don’t talk down to them. She never did.
Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder.