Al Smith’s new memoir offers good stories, analysis of Kentucky

Al Smith’s autobiography, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, was the top seller at last year’s Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort. But, as always, Smith had a lot more to say.

So, two months shy of his 86th birthday, Smith will be back at this year’s book fair on Nov. 10 with another memoir, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism (History Press, 219 pp., $19.99.)

This book hits some highlights of the personal-transformation story Smith told in his autobiography — professional redemption after overcoming alcoholism and marrying the right woman — but it says a lot more about Kentucky than it does about Al Smith.

Kentucky Cured is a collection of new and updated essays, some of which first appeared in the Herald-Leader or The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Most are reflections on some of Kentucky’s most fascinating public figures of the second half of the 20th century.

Smith got to know them all, and many more, during his varied career. The Tennessee native published newspapers in Russellville, London and several smaller towns; was the founder and host for three decades of Kentucky Educational Television’s Comment on Kentucky show; ran the Appalachian Regional Commission under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; and, late in life, helped start the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Stories in this book involve many familiar names: Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, Bert Combs, Louie Nunn, Earl Clements, John Ed Pearce, Ed Prichard, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Robert Penn Warren, Lyman Johnson, Georgia Powers, Larry Forgy, Gatewood Galbraith, Lucille Little, Mike Mullins, Leonard and Lillian Press, and the crafty politician/educators who transformed Kentucky’s state “teacher colleges” into dynamic regional universities.

Smith is a gifted writer of tight prose, a storyteller with a good ear for a quote or a telling anecdote. But more than that, he is a keen observer and analyst who understands the historical and cultural forces that make Kentucky tick.

Smith has been a friend and mentor for 35 years, since his stepdaughter and I were college classmates. He always has been my model of an engaged community journalist — a reporter of facts, yes, but also someone who seeks to help citizens understand and improve the place where they live.

In this regard, Smith has reminds me of the late historian Thomas D. Clark, another man of letters who adopted Kentucky as his beloved home but was always frustrated because so many of his fellow citizens were willing to settle for mediocrity or worse.

Consider the final paragraph of Smith’s essay Why Clements and Prichard Still Matter. It asks a question as relevant now as when it appeared in the Herald-Leader’s Opinions and Ideas section three years ago:

“In a state like Kentucky, leadership often falls to political hacks or fresh faces with painless promises, which fail. Clements and Prichard mattered because they knew the game before they got on the field and played it courageously, with a vision that had lasting, positive consequences. Where is the courage, where is the vision for Kentucky today?”

Smith’s passion and hope for his adopted state shine through in Kentucky Cured. Perhaps that is why, two decades after many other men of accomplishment would have retired to a life of leisure, Al Smith is still producing journalism that is well worth reading.

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