MELISSA BLOCK, host:
It rained in eastern Kentucky today as family and friends gathered to bury Tom Gish. He owned a small town newspaper that made a big impact. Gish and the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky helped bring attention to political corruption, to Appalachian poverty, and the excesses of coal mining. He persisted despite boycotts and a firebomb attack. NPR's Howard Berkes has this remembrance.
HOWARD BERKES: It was Tom and Pat Gish - partners, and husband and wife, who turned a pleasant, chatty and inoffensive weekly into a journalistic cause. Before the Gishes bought the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky in 1956, its masthead declared it a friendly non-partisan weekly newspaper. Under the Gishes, the slogan simply became this, the Mountain Eagle. It screams.
Mr. STEVE CAWOOD (Attorney): Later it was, it still screams - after they burned it down.
BERKES: Steve Cawood is an attorney in Pineville, Kentucky who knew Tom Gish for 40 years.
Mr. CAWOOD: 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.
BERKES: Tom Gish's voice was silenced Friday at age 82. He'd been suffering from kidney and heart problems. The injustices he railed about included poverty, illiteracy, strip-mining damage, unsafe coal mines, unresponsive school boards, corrupt public officials, and ineffective federal programs. And boy did he tick people off. Carroll Smith is a coal miner and former Letcher County executive.
Mr. CARROLL SMITH (Coal Miner; Former Letcher County Executive): He just stepped on so many toes that some people felt like they needed to get rid of him. And they tried burning him out, and I don't think he missed an issue of the paper. They printed it anyway.
BERKES: That firebombing of the Mountain Eagle in 1974 followed stories about police mistreatment of young people. After other stories, he and his reporters were barred from public meetings, businesses withheld advertising and Gish was threatened many times, he told CBS news reporter Charles Kuralt in 1969. Kuralt asked Gish why he simply didn't leave.
(Soundbite of news show)
Mr. TOM GISH (Editor, Mountain Eagle newspaper): Yeah. But that - that would amount to a kind of surrender that I just can't do.
BERKES: That persistence and the Mountain Eagle's exposes attracted global attention. Reporters from the biggest papers and networks made pilgrimages to little old Whitesburg to get briefed on Appalachia and to ask Gish, why was he so stubborn? Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky.
Mr. AL CROSS (University of Kentucky): 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. These people persevered. And they set an inspirational standard for everyone in community journalism and journalism as a whole, really.
BERKES: That 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. And today, with the patriarch gone and Pat retired, the couple's son Ben runs the Mountain Eagle. Tom Gish leaves behind a little newspaper that still screams. Howard Berkes, NPR News.