Kentucky journalist Al Smith puts his life story in writing

After decades of talking about his life, Al Smith puts it all in writing in a new book

jbrammer@herald-leader.comNovember 6, 2011 

  • If you go

    Al Smith discusses Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism Interviewed by Al Cross. 8 p.m. Nov. 11. Grand Theatre, Frankfort. $10-$20. (502) 352-7469. www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

    Kentucky Book Fair Featuring more than 180 authors. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 12. Frankfort Convention Center, Frankfort. Free. Kybookfair.org.

On the many Friday nights Al Smith hosted the public-affairs TV show Comment on Kentucky, he regularly took reporters who were guests on the show to dinner afterward and regaled them with his life stories.

He would meander down memory lane with tales about his boyhood days in Florida and Tennessee. He would breathlessly recount his 10 years as a newsman in rough-and-tumble New Orleans.

He talked openly about his struggles with alcoholism as a young reporter and how he recovered from it as a small-town newspaper owner in Russellville. He shared personal encounters with Kentucky's colorful politicians and his own experiences in politics as head of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

And he always spoke lovingly of his two passions: his wife, Martha Helen Smith, and journalism.

Smith, who will turn 85 on Jan. 9, has compiled many of those stories in a new book, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism (Clark Legacies LLC and Pied Type Press, $34.95).

The veteran journalist, who has turned into one of Kentucky's leading social advocates on issues ranging from education to dental care for children, will make two public appearances this week to promote the memoir. He and longtime colleague Al Cross will discuss it Friday night at the Grand Theatre in downtown Frankfort. On Saturday, he will be among the 180 featured authors at the Kentucky Book Fair, also in Frankfort.

Smith also will be interviewed by several radio and TV stations this week about the book, which he worked on for years.

"It took me a while to write because I'd rather talk about the book than write it," Smith said during a recent interview from his Lexington home. "My family kept after me about writing it, and I got really serious about finishing it when I said publicly in early June that it would be ready for November's Kentucky Book Fair.

"The only way I can meet a deadline is to make one."

Smith had about half of his book — 60,000 words — written when he retired in November 2007 as host of Kentucky Educational Television's Comment on Kentucky, a job he started in November 1974.

Smith's wife said the couple began working "quite seriously" on the book seven days a week earlier this year.

"I told my Episcopalian minister not to miss me but I wouldn't be at church for eight Sundays," Al Smith said. "I showed up the 11th Sunday and had the book about ready to go."

The 448-page book chronicles the life of Kentucky's best-known citizen-journalist. It is divided into two parts, "The Thirsty Years" and "Recovery." It is full of stories about interesting people — from his Granny Graeme to the late Gov. Albert B. "Happy" Chandler.

Smith has plenty of opportunities in the book to cast disparaging remarks about politicians he has known, but he steers away from that.

"Why should I bear grudges against one?" Smith said. "I learned in recovery that you begin with confession and that there is no need to be hurtful."

It is Smith's victory over alcoholism that provides the book's inspiration.

"I was too hung over to sit in the business sessions at a summer convention of the Kentucky Press Association in 1962," he writes.

But from that low point, it is not much later in the book that he recalls his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In the basement of First Christian Church in Russellville, he announced to eight friends and four strangers, "My name is Al, and I am an alcoholic."

A frequent guest on Comment on Kentucky, Jack Brammer works in the Herald-Leader's Frankfort bureau. Reach him at (502) 227-1198.

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