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

November 2, 2012

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.

Al Smith won’t be resting on this laurel, either

September 3, 2008

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.”