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Remembering Pat


“The quiet chuckle or encyclopedic rendering of local political intrigue while gluing down a grocery ad at one o’clock in the morning stays with me,” former Mountain Eagle staff member Mike Clark writes in remembrance of Pat Gish. The Eagle publisher, seen in this photo in the mid-1960s, died April 13 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The quiet chuckle or encyclopedic rendering of local political intrigue while gluing down a grocery ad at one o’clock in the morning stays with me,” former Mountain Eagle staff member Mike Clark writes in remembrance of Pat Gish. The Eagle publisher, seen in this photo in the mid-1960s, died April 13 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Wife. Mother. Grandmother. Great-grandmother. Reporter. Editor. Weekly newspaper publisher. Affordable housing developer. Stalwart friend. Fierce foe of corruption and injustice. Mentor. Ally. Partner. Citizen. Pat Gish will be remembered in many different ways by many different people. In this space normally reserved for editorials, we say farewell to her with much love, in the words of a few Eagle alumni and friends.

I had just returned to the old Mountain Eagle office on Main Street after covering some long meeting in Hazard. It was 1970 and I was new to both Letcher County and a relationship with Tom and Pat Gish that would last for decades. Pat was at the layout desk, fiddling with the Foodtown ad. I started to give too much detail, probably, about who had said what to whom. While pasting in a piece of clip art of a whole ham, Pat gave me a quick briefing about the cast of characters I’d just observed. She delivered it in Associated Press style — to the point, accurate, no wasted words. I was just smart enough to know I was learning from a pro.

Pat Gish shared a hug with her husband Tom at their home in Thornton in the 1980s.

Pat Gish shared a hug with her husband Tom at their home in Thornton in the 1980s.

Pat Gish influenced me in ways as numerous as the hats she wore. As a journalist, she offered sharp insights into how to build a story, and she was the best copy editor I ever had. As one of the most effective eastern Kentucky poverty warriors, she didn’t just vent about injustice; she worked hard to improve housing for local people, bucking strong contrary currents of public mood, funding, and politics. And as a mother, she cared not only for her children (not to mention Tom) but for folks like me and other young denizens of the white couches in the living room. Many’s the night I crashed on one of them after we finally put the paper to bed.

I fondly remember mornings with Pat during my occasional visits after she and Tom moved to their new house in Thornton. After conversation and TV-watching with Tom that went deep into the night (Pat mastered the art of dozing through it all while sitting up), Tom would often sleep in. I tended to get up early, and it would soon be just Pat and me in the kitchen, drinking coffee. We’d talk about politics, or magazines, or Tom’s garden, or any number of things, important or not. No matter the topic, no matter the day, Pat Gish always added special value — always. My morning coffee won’t ever taste quite the same. — Phil Primack

In February 2005, Pat and Tom Gish were honored as the first recipients of “The Gish Award,” sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and presented periodically to journalists who show “courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.” Pat Gish died April 13. Tom Gish died in November 2008.

In February 2005, Pat and Tom Gish were honored as the first recipients of “The Gish Award,” sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and presented periodically to journalists who show “courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.” Pat Gish died April 13. Tom Gish died in November 2008.

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A phrase we use quite often around our house came from Pat.

News would come into The Eagle’s office about some pronouncement by a governor, county judge or business executive. While most of us were puzzling what this bit of information meant, Pat would have already understood and analyzed it all. As often as not she would say, succinctly and accurately, “Well, that’s the biggest bunch of nothing.” And she was right, always, which is why Tom and everyone else in the office always waited for Pat’s judgment before proceeding with anything important.

In this 1979 photo, Pat Gish looked over plans for one of 170 new homes the Eastern Kentucky Housing Development Corporation had built under her guidance in the past six years for low-income families in Leslie, Knott, Letcher and Perry counties. The homes, most of them with three-bedroom structures designed by architects affiliated with Yale University, could be purchased for about $23,000. EKHDC, which had also repaired 3,500 homes by 1979, became the model for 23 other similar home-repair projects across the nation. After funding for the $2 million-per-year program ended during the Reagan administration, E.K.H.D.C. folded into what is now HOMES Inc.

In this 1979 photo, Pat Gish looked over plans for one of 170 new homes the Eastern Kentucky Housing Development Corporation had built under her guidance in the past six years for low-income families in Leslie, Knott, Letcher and Perry counties. The homes, most of them with three-bedroom structures designed by architects affiliated with Yale University, could be purchased for about $23,000. EKHDC, which had also repaired 3,500 homes by 1979, became the model for 23 other similar home-repair projects across the nation. After funding for the $2 million-per-year program ended during the Reagan administration, E.K.H.D.C. folded into what is now HOMES Inc.

When it comes to Pat’s life, however, the opposite is true. It was the biggest bunch of something that I can imagine. — Bill Bishop

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Pat Gish was responsible for half of my basic education about Appalachia in general and eastern Kentucky in particular. Her life partner, Tom, provided the other half. She was a rigorous teacher. When I was a young reporter covering the 30-some eastern counties for The Courier-Journal, she was my most useful critic. One of the things she insisted was that I not just cover the typical poverty stories and high-profile mine safety and environmental damage stories. She focused me on the governmental structures put in place to deliver help to the region, which she thought were flawed. She was right. They were. My editors preferred the latest strip mine slide that covered a house, or a miner unfairly denied black lung benefits, or an operation shut down for safety violations, all of which were good stories. Pat reminded me that, in addition, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and area development district bureaucracies played a real — sometimes politicized and destructive — role in channeling government funds into the mountains. Also, Pat was a bear when it came to stereotyping mountain people. She hated it, and helped keep me from doing it. She was a kind and considerate mentor for me, but a relentlessly demanding one. I tried very hard not to disappoint her. I loved her smile, when she occasionally gave me one. — David Hawpe

Pat Gish posed for this family Christmas photo in the early 1970s with husband Tom and children (from left) Ben, Sarah, Kitty, Ray and Ann. Mrs. Gish, who died April 13, was “a mother who would have much preferred to be at home, cooking dinner for her children and then reading aloud to them or watching television with them,” writes Mountain Eagle contributing editor Tom Bethell. “Instead she was a mother at work.” Funeral services for Mrs. Gish, who became publisher of the Eagle after the death of her husband in 2008, will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church in Whitesburg.

Pat Gish posed for this family Christmas photo in the early 1970s with husband Tom and children (from left) Ben, Sarah, Kitty, Ray and Ann. Mrs. Gish, who died April 13, was “a mother who would have much preferred to be at home, cooking dinner for her children and then reading aloud to them or watching television with them,” writes Mountain Eagle contributing editor Tom Bethell. “Instead she was a mother at work.” Funeral services for Mrs. Gish, who became publisher of the Eagle after the death of her husband in 2008, will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church in Whitesburg.

It is said that when a couple consists of two equally stubborn people, the marriage will not endure. Tom and Pat Gish formed a couple equally strong-willed, and yes, equally courageous. And their vows endured.

When the threats of economic ruin and the reality of arson came, it’s fair to say that many women would have gathered up their children and decamped back to the safety of central Kentucky. The romance of life with a crusading country newspaper editor would have worn too thin — not that either thought of The Mountain Eagle in those terms, except in joking self-reference.

Pat somehow carved out her own career while raising five children and doing much of the work of publishing a paper week after week. It was a life that certainly wasn’t without its trials and sacrifices, but she made it all seem doable, although I don’t know how, and at a time when women were not often found trying. She was of a generation that came of age at least a decade before the women’s movement announced itself, but she was no less a feminist — that is, someone committed to equality, including her own. She did what Tom did — only, as they say, backwards and in high heels. She also kept a sense of humor and balance in the midst of it all.

In my two years in Whitesburg I learned a lot of things from Pat — Associated Press style, laying out a paper (using rubber cement and lots of white-out), cooking scalloped oysters for Thanksgiving. I don’t know how much use I was to her. I did give her a long fleece bathrobe when Tom was having heart surgery, and she confessed later that it kept her warm in bed all one winter. Her own warmth and humanity tied together her family, the many wanderers through the Eagle office, and those she served in the community through her full-time “side” job. It’s terribly trite to say she was one of kind, but what else can you say? Rest in peace, Pat. — Suzanne Crowell

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Best multi-tasking saint of an editor, housing expert, wife and mother I have ever known. How Pat balanced all those roles without sleep or peace or rest is beyond me. And the editor’s stiletto went in and out without any noticeable effort. The quiet chuckle or encyclopedic rendering of local political intrigue while gluing down a grocery ad at one o’clock in the morning stays with me.

A class act. — Mike Clark

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Pat Gish’s life is a profile in courage, endurance, and dogged hard work, all driven by a deeply principled commitment to the idea that there is nowhere a free people unless there is a free press. In over a half century of publishing a mountain weekly that won the loyal patronage of its local readers but circulated widely around the nation to all those who cher- ish justice for the poor and powerless, she held steadfast to all the principles that drive great journalism. In an age when the business side of publishing shapes coverage, Pat’s life is testimony that neither advertising boycotts, death threats, unpunished arson of The Mountain Eagle’s offices, and many other abuses that should never happen in a democratic society can silence the voice of justice or muffle the voice that cries like an eagle for a decent life for the common person.

Pat, a native of Paris, Ky., was on her way to a great career as a reporter with the Lexington Leader in her early journalism days. Doubtless, she would have risen to the top, but she sacrificed that to marry Tom, a competitor at United Press, and together they went back to Tom’s home county to publish the local newspaper. As Pat often described the transition with good humor, it was in Letcher County that the idealism of young journalists was honed into determination to rebalance the powers of coalfield oppression with the newspaper as the only weapon. She and Tom would ultimately become the symbols of light that great journalists can bring to a dark and closed society.

Pat’s patience and graciousness with the legions of reporters who came to Whitesburg to cover the floods, the wretchedness of poverty, and the horrors of unregulated stripmining and coal-mine disasters was unsurpassed. To the extent that the problems of mountain Kentucky were recognized and remedies proposed and executed, she deserves the recognition as much as any of the mountain champions over the last half century.

There is now a Pat and Tom Gish Award for courage in journalism. If there is ever an award for the great multi-taskers of all time — one who can correct the spelling of deadline-averse reporters while gluing down pages, repairing broken press machinery, and at the same time raising a fine family — Pat will be first in line. Those of us who thought we were highly motivated, hard-working members of the Fourth Estate would stand in awe as she completed the work of two people at The Eagle and then boarded a bus for Louisville to complete another degree.

Pat was as tireless in promoting good housing in eastern Kentucky as she was in producing a weekly newspaper. When she received a federal grant to address the problem of affordable housing, she saw that even with federal assistance those who most needed decent housing could not afford it. So she created crews of the unemployed to repair leaking roofs, broken flooring and windows, install sound heating, plumbing and electricity, and otherwise dramatically improve the living conditions of the poorest of the poor.

This was, finally, a life well and richly lived for what matters most in life. Heaven has received another angel. — Jim Branscome

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I hadn’t seen Pat for probably 40 years, but I knew then and know now that whatever she might have said about the idea, she was indeed doing God’s work. — Pat Furgurson

. Pat Gish was devoted not just to The Mountain Eagle itself but also to communitybased journalism. As everyone knows, the core of The Eagle for decades has been the community columnists who reveal whose grandchildren are visiting this week, speculate on when the first peas can be planted each spring and report on any unusual events in their particular holler: people news.

Pat once told me that one of the first things she and Tom did after they bought the paper in 1956 was to end the community columns. As hotshot reporters from a daily in Lexington and a wire service desk in Frankfort, they figured they would fill the pages with “hard news.” The resulting hue and cry was overwhelming, and they quickly reversed their decision and restored the columns. They learned that The Eagle belonged to their readers as much as it did to them.

Pat told me that story shortly after I arrived at The Eagle, on the day I drove out to Ice and picked up Sara Ison’s column, scribbled in pencil on notebook paper. Dutifully, I came back to the paper and used its brand-new phototypesetting machine to key in the column, “correcting” Sara’s grammar and punctuation. I then told Pat what I had done.

Her reaction was swift and unequivocal: “You go right back and type that column exactly the way she has it written. That’s Sara’s column. Those are Sara’s words.” Pat taught me to respect and trust mountain vernacular and wisdom, and for that I will be forever grateful. — David Massey

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Many remembrances come to mind. But what mostly keeps coming back to me is Pat’s warm calmness amid whatever was happening, whatever crises or ongoing challenges. She was very loving — and it was a privilege to feel included in her love. — Linda Bennett

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When there is talk of the “Greatest Generation,” we tend to think of the men who went to battle during World War II. But Pat was one of the remarkable women of that generation. She was quiet, unassuming, and reluctant to talk about herself. But there’s a lot to talk about. Pat went to college when not every woman did, and graduated and went to work. She and Tom were full partners in writing, editing and publishing The Mountain Eagle every week. Their repeated efforts to open “public” meetings in Letcher County were instrumental in the fight for Kentucky’s first freedom-of-information law. Pat also ran a program providing housing for low-income eastern Kentuckians, and after hours continued to put out The Eagle. She raised five pretty exceptional children. And during part of this time, she commuted to Louisville every week to get a graduate degree. Amazing that she did so much and so well.

I don’t know where Pat found her energy and stamina, but she was always very accessible, ready to answer the dumbest questions in the most direct and honest manner.

I understand that Pat usually wrote the headlines for Eagle articles. One of my favorites was “Revolutionaries to Organize” — the headline above a short piece on the formation of a Letcher County chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Not everyone in town thought that was amusing, but Pat must have had a chuckle and so did I. — Mimi Pickering

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We are diminished today by the death of Pat Gish. She and her husband, Tom, were real journalistic warriors of the kind too rarely seen in this age in which news is “monetized” and valuable reporting resources are allocated according to page clicks. Pat and Tom Gish reported the real news, regardless of whether it was either profitable or popular—and despite considerable risk to both life and livelihood. We need many more just like them. — Laurie Ezzell Brown

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Aside from Pat’s expertise and advocacy in housing issues, whenever I think of Pat, I think of “Tom & Pat, the Gishes.” Together they were a formidable pair when advocating for a better life for all in eastern Kentucky. To me, a mine safety advocate, The Mountain Eagle ranks right up there with The Courier-Journal and The New York Times. The “little mountain weekly” was that influential when it came to insisting on a safe workplace for Appalachia’s coal miners. Indeed, all coal miners owe Pat and Tom a huge debt of gratitude. They stood up and spoke out for coal miners and others at no small risk to their livelihood and their safety.

I am thankful to have known Pat and Tom, and pleased that a few others carry on their important work. The Gishes would be extremely proud that just this week a young reporter, Chris Hamby, won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for his compelling series on how doctors and lawyers have conspired for years to deprive hard-working coal miners of being awarded the black lung benefits they deserve. RIP Pat. — Tony Oppegard

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I first was welcomed by Pat and Tom in the early 60’s, when I was a graduate student studying for qualifying exams.

I was a visitor, new to and struck by the issues and passions of coal country and especially the quiet determination of the Gish family to make a difference. I watched Pat and Tom navigate fluidly among deadlines, the press, candy-making and dinner times. Things got done, children were tended to and there were smiles and hugs.

Reflecting back now over the years, because of her calm and sense of humor I took for granted that Pat could “do it all” — having Tom as a partner was, of course, a critical ingredient — and the message to my brain was clear: you can do what you set out to do with optimism, a vision and a good partner.

It is a model upon which I have since built a fulfilling personal and professional life and I realize that Pat and Tom were beacons to that future. I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared the lives of the Gish family for even a short while. — Martha Matteo

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There were times when the paper was in real danger of being driven under. The stress took its toll; Tom had his first heart attack at 46. Pat was usually successful at not showing her fear; she had a lot of practice. But on rare occasions she would admit to fearing that she wasn’t measuring up as a mother. Years later she looked at an old photo of Sarah, then about ten years old, sleeping on a grimy sleeping bag in the cluttered Eagle office on deadline night, somehow oblivious to — or maybe lulled by — the rhythmic rumbling of the press. “What kind of mother has her children sleep in the office?” Pat asked, rhetorically. She knew the answer: a mother who would have much preferred to be at home, cooking dinner for her children and then reading aloud to them or watching television with them. Instead she was a mother at work, putting together another issue of a hardscrabble weekly with more enemies than friends — which was why she wanted her children close by, in the office. True enough, they helped out on the paper, but that was only one of the reasons she had them there with her, very late on many dark nights. Pat made hard choices, including the choice to be, first and foremost, partner to Tom, whatever the consequences. Together, they could prevail, and did. They were very much in love, and it showed. — Tom Bethell

Note: Bishop, Branscome, Clark, Crowell, and Massey are former Eagle staffers. Hawpe is the former editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Furgurson wrote about Tom and Pat Gish and the Eagle while serving as Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Baltimore Sun. Bennett is an anthropologist and longtime friend of the Gish family. Pickering directs Appalshop’s Community Media Initiative. Brown is the editorpublisher of The Canadian Record in Canadian, TX; in 2007 she was a winner of the Tom and Pat Gish Award, sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. Oppegard is a Lexington attorney and minesafety expert. Matteo is a biochemist. Primack and Bethell are former Eagle staffers and current contributing editors.


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