Newswoman Pat Gish, who operated crusading Eastern Ky. paper with her husband, dies at 87

bestep@herald-leader.comApril 14, 2014 

  • Funeral services

    Pat Gish is survived by three daughters and two sons, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Visitation is scheduled beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Letcher Funeral Home, with the funeral at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church in Whitesburg.

Pat Gish, who with her husband Tom spoke truth to power for more than 50 years through their crusading weekly newspaper in Letcher County, died Sunday at age 87.

Tom Gish was publisher and editor of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, but Mrs. Gish was his inseparable partner in the publication, which on their watch bucked entrenched political interests, exposed corruption and was the first newspaper in Eastern Kentucky to seriously challenge the abuses of surface mining after they took over in 1957.

Along the way, The Mountain Eagle won recognition as one of the best community newspapers in the nation.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky established an award named for the couple in 2005 to honor "courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism." Tom and Mrs. Gish were the first recipients.

"We've lost another true bulldog of journalism. Pat and Tom were inseparable when it came to what they believed was right and wrong and neither hesitated to go after the truth," David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, told the Herald-Leader.

Mrs. Gish had Alzheimer's disease for years. She recently developed pneumonia and then congestive heart failure, said her son, Ben Gish, who is now editor of the paper.

Tom Gish died in November 2008 at age 82.

Mrs. Gish, a native of Bourbon County, got her first journalism job at age 13, proofreading copy at a small-town paper where her mother had introduced her as a good speller.

She met Tom Gish while both were students at the University of Kentucky and worked on the campus newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel.

Mrs. Gish worked at the Lexington Leader, a predecessor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, while she was in college, then stayed with the paper as a reporter after graduation. Tom Gish took a job as a reporter for the United Press news service.

In 1956, the couple bought the newspaper in Letcher County, where Tom Gish had grown up in a coal camp, and published their first issue in January 1957.

The motto they adopted for the paper signaled how they would cover the community: "It Screams."

At the time, local officeholders were not accustomed to detailed coverage of their activities and did not welcome the newspaper's attention, the Gishes wrote in a 2000 commentary.

"School board meetings were considered gatherings of friends and allies. What the board did was regarded as private business. No reporters wanted, no news stories allowed," the couple wrote.

The Gishes fought for years to pry open local meetings, contributing to the larger drive for greater government transparency.

They covered stories on a wide range of problems, including corruption, poor education, inadequate housing and poverty, though Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said they were protective of their readers' dignity, refusing to run photos of poor people.

They also took on the powerful coal industry with stories and editorials on safety problems at underground mines and environmental abuses at surface mines.

The tough news coverage and Tom Gish's editorials set the newspaper apart.

"I don't know of any other paper in Eastern Kentucky at that time that was challenging the status quo" as the Gishes did, said Tom Bethell, who worked at the newspaper in the 1960s and is still a contributing editor. "They were just awfully good at what they did."

Local politicians and institutions pushed back against the newspaper, passing resolutions to ban the Eagle from meetings and backing financial retribution.

The fiscal court canceled its printing contract with the paper and the school board chairman urged teachers, parents and the public to boycott the paper. Bethlehem Steel Corp., owner of the county's biggest mines, called the Eagle a Communist paper, and American Electric Power, the region's electricity provider, canceled its regular ad and urged business owners to drop ads and cancel subscriptions, the Gishes said in their 2000 column.

"They raised the ire of the powers that be," said Anne Caudill, whose late husband, Harry M. Caudill, wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.

There were times in the 1960s and early 1970s when the paper barely got by, surviving with a lone full-page ad each week from the local Royal Crown Cola bottler.

In 1974, after the paper published stories about local police mistreating young people, a police officer paid arsonists to throw a kerosene firebomb through a window at the Eagle office, destroying the building.

Tom Gish believed coal-industry money financed the crime, for which the officer was convicted.

There was no idea the couple would back away from covering what they saw as injustices and problems, however, Bethell said.

"We are convinced that knowledge is power and that the more the Eagle can help inform its readers about local and far-away developments that affect them, the more good things can happen," the couple said in their 2000 commentary.

Tom Gish won acclaim for his editorials, which could flay the hide, but said his wife was the better reporter. She also managed the business and took care of the couple's five children.

"She was a full partner in The Mountain Eagle in every way. She was right there working those long hours," Caudill said.

Cross said Mrs. Gish was the "dynamo" that drove the paper.

"The Mountain Eagle wouldn't have been The Mountain Eagle without Pat Gish. She was the essential partner," he said.

Mrs. Gish also tried to help people in other ways, pushing for federal money to start a housing development agency, for instance, and years later serving on the county's water and sewer district to establish the first countywide water system.

The couple also donated land for a community park.

The Gishes continued contributing to the paper until shortly before his death.

They were most proud of helping make the case for poverty aid for Appalachia and their efforts to shine a light on safety and environmental problems in the coal industry, Ben Gish said.

For all their accolades, however, the two were humble people who did not embrace being described as heroic, family and friends said.

"All they were doing, in their minds, was practicing good journalism," said Ben Gish.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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