In the mid-1970’s I was making $78 a week as one of the editors of a literary magazine, Mountain Review. A filmmaker named Allida Herrick offered me half of her second job, driving The Mountain Eagle to the printer. That was another 40 bucks every other Wednesday. Groceries and/or beer.
The Mountain Eagle was famous. It had already won the John Peter Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press. The New York Times had won for the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post for Watergate, and the Eagle next for pluck. The downtown office had been burned to the ground by cops after reports on police abuse and local corruption. The paper then moved up to what was once a hardware store on Tunnel Hill, the quarters made even tighter by stacks of newspapers and months of Congressional Records that shaped a makeshift anteroom.
That’s where I sat, because it was rare that the paper was put to bed by the time it was supposed to hit the road. I loved that waiting part. Tom and Pat Gish would preside over the last-minute business of finishing the make-up, getting stories and ads to fit. And I would read through those Congressional Records and crack wise trying to get a grin out of the more taciturn Tom at his desk or acknowledgement from Pat, who was the impresario giving directions and making last minute changes. She had both a knowing smile and a winning laugh. That I strived for. Then with a nod toward fatalism, she would entrust me and the camera-ready proof sheets to their weathered station wagon.
Each time she told me in detail about the shortcut past Pyramid and David that saved 15 minutes to Prestonsburg. And each time I flew passing overloaded coal trucks on nearly straight stretches, switching back and forth between the two cassettes in the front seat, the Eagles “On the Border” and Dicky Betts “Highway Call.” That was good work.
[Last] week Pat died at age 87. The list of honors overwhelms. The journalists who cut their teeth at the Eagle are as impressive again: authors of books, labor and corporate leaders, a Pulitzer winner, and among them one of the founding editors of the Daily Yonder. Pat and Tom were outstanding reporters, fierce advocates and true public-minded citizens. Pat spent years providing low-income housing for families in east Kentucky where low incomes rule the roost. There are generations of kids who never knew her name who grew up warm and safe because of the work she led when she was also putting out the paper and raising a family cut from the same cloth.
I sat in on film interviews with Tom and Pat in different eras. The dearest lesson I learned from their reflection was something they took from Tom’s dad, a Letcher County mine foreman. People here are smart. They have had to make do with less. They are creative. They work hard. Don’t talk down to them. She never did. — Dee Davis
Reared by my parents Freddy and Sarah Oakes, my brother Tommy and I grew up in Thornton next door to my grandparents, Tom and Pat Gish. I watched them tend to their vegetable gardens and flower gardens. Most holidays were celebrated at their house and of course dinner conversations were interesting.
Although she didn’t drive, my “Granny Pat” liked to go into the office much earlier than “Daddy Tom.” She rode into town with us many mornings as Dad took Tommy and me to West Whitesburg Elementary and Whitesburg Middle schools.
Dad picked us up from school and took us to the old Eagle office located in Parkway Plaza in Whitesburg. For a couple of hours each weekday afternoon I observed my grandparents in their element. Over the years, I watched and listened as people came into the office to talk to my grandparents. They always treated people with respect, as they genuinely listened to the concerns of others and helped them in any way that they could.
While hanging around the office I would gather bits and pieces of what was going on in Letcher County.
I was fascinated with the way she typed. Because she never took a typing class, I refused to take one. If typing with two fingers was good enough for Granny Pat, then it is good enough for me. She typed fast, too.
She was an even better proofreader and editor. Granny Pat was quick to correct me when I was a child. She was never mean about it; she was just preparing me for later years. If I asked “Where is Tommy at?,” she replied, “Behind the at.” And she insisted that “ain’t” is not a word. Whenever I showed her my schoolwork, she edited it as if it was a newspaper article.
I never really gave any thought about actually becoming a journalist. It was their cup of tea, not mine. Undecided of what major to declare, I headed off to Lexington in the fall of 2000 to attend the University of Kentucky, the same institution where my grandparents met and graduated with journalism degrees. Granny Pat suggested that I take a journalism class. She said I would enjoy it. A year and a half later, I finally took her advice and enrolled in Journalism 101. Of all the classes I took, that was the one that interested me the most. I ended up majoring in journalism with an emphasis on Appalachian Studies.
Gathering news and writing stories excited me in a way that nothing else did. I couldn’t wait to interview people and hear their stories.
After my husband Derek Barto and I married in 2004, we moved to Whitesburg and I started working at The Eagle. Granny Pat and Daddy Tom were supportive and encouraging.
Until about six years ago, they stopped by the Eagle office often. If Granny Pat saw me with my camera bag on my shoulder and my keys in my hand, she asked me where I was heading. After I told her, she smiled and said “Have fun.” I think she had fun as a reporter. She felt that same excitement as I do.
Granny Pat was such an intelligent, strong and confident woman. She was also very kind and humble. She sure had a sweet laugh.
She spent most of her adult life working at the Eagle with her husband. They had such a special bond and her eyes sparkled when she was around him.
Times have changed since the 1950s and some of those changes are because of their efforts to keep their readers in the know. We still believe that it is important to cover government meetings. The public needs to know about decisions officials make that will affect their lives.
I am honored to be working at Granny Pat’s newspaper. I miss her dearly. — Sally Barto
NOTE: Dee Davis lives in Whitesburg, where he is publisher of the Daily Yonder, a multi-media website (www.dailyyonder.com). Sally Barto also lives in Whitesburg and is a reporter for The Mountain Eagle.