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Smith won't be resting on latest laurel either

Every few months, it seems, some organization is honoring the veteran Kentucky journalist Al Smith.

On Saturday, he's receiving a big award: The Society of Professional Journalists, at its annual convention in Atlanta, will name Smith a Fellow of the Society, the organization's highest honor.

Smith will receive the award along with the late Tim Russert, the political journalist and moderator of Meet the Press, who died in June, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who has reported for CNN, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, The New York Times and NPR.

Smith has been a well-known face and voice in Kentucky for more than three decades, thanks to his role as the founding host of KET's Comment on Kentucky.

Smith also has had many other roles: a small-town newspaper editor and publisher in both Eastern and Western Kentucky, head of the Appalachian Regional Commission under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky and a tireless advocate for better education.

I've known Smith since one of his daughters and I were students at Western Kentucky University in the 1970s, and I've always been amazed by his energy and passion.

Smith, 81, attributes some of it to the new lease on life he got in the early 1960s, when he overcame alcoholism and married his wife, Martha Helen.

The rest of it, he said, may be the result of a manic personality. "I talk too much," he said. "I like to stir things up and make them happen."

What I find remarkable about Smith is that many of his contributions — the things he is often honored for these days — were made after he sold his small group of newspapers and "retired."

Of course, Smith has never retired, even though many of his contemporaries left public life years ago. He is always working on a project, leading a crusade or agitating behind the scenes.

For the past several months, he has hunkered down at his second home in Florida, trying to distill his memoirs into something shorter than War and Peace.

In his spare time, he is helping the Recovery Kentucky task force build 10 alcohol and drug recovery centers around the state. He is chairman of the national advisory board for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community issues. And he is trying to raise money for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

"I've got a joke I tell people," Smith said. "I say, if it's something that meddles in other people's business and doesn't pay and I can be chairman of it, then that's my line of work."

I was thinking about Smith and others like him over the Labor Day weekend, a time when we should reflect on work and its meaning. Then, on Sunday, my pastor preached from Ecclesiastes; he said our life's work should emphasize being more, rather than having more. He also said we should strive to make a lasting contribution to society, and not just earn a living.

The first baby boomers are now reaching retirement age and deciding how to spend their last couple of decades. Will they putter around the house and polish their golf games? Or will they use their spare time and accumulated expertise to help solve some of the world's problems?

I asked Smith about this, and he was quick to say that he didn't presume to tell other people what to do.

"An older person needs to be as active as he can, but everybody's different," he said. "You've got 60-year-olds who act 80, and 80-year-olds who act 60."

Smith said he spent time in recent years reflecting on the importance of family and community. He thinks every one, especially those who have spent their life accumulating wealth and knowledge, should give something back to their community.

"Everybody ought to do some kind of volunteer work, that's for sure," he said.

He said he wasted his opportunities as a college student and dropped out, and he has spent the past 40 years working to improve higher education for others.

As a lifelong journalist, he feels compelled to help figure out how to help journalism survive now that the century-old, advertising-based business model of media companies no longer works in this digital age.

Smith said that as a young man, he disappointed many people close to him, including an activist grandmother, because he didn't live up to his potential. Since then, he has tried to find role models in people he admires, and to follow their example.

"All of us who are older need to be in this struggle to make sure the values we have followed in our life and work survive," he said. "I think everybody ought to give something back to the community. It certainly has made a lot of difference in my life."

Besides, Smith said: "I don't know how to play golf."

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