Remembering Tom Gish, A Voice Of Appalachia

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Tom Gish, of 'The Mountain Eagle,' talks on the phone in this 1968 photo. He died Nov. 21.

Tom Gish, the legendary publisher of The Mountain Eagle, is shown in this 1968 photo. He died Nov. 21 at the age of 82. Mountain Eagle hide caption

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He had one of the smallest newspapers in the country, but Tom Gish had big impact. Some people say Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty began with stories in the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.

Family and friends gathered Monday in eastern Kentucky to bury Gish. He died Friday at 82 after suffering heart ailments and kidney failure.

Gish and his wife, Pat, turned a pleasant, chatty and inoffensive weekly into a journalistic crusade. When the Gishes bought The Mountain Eagle in 1956, its masthead declared it "A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper." Under the Gishes, the slogan became "The Mountain Eagle. It Screams."

'It Still Screams'

"Later it was 'It Still Screams,' after they burned it down," recalls Steve Cawood, an attorney in Pineville, Ky., who knew Gish for 40 years.

In 1974, a firebombing burned the presses, files, archives and offices of Gish's newspaper. The new slogan was an act of defiance.

"It expresses a determination to scream out from the local level to Frankfort, to Washington, to the people of the country that this is something that needs to be addressed, and this is something we're not going to stop shouting about," Cawood says.

The shouting included investigative stories about poverty, illiteracy, strip-mining damage, unsafe coal mines, unresponsive school boards, corrupt public officials and ineffective federal programs. And boy did those stories tick people off.

"He just stepped on so many toes that some people felt like they needed to get rid of him," says Carroll Smith, a coal miner and former Letcher County, Ky., executive. "They tried burning him out, and I don't think they missed an issue of the paper. They printed it anyway."

The firebombing followed stories about police mistreatment of young people. After other stories, Gish and his reporters were barred from public meetings, businesses withheld advertising and Gish was threatened — many times.

Global Attention

The Gishes started out as reporters sharing a dream of owning a small newspaper. They later wrote that they were surprised by what they discovered.

"We didn't know that one of every two mountain adults couldn't read or write," the Gishes noted in an article quoted by the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We didn't know that tens of thousands of families had been plunged into the extremes of poverty."

The Mountain Eagle's exposes attracted global attention. Reporters from the biggest newspapers and networks made pilgrimages to little Whitesburg to get briefed on Appalachian issues. They followed up on stories The Mountain Eagle published. They also asked Gish why he was so stubborn.

"Too many people in rural journalism have courage, but burn out. Or get caught in some economic circumstance that forces them to sell out or give up," explains Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. "(The Gishes) persevered. And they set an inspirational standard for everyone in community journalism and journalism as a whole."

Financial Troubles

The perseverance was hard financially. At one point, boycotts kept the paper down to four tabloid pages. Sometimes, the whole family pitched in, five kids and all, to get the paper out.

In 1969, CBS News reporter Charles Kuralt asked Gish why he simply didn't leave the threats and boycotts behind, and get out of Whitesburg. Gish chuckled at the question and said this: "That would amount to a kind of surrendering that I just can't do."

On Monday, with the patriarch gone and Pat retired, the couple's son Ben runs The Mountain Eagle. The Gish name remains on the masthead. And Tom Gish leaves behind a little newspaper that still screams.

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