Kentucky voices: An engaging memoir by engaged journalist Al Smith

November 6, 2011 

  • If you go

    Al Smith, author of Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, will be among the 180 authors at the Kentucky Book Fair Saturday, Nov. 12 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St. Admission is free.

  • About the author: Jim Squires, a former prize-winning editor of The Chicago Tribune and author of books on politics, journalism, and racing, is a Woodford County horseman. A former member of the Kentucky Racing Commission, he bred Derby winner Monarchos.

Lore has it that while on his deathbed in 2005, eminent Kentucky historian Thomas Clark was asked by his friend, the country newspaper editor and television personality Al Smith, then planning his autobiography, whether it should be contained in one, two or three volumes.

Clark reportedly weakly responded, "Al, nobody wants to read more than one book about — heh, he — one man!"

The source of this nugget, and a great deal more lore, is of course Smith, a man never suspected of keeping a good story to himself. Clark's advice is not included in Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, the long-promised chronicle of Smith's eight decades-plus on this Earth.

What else he omitted God only knows, no doubt much to the relief of many still-breathing Kentuckians and the families of the formerly prominent deceased. For nobody knows and remembers more juicy inside stuff about what has gone on in media, politics and society high and low over the last half century than Smith, who was present at or privy to much of it.

That this particular wordsmith's life could ultimately be confined to less than 500 pages is a tribute to both his skill as an editor and to the art of prudent discretion necessary in small-town journalism, the latter quality particularly critical to someone who at 15 won a national high school oratorical competition and hasn't stopped talking since.

Out-orating 100,000 youths at 15 was the confidence-building block for an amazing rags to riches career in which Smith, once hopelessly drunk and penniless, parlayed a borrowed $15,000 stake in a tiny west Kentucky newspaper into a $5 million chain of weeklies, became the state's best known radio and television celebrity, attained considerable political power and headed the Appalachian Regional Commission while rubbing elbows with more prominent politicians, journalists, business moguls and fascinating characters than ought to cross any one man's path.

Along the way, he became an inveterate crusader for one cause after another, most of them rooted in the social values of Roosevelt's New Deal, the Kennedys' New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

Though the crimes, sins and shenanigans of charlatans, election thieves, bagmen, bootleggers and even cat burglars are gently delivered in a wrapping of charming tolerance, Smith took off the gloves to deal with his own shortcomings, from the failures and alcoholism of his youth to the unavoidable ethical dilemmas hidden in the treacherous intersection of journalism, business and politics.

Florida-born to a Depression era family of means rooted in Tennessee, he was cursed by his father's genetic proclivity for alcohol but blessed with a loving grandmother's passion for words and hope for his future.

His salvation was a job as editor of the weekly newspaper in Logan County, the Russellville News-Democrat. It was there he found Alcoholics Anonymous, influential role models and a new wife. Divorced with two children, Martha Helen Hancock was tougher and smarter than he. Together they put him on the epiphanic path.

At first glance a reader might mistake Wordsmith for merely the entertaining recollections of a rustic egocentric, who believes strangers will find the people and places of his past as interesting as he did. He introduces a virtual menagerie of ancestors and childhood friends and remembers which one read him his first story, pulled his first baby tooth, taught him how to bait a fish hook and what they were wearing at the time. A born storyteller, had memory allowed, he would have spun a vivid account of his trip out of the womb. But if this important work is overlooked by modern-day book critics and publications addicted to celebrity confessions, sex scandals and showdowns between vampires and werewolves, Southern literature will surely be the loser.

On one level, Smith's well-written story is an inspirational tale of resurrection of one man's spirit in troubled times. Viewed from a larger perspective, his life has spanned nearly a century of monumental and rapid change. From a catbird seat in the local printed press during what will surely be considered its golden age, he experienced and chronicled the shame of segregation, the pain of rural poverty, the beginning of industrialization in the South and the end of ingrained legalized inequality of gender and race.

Equally germane is the author's unique point of view as spokesman for a nearly extinct species: the American press. Once a quasi-public service institution that played a vital role in the progress of our democracy as educator, interlocutor between the people and their government and watchdog for public welfare, the old press has virtually disappeared into a modern media circus that feeds on conflict as a means of drawing a crowd for advertisers.

At one time or another, Smith excelled in all the roles of an institution so critical that Thomas Jefferson believed it innately more important than government itself. Smith and his contemporaries had to constantly balance muckraking reporter and crusading editor with a publisher's mandates to grow his business and promote the community it served.

Once freed of his alcoholism, Smith eagerly grasped the role of "engaged journalist," which to him entailed doing whatever it took to make good things happen, from his first achievement — support for building a lake to provide water for Logan County — to his latest, establishing the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in 2004.

Nowhere was he more effective in these pursuits than as host of his long-running weekly government affairs show, Comment on Kentucky on KET, a role he relished for more than 30 years and that made him the bane of existence for elected officials and one of the nation's most effective spokesmen for rural America.

When James Madison referred to the old press as "the public voice" he could have been envisioning Al Smith, country newspaper editor, coming down the pike.

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