Letcher journalist was 'watchdog for the people'

amead@herald-leader.comNovember 22, 2008 

Tom Gish, the crusading owner of The Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg, died Friday afternoon. He was 82.

Mr. Gish had been suffering from kidney failure and heart problems.

"He was the bravest and most honest man I ever knew," said his son, Ben Gish, who is editor of the newspaper.

Thomas Edward Gish was a United Press International bureau chief when he and his wife, Pat Gish, a reporter for The Lexington Leader, bought the Letcher County weekly in 1956. They started running it in January 1957.

The Mountain Eagle became the first newspaper in Eastern Kentucky to seriously challenge the environmental damage caused by strip mining. The Gishes scrapped the paper's motto: "A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday." The new motto: "It Screams."

The Gishes pried open the meetings of public agencies and took on corrupt politicians, rapacious coal companies and bad schools.

They were respected nationally but made plenty of local enemies. In 1974, after the newspaper published stories about local police mistreating young people, an officer paid arsonists to throw a kerosene firebomb through a window at the newspaper, destroying the building. Mr. Gish said he later learned that coal company money was behind the crime.

The paper came out on schedule the next week, published on the Gishes' front porch. It had a new motto: "It Still Screams."

"They were breaking new ground — no one had ever seen a weekly newspaper in this part of the world that actually covered the news," said Tom Bethell, who worked at the Mountain Eagle in the 1960s and now is a contributing editor.

Al Cross, a former Courier-Journal reporter who now directs the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said the Mountain Eagle expanded its reach far beyond Letcher County. It reported, for example, on policies at the Tennessee Valley Authority that encouraged the worst kind of strip mining.

Mr. Gish was never hesitant about writing the truth, those who knew him said.

"He was the consummate journalist," said David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association. "When I talk about the media being the watchdog for the public, I'm thinking about Tom Gish."

Carroll Smith, a former Letcher County judge-executive who sold copies of the Mountain Eagle as a boy, said the Gishes and their newspaper have moved the county forward as long as he can remember. "They didn't pull punches," he said. "We were born and raised in the coalfields, but when the coal industry would get out of line, they would report it. When a politician did something wrong, they would report it."

Lee Mueller, a longtime Eastern Kentucky bureau reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader who is retired, said Mr. Gish was always milder in person than he was in print.

Mueller would periodically take editors from Lexington on tours of the mountains, which usually meant a visit to Mr. Gish. "He was so patient with them," Mueller said. "They would ask the most asinine questions, and he would say something to lead them into a comfort zone."

Mr. Gish was a Whitesburg native. Pat is from Paris in Bourbon County. They met in a Spanish class at the University of Kentucky and worked together on the student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel.

Most people who spoke of Mr. Gish on Friday automatically said "and Pat." "They were the most couple of couples," Bethell said.

For them, becoming the owners of a small newspaper was the fulfillment of a dream.

But, they later wrote, they hadn't realized that Eastern Kentucky's economic and social problems were so deep.

"We didn't know that one of every two mountain adults couldn't read or write," they said in a 2000 article. "We didn't know that tens of thousands of families had been plunged into the extremes of poverty, with children and adults alike suffering from hunger and some dying of starvation."

They also didn't know how closed local public institutions were. The school board and fiscal court passed resolutions banning them from meetings.

"School board meetings were considered gatherings of friends and allies," the Gishes wrote. "No reporters wanted, no news stories wanted."

Cross said the Gishes' efforts to open those meetings to the press and public laid the groundwork for what became open meeting and open records laws in Kentucky.

Economic pressure was often used to try to silence Mr. Gish. Government agencies, local businesses and coal companies canceled ads in the paper and advised employees not to buy it.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the newspaper often was only four tabloid-size pages.

The Gishes would walk down the street in Whitesburg and no one would speak to them. Coal companies spread rumors that Mr. Gish was a communist.

But the newspaper kept coming out, and the Gishes won a wall full of awards for their coverage of the region's poverty, corruption and strip mine abuses. They included Society of Professional Journalists' Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award (2002); the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award (1983); two Elijah Parish Lovejoy Awards; Environmental Policy Institute: Recognition for Coverage of Coalfields Issues (1987); Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, The Gish Award (established to honor Tom and Pat), first recipients, 2005.

Mr. Gish is survived by his wife, three daughters, two sons, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Arrangements are incomplete at Letcher Funeral Home.

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3319.

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