Tom Gish wrote thousands of editorials marked by forcefulness and clarity. He wrote about whatever angered or troubled him – a broad canvas. He wanted a good education for every Letcher County child. He wanted local government to be fair and honest and transparent. He wanted the beautiful mountains of eastern Kentucky to be protected and preserved for future generations. He wanted the federal government to meet its responsibilities to the poor and powerless. He wanted state government to remember that Kentucky is more than bluegrass and bourbon and that every last Kentuckian deserves to be treated as a first-class citizen. Usually late at night – almost always late at night, when the paper was just about ready to go to press – he would sit down at his keyboard and write. His first-draft editorials were models of the craft. Here are just a few of the thousands upon thousands of words he wrote in the cause of truth, justice, and the pursuit of happiness.
A coal miner’s son, Tom was never opposed to coal mining, despite what his critics claimed. What he opposed was the wanton destruction of the land and the brutal treatment of people whose misfortune was to live below a strip mine. Soon after buying The Mountain Eagle, he began writing editorials warning of what was to come.
February 8, 1960: The greatest of all threats to our native beauty and our potential as a tourist center is in the fledgling strip coal mine industry, which threatens almost overnight to turn our mountains into denuded hunks of rock looking as if they were created by Hollywood for a special horror movie.
October 27, 1960: Take a drive and look about you. Along almost any road in the county you will find strip mining, spreading like wild fire… And if you believe, as some will argue, that strip mining will leave no permanent scars on the county – and if you would listen to the argument that time heals all wounds – then go to Beefhide on your next Sunday afternoon drive.
December 2, 1965: Mrs. Ollie Combs, who lay down before the bulldozers to save her home, has justifiably become a heroine of the mountains. It is a sad fact, however, that it was necessary for Mrs. Combs to face the deadly guns of the coal industry guards and the terrors of the bulldozer blade and the indignity of being hauled off to jail … before public attention could be focused upon her plight and the plight of all of Eastern Kentucky.
The Mountain Eagle was the first newspaper to expose the fact that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), one of the region’s principal buyers of coal, was indirectly subsidizing strip mining by driving coal prices so low that underground mines couldn’t meet TVA’s terms.
July 29, 1965: Thirty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the United States on its way to becoming the Great Society by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority as an agency supposedly dedicated to efforts to save the land and the people of a great section of the nation… Today we have foreign writers and photographers and public officials and tourists by the dozen who… take a look, wonder at the folly of the United States and go away questioning whether their own countries should any longer listen to this country.
July 16, 1959: The case [of a transferred teacher] thus becomes a typical example of the kind of thing that happens far too often in the Letcher County school system. Teachers who are not liked by the superintendent simply are transferred to other schools. The roll call of able Letcher County teachers who have been pushed around in this manner is a lengthy one.
October 4, 1962: No teacher in our schools should have to contribute funds to a politician to protect his or her job. No school bus driver, no classroom supervisor, no lunchroom cook, no janitor, should have to make such donations…
November 22, 1989: Translated, what the state board is saying is that poor students are too stupid, too dumb to learn – that intelligence goes with family income, and that low family income equates with stupidity. Poor equals dumb; rich equals smart.
September 16, 1992: The Mountain Eagle found itself in court in Whitesburg this week — not in its customary role of reporter. Instead, we were in court to insist upon the newspaper’s right to report happenings in another case… We went to the trouble to again make clear to one and all that The Mountain Eagle and its editors and reporters take seriously their obligation to report the news. The Eagle will not be pushed aside without all the screaming and clawing the old bird can muster.
Soon after Tom and Pat bought The Mountain Eagle, they found that there was no such thing, in those days, as a federal, state or local antipoverty program – a fact brought home when desperate people came to the Eagle office seeking financial help.
February 19, 1959: It should not be necessary for a woman to go before the fiscal court and beg food for her children … And she ought not to have to wonder every morning whether there will be something on her family’s table that night.
New York Times reporter Homer Bigart came to Eastern Kentucky in 1963 to report on poverty. His front-page reports prompted President Kennedy to begin planning a war on poverty. Bigart used the Eagle office as his base and talked hopefully with Tom and Pat about what Kennedy might be able to accomplish. But many local politicians reacted in anger to what they saw as adverse publicity.
November 21, 1963: It is easy to say the people of eastern Kentucky are shiftless, lazy, no good, as is being said by many of our so-called leaders. And of course some people are lazy and some had rather draw welfare than work. But this is not true of the majority and even it were universally true, you can’t penalize the father and mother of a half dozen kids without also penalizing those children.
Twenty-four hours later President Kennedy was dead. In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional” war on poverty. That so-called war was soon compromised by political maneuvering and by the competing demands of a real war in Vietnam, and never became what it might have been.
January 9, 1964: We sadly fear … that President Johnson, in formulating his Appalachian program, has listened to the men of little courage in Frankfort and Washington who run in terror at the mention of public power and who instead of true development would give eastern Kentucky another decade of planning and talking…
June 30, 1966: Hunger is at hand, and starvation is just around the corner in many households as their almost non-existent resources are exhausted. Starvation thus becomes an official weapon of the United States Government as it seeks to impose its will upon the already kicked and downtrodden of eastern Kentucky.
November 12, 1997: President Clinton and others who have pushed the rape of America’s unfortunates in the name of balancing the national budget deserve nothing but complete and total public contempt.
July 12, 1989: President George Bush is in Poland this week, preaching the virtues of the American private enterprise system to Polish coal miners and other members of the Solidarity movement. We hope that when Mr. Bush returns to America, he can find time to pay some attention to the increasing plight of the American miner and his endangered union.
September 10, 1997: Nothing is more important in eastern Kentucky than the health and safety of our basic workforce, the coal miners. And it is clear that the coal mines, mine safety in general, and working conditions for the coal miner have been slip-sliding backward…
The Nixon administration, pursuing a strategy to build political support in small towns across the country, provided local law enforcement agencies with generous federal funding for guns, patrol cars, and payrolls. One result was that poorly trained police officers with nothing better to do began harassing teenagers who had committed no offense. The Mountain Eagle reported on these abuses and repeatedly editorialized against them.
May 16, 1974: If you are a teenage boy out in a car at night, you can expect to be followed, stopped, searched, cussed out, and generally harassed by our local officers. It is a crime to be a teenager in Letcher County.
On August 1, 1974, the Eagle was firebombed. Most of its photo archives and much of its production equipment were destroyed. The subsequent arson investigation eventually found that coal operators had paid a Whitesburg city policeman to have the paper torched. Meanwhile, for many months, Tom and Pat published the paper from their living room. Eagle ‘alumni’ hurried to Whitesburg to help, but local reaction was mixed, with many Letcher Countians making it clear that they wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagle go out of business.
August 22, 1974: It sure is a temptation to say yes to some of those people who have been wanting for years to buy us out. But we are too mean and ornery to quit. We’re going to stay right in there with it. Don’t ask us why. We have no good reason. Call it stubbornness. Or stupidity… So we are trying to put it all together again. Our first loyalties are to those who subscribe to and depend upon the Eagle… And if we sound a bit angry when we answer the telephone…well, we are trying to get back our sense of humor. Some things, though, you just can’t laugh away.
November 6, 1975: We have made every effort to take the side of the little guy, the working man, whenever controversy has arisen. If the little fellow at the head of Pert Creek can’t turn to the newspaper when fiscal court refuses to do anything about road conditions, where can he go? … And we have tried to keep up with the basic news of the county by attending and thoroughly reporting meetings… And we have reported when parents have complained to us that their children have been beaten by police. As long as we own the Eagle, we will continue to do these things, to report events as we find them, to champion the mountain man and his family against all who would abuse them… And we guess that is why The Mountain Eagle was burned.
On elections and freedom of the press
Letcher County elections in November 2006 were marred when the election-eve issue of the Eagle, carrying a front-page report on election topics, was removed from newsstands in Whitesburg and elsewhere in the county.
November 15, 2006: An effort was made last week to put The Mountain Eagle out of business. Take the paper away from the people who read it each week and the paper will die a quick, short death. A newspaper cannot exist without readers… We do not know who arranged the disappearance of thousands of Mountain Eagles before anyone had a chance to see them… The Eagle has received an unprecedented outpouring of support in recent days, and we are deeply grateful. We in no way blame the people of the county for what has happened. If the truth ever becomes known, we think it will trace back to a handful of powerful interests who want to control every single thing in the county: no disagreements, no opposition, no hints of dissent to be tolerated – the old way of doing things. Fire the coal miner who wants a union, don’t re-hire the teacher who disagrees, take away the food stamps, the free medications, the welfare checks of anyone who dares express a thought of their own… On a more personal note, we at the Eagle struggled with ourselves after arsonists burned us down in 1974. We are troubled now by the effort to take the paper from the hands of its readers. But we are determined to continue what we do: Give you readers the facts on the things that happen in the county and sometimes elsewhere. We don’t have the time or the reporting staff to report it all, but we do what we do with good intentions, determination, and a lot of love for the mountains and mountain people.