Ky. Voices: At ease with himself, Hager bet on others

John S. Hager, former publisher and editor of the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, died Thursday at age 86.
John S. Hager, former publisher and editor of the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, died Thursday at age 86.

Wearing madras Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt, while smoking a cigarette, John Hager strode up to the plate to take a turn at bat during the Messenger-Inquirer annual employee picnic.

One of the sports writers, Rich Suwanski, looked tentative as he pitched, but there was no need to toss a meatball in deference to the boss. Hager smacked the ball with authority, knocking it sufficiently hard to allow him a graceful trot around the bases, cigarette intact.

That's how I remember Hager, former editor and publisher of the Owensboro Messenger- Inquirer, who died Thursday at his home at 86 after years of suffering with Parkinson's disease.

He was at ease with being in command, casually confident in himself and therefore entitled to set a high bar for others.

A college dropout, I had miserably failed to reach the high expectations set by my mother and ended up back home in Middlesboro in 1979 writing obituaries for my local newspaper.

I set out a five-year plan to write for one of the papers in Lexington or Louisville. Many reporters moved up through small dailies and weeklies. The hours were abysmal and the pay was worse. Most of us were under 30, single, childless and staying at one paper long enough to collect a few respectable clippings.

At the Messenger-Inquirer I wrote about a man from Beaver Dam who died as a member of The Outlaws, which drew into town a biker's funeral of guys in black leather and chopped-up Harleys. Moving into the crowd felt like stripping off naked and wading into a deep pool of gunked up motor oil.

One guy shoved my colleague, photographer Mark Mahoney, and demanded that he stop shooting. "I'm just doing my job," Mahoney said. The biker said, "I know, man, but the FBI will go through every picture you take."

Once safely back in the car, Mahoney and I laughed about how crazy paranoid those bikers were.

The following morning, the FBI was in Hager's office, demanding every frame of the film that Mahoney shot.

Hager said no.

After I had spent a year covering rural counties, the business reporter suddenly gave notice and I asked to replace him. The next day Texas Gas Transmission Corp. was the subject of a hostile takeover. Texas Gas provided white-collar jobs and civic leadership in Owensboro. Hager asked his business manager to help me with the technicalities of high finance.

The business manager asked if I had any questions. I asked him to explain the difference between publicly and privately held companies. He looked mortified. However, he and a stockbroker friend of Hager's coached me, and within a week we were beating every paper in the state. Hager sent me to The Wharton School for a special program for journalists.

I felt bad when I turned in my resignation to go to work at the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Years later, I ran into Hager at a meeting. His family had sold the paper and he had created the Public Life Foundation. He looked relaxed and said he was reading about Buddhism.

"Julie," he called me. He was notorious for not remembering the names of his employees. Ask Paula Anderson, my roommate in Owensboro who left to become an editor at the Herald-Leader, known to John as "Pam," or Herald-Leader sports editor Gene Abell, "Gary" to Hager.

"Julie, you know, I learned a great deal from you," Hager said. I was stunned that this graduate of Phillips Exeter prep and Princeton was saying he received an education from me. He said he had been tempted to pull the plug on my business reporting but he decided to take a gamble. "I learned," he said, "that none of us truly knows each other's potential. And I was so proud of you when you decided to go back to Appalachia to be of service to people there."

Now it was my turn to learn a lesson.

Hager was much more engaged, knowing and loving of his employees than I knew when I worked there. His courage, I understood at the time. His soul took a while to reveal itself. And what a magnificent soul he was.