Many people loved and were loved by Tom Gish, who died November 21 after publishing The Mountain Eagle for nearly 52 years. Some were family members by dint of heredity. Others came to Letcher County to work at The Eagle, not knowing that they too would become family. When they went on to other pursuits, they went secure in the knowledge that wherever they were, their family — Tom and Pat and the kids and the Eagle — would always be close to their hearts, always in their thoughts. Many members of the Gish family, immediate and extended, shared their thoughts with us this week.
An American patriot
The indelible picture in my mind of Tom Gish is the day in 1974 when I showed up in Whitesburg to offer whatever assistance I could after the firebombing of The Mountain Eagle. Tom was sitting on his front porch, banging away on a typewriter to get out a very rudimentary version of his paper. Across the masthead he had typed, “It Still Screams!”
One measure of Tom is how far the news of his death spread. I found obituaries in papers from Louisville, Lexington, Williamson, Nashville, Buffalo, Boston, New York, Washington — all around America, all around Asia, all around the world. In some he was called a “renowned” editor. In others he was called a “crusader.” The Associated Press, with whom Tom was a fierce competitor when he was the Frankfort bureau chief of the rival United Press, cited his courage in “shining a spotlight on corruption and environmental degradation.” One obituary noted that local critics had accused Tom and Pat of being communists. Others described him as an environmentalist. But it takes a much longer yardstick to really measure this man.
Tom Gish, above all else, was truly an American patriot. Born of Republican parents in a coal mining family in Letcher County, he was an accidental crusader, if indeed that word is even apt. Tom simply took the Founding Fathers at their word: A free people, properly informed, will seek justice, and their elected representatives will ensure that all men and women are treated equally and receive their fair share of the bounties that are bestowed upon us all. That was the hope of Thomas Jefferson, a mountain man himself, when he enshrined in the Bill of Rights freedom of the press, speech, religion, right of petition, and all the other liberties we enjoy.
The true measure of Tom Gish is the extent to which he found those promises unfulfilled and the enduring battle he fought — and the sacrifices he and his entire family made — to try to make those promises a reality. In a time when the ethos of the age is every man for himself and government is the enemy, Tom still believed that government could be made to serve the people, to ensure that all have food on the table, an opportunity for a job, the right to have their property protected, and the right to be happy, joyous and free. That is the measure of Tom Gish and, sadly, it is a marker of how far we have strayed in journalism, politics and business that he seemed to be in a distinct minority.
Tom and Pat have had an incredible influence on our government in righting many of the wrongs they saw. The Mountain Eagle’s reach to legislators and the national and international press corps shaped legislation ranging from food stamps, Head Start, Title I of the education act, Black Lung compensation, mine safety legislation, stripmining legislation, housing assistance, to name only a few — all done from a weekly newspaper.
In February 2007 I had a chance to talk with Tom about a variety of topics at his home in Thornton. I found him at 81 to be a man still burning with a sense of justice. He had thought through what this nation would reap from its profligacy of indebtedness, its embrace of empire-building abroad and its disdain of regulation. We are now reaping the economic calamity he saw coming from the policies of the past few decades. Surprisingly, perhaps, to some, Tom had already concluded that both political parties were committed to the same tired agenda and the only hope was that the people of the country would wake up in time to see the crisis before them and decide to change course. It is sad that Tom won’t have the chance to influence the Obama administration, but hopefully others with the best interests of the people in the mountains will have that opportunity and Washington will listen.
Tom’s other hope was that the internet would put into the hands of the public the tools to be really informed on where the power in the region and the nation lies and where the money trail inevitably leads. To that end, Tom, Pat and the Mountain Eagle family have inspired journalists all over the mountains and the nation to follow their example.
Finally, I found Tom to be remarkably at peace with himself for the battles he had waged over the decades. His sense of humor was intact, his intellect as incisive as ever, his hope for the region and the nation still alive. He was mellow. His smile and laughter were larger than ever. This man was not a crusader. Rather, he was truly an American patriot, a man consumed with a passion for democratic action and a deep belief in the ultimate triumph of the common man and woman in achieving the American dream. He seemed happy, joyous and free. His was truly a life well lived and an example to others well engraved. We will miss him more than we know.
— Jim Branscome
Wait through the pause
When I first began working at The Mountain Eagle, I was full of grand plans to write about strip mining, poverty and the other major issues of the day. And I figured I already knew about reporting — after all, I’d edited my college paper. It didn’t take long for Tom and Pat Gish to set me straight and onto a journalistic path that still guides me nearly 40 years later. Yes, such “big” stories were important to the Eagle, Tom explained, but to really connect with Eagle readers and understand them and their region, I also needed to write about the school board and the fiscal court and get to know as many people as possible, even if I never used them in a story. That local credibility enabled the Eagle and its reporters to scream to the nation. County correspondents such as Mabel Kiser and Siller Brown and Sara Ison were as essential to the Eagle as any outside reporter — truth to tell, more essential.
Another lesson stays with me. Early on, after Tom overheard my interview with someone, he said I’d asked the right questions and treated the subject respectfully. “Just one thing,” he said, reaching for the white-out fluid we used back in those days to fix our flawed typewritten copy. “You’re from the North, and you all talk kind of fast. Around here, when someone pauses, it’s often meant to be a semi-colon, not a period.”
Have the patience to wait through the pause — something memorable might follow. He was so right. Especially during all those long talks that I’ll so miss having with Tom Gish.
— Phil Primack
His iron will
He was at once a fierce and gentle man. Complex in his beliefs. Straightforward in his actions. Dedicated to his family and to his craft as a newspaperman. He could be infuriating in his determination to speak his mind — either through the newspaper or directly to those of us who worked with him on both the newspaper and in the larger world of Appalachian issues and politics where he was regarded as a major intellectual and moral force.
Yet I remember him best from the late-night conversations that we would have when his family was put to bed and he could step back from the daily strains of putting out a newspaper and talk more broadly about eastern Kentucky, about life in the coalfields, about ways in which this country could recognize all of the talents and gifts which its people embody in their lives.
He and Pat, when they were not working on deadline, would head home from the office to a houseful of energetic kids. They would whip up a gourmet meal, feed the family and send them off to bed, and then settle into the sofa for meandering conversations that usually lasted deep into the night. Pat would drift off to sleep while leaning on Tom’s shoulder on the sofa, and Tom would keep up a steady stream of observations, insights, humor and political stories until all the rest of us were exhausted and saturated with the experience. The next day he would emerge seemingly refreshed and the hard work would start over again. I never understood how he could maintain this routine day after day and year after year and still retain his humor, his commitment to the work, and his ability to sustain himself and his family despite all the hardships and obstacles — and sometimes the real fear of knowing that he had enemies who week after week tried to put his newspaper out of business.
I saw his iron will first-hand in the days after the arson fire that destroyed the newspaper office in 1974. I spent several weeks helping to clean up the debris. One day, just after the fire, several of us were peeling the burnt debris from the office interior. Near the back door where the fire started, under the rubble, I found a pile of halfcharred Eagle copies that were stained red and orange and smelled of gasoline. I called Tom and Pat into the room and we looked at the remains of a fire-bomb. Tom examined the material and then told Pat to phone the state fire marshal. His eyes teared up and he asked us all, “Who could have done this to us?” Then he went back to work.
In those chaotic and confusing days following the fire, we all shared fear about what might lie ahead. It would have been foolish not to be fearful. But Tom and Pat dealt with their fears and held to their course. They were determined to keep the Eagle free and clear and independent. And they did so, in their own unique way as a loving and caring team, for over 50 years.
Tom was a small-d democrat. He believed in the virtues of living in a small town where people knew each other and could relate to each other as neighbors. But he was no romantic. He knew that small-town life could also be limited and petty, and that some people, all too often, were intolerant of different political views. He had to confront this reality in running The Mountain Eagle for he was determined to make it an institution that could offer its readers a diverse menu of information, advertising, and opinion. Most of all, he believed that if you gave people good information, it improved the odds that they would make good and wise decisions. For him the Eagle was a tool to bring change to his beloved eastern Kentucky, and he made it a beacon that could be used and measured every week in the year. He made it shine. And for all of us, thankfully, the Eagle still screams! Thank you, Tom.
— Mike Clark
The most important thing
I learned a very important lesson from Tom while I was working at The Mountain Eagle. One day I asked him what was the most important thing about publishing a weekly newspaper in the coalfields. I expected to hear some stirring prose about democracy and freedom of ideas.
Tom said, “Get the paper out every week.”
— Chuck Shuford
Tom Sawyer Gish
It all started with the candy making, right about the time I grew tall enough to see over the kitchen stove. Dad would ask if I wanted some of his famous fudge, or caramels, or fondant. What kid doesn’t want fudge? Soon enough I’d be standing on a chair, stirring and stirring while Dad relaxed on the couch, reading a newspaper, just as he had intended all along.
One Sunday dinnertime when I was seven, he suggested that it might be fun for me to learn to make biscuits. After we measured the ingredients, he cautioned me not to over-knead the dough, and not to twist the biscuit cutter too much, lest I fail to get the proper rise in the end. When I dropped the dough onto the floor and started to cry, he told me that it would be our little secret, all the while assuring me that making biscuits is great fun. That first batch was a towering success, and I have been the designated Gish-family biscuit maker ever since.
Tom Gish could Tom Sawyer you like nobody else.
From biscuits we progressed to white sauces, on to more complicated butter sauces and finally to soufflés and fancy desserts. I resisted his later attempts to teach me about bread making, and right now I can’t think of a single thing that I regret more.
At the Eagle — where I did much of my growing up — he would let us play with the lessfragile equipment when no one else was using it. I was a whirlwind typist long before I knew what any of the letters meant. I was a child with a never-ending supply of paper, and glue, and markers, and with two great parents who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted with them.
Shortly after our biscuit triumph, Dad taught me how to develop and print my own pictures, and soon enough I was the part-time staff photographer and darkroom technician. Through it all, he was a generally patient teacher who encouraged trial and error, at least to some extent (film was one of the Eagle’s bigger expenses). But he always demanded a certain level of professionalism, even from children — alas, sister Kitty’s brilliant “Colonel Sanders Kicks Bucket” obituary headline did not make it into the paper.
Our parents never stopped encouraging us to try new things, and we always knew there was some danger involved. Once you had begun to master a fun new task, it was likely to become your new job, and you would be expected to keep getting better at it. By the age of 16, each of us kids could basically cook a good dinner and publish an entire newspaper all by ourselves. Mom and Dad had bigger pots to stir.
The lines between the office and home — between work and play, pleasure and passion, duty and accomplishment — have always been blurry for my siblings and me. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just how we were raised.
— Ray Gish
Tom was a hero to all those of us who care about coal miners and the people and mountains of eastern Kentucky. He was a voice for the powerless because he was unafraid of the powerful.
— Tony Oppegard
The Eagle was the first stop
I probably ought to start this piece by marveling at the tenacity, honesty, courage, and sheer bull-headedness that Tom Gish exhibited, in lockstep with Pat, during their long tenure as owners of The Mountain Eagle. All true, but these words don’t evoke Tom for me. Iconic attributes won him many well-deserved awards, but my everyday association long ago is what produces the memories that mean something to me now.
I showed up in Whitesburg in August 1967. My timing was inauspicious. Three of my colleagues who worked, as I did, for the Southern Conference Educational Fund, had just been arrested for sedition — arrests prompted by their nonviolent opposition to strip mining, but that’s another story. The Gishes had enough trouble on their hands without entertaining someone as tainted as I appeared to be. The Letcher County powers-that-be were hostile and the Gishes were losing advertisers. Nevertheless they welcomed me to the Eagle’s newsroom without ever mentioning that I must have seemed just another potential yoke around their necks as they struggled to keep the paper afloat.
I kept my day job but soon began helping to get the Eagle out by typing up the community news columns that grounded the paper. For many readers they must have been a needed counterweight to the investigative journalism that the Gishes saw as the necessary centerpiece of any journalistic enterprise. I got quite good at editing the news from Carcassonne and elsewhere, changing it just enough to create a string of diagrammable sentences without losing the essential flavor of the correspondent. That skill kept me on the staff until I finally left Whitesburg, even though I once jeopardized my relationship with the Gishes by writing a sarcastic, bylined story, published elsewhere, about Peter Edelman’s PT-109 pin. Edelman was advancing the famous Robert Kennedy trip to Appalachia in 1968. In retrospect my story was quite unfair. I didn’t hear directly from Tom about it, but I did hear that he was furious. I was surprised that he seemed to have placed some faith in RFK’s trip. Tom was not one to place much faith in politicians of any stripe. Fortunately I survived the transgression.
In those days the Eagle’s tiny newsroom was also its pressroom and archive. Stacks of mail, opened and unopened, lay everywhere. I used to curse the press releases that lacked a year on the dateline, for fear we would print last year’s news or worse. Doing duty in the office brought home the immediacy of running a small-town paper, like the time an accused murderer came in to complain that we had published her name when she was formally charged. I dealt with her carefully.
Back then Tom served not only as editor and publisher but also as lead pressman and repair crew. A big offset press occupied much of the room, and it was not always reliable. I once came upon Tom on his hands and knees scrunched up under the press and asked him what he was looking for. “I don’t know,” he said, “and if I find it I won’t know where it goes.” When the press gave out we made a mad dash to get the pages to Pikeville for printing, and later to Norton, Va. That resulted in a challenge to the paper’s being the paper of record for legal notices, a significant source of income. These threats to the Eagle’s existence were balanced, to some extent, by the steady stream of outside journalists come to write the Appalachian story, back when big city papers and television networks actually cared about the rural poor. They all knew that the Eagle had to be their first stop.
I spent a Thanksgiving with the Gishes, which included scalloped oysters that I still remember fondly. The next day we had leftovers that combined the turkey and canned pineapple in some way, and when I asked Pat where she got the recipe, she told me it came in the electric bill. “But don’t tell Tom,” she said, “or he won’t eat it.” He had been battling the power company, which had cancelled ads because of the Eagle’s coverage of its price increases.
When I heard of Tom’s death, I went to The Mountain Eagle’s website. There I found stories about a proposed raise in garbage rates, a lagging sewer project, and the conviction of one Verlin Ray Short for “illegally buying, selling, and transporting reptiles.” The Eagle still screams, but this reader has a catch in her throat.
— Suzanne Crowell
Over the years, reporters for The Mountain Eagle have been threatened, harassed, prosecuted and even beaten. When I went to work there in 1986, right out of college, Pat’s advice was: “If anyone doesn’t like what you’ve written, tell them you’re sorry they feel that way and walk away.” Tom’s advice: “Tell them to go to hell.”
— Sam Adams
They broke the mold
I’d write about my grandfather if I could find the words. They are slow in coming. But I have been listening, again and again, to the song Bruce Springsteen wrote after losing his best friend, and he sings my thoughts.
Well they built the Titanic to be one of a kind, but many ships have ruled the seas. They built the Eiffel Tower to stand alone,
but they could build another if they please.
Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt, are unique, I suppose,
but when they built you, brother, they broke the mold…
…Now your death is upon us and we’ll return your ashes to the earth and I know you’ll take comfort in knowing you’ve been roundly blessed and cursed. But love is a power greater than death,
just like the songs and stories told
and when she built you, brother, she broke the mold.
— Tommy Oakes
Grit, Pat and children
When I think of Tom Gish, one word sticks in my mind: courage.
I first went to work for Tom and Pat in the fall of 1974, shortly after a Virginia coal operator hired a rogue Whitesburg city policeman to burn down the Eagle office on Main Street. Tom was still recovering from his 1972 heart attack and was also suffering from phlebitis, an affliction he shared with Pat. No wonder: they stayed up — standing up — all night at least one night every week to lay out display ads and put the Eagle to bed.
For several months after the fire, their living room was the Eagle office, and the couch in the living room was my bed. For me, at least, it was a scary time, those months following the fire. At one point, in the days leading up to Christmas 1974, a man claiming to be a former state police investigator told Tom that the investigation of the arson might be all well and good, as far as it went, but that he knew that several strip mine operators were still planning to run Tom out of town, one way or another. He advised Tom to buy a shotgun and keep it loaded.
Of course, Tom did not do that. Instead, he relied on his own grit, on Pat and the children, and on the good will of the fiercely loyal readers of the Mountain Eagle. And he never quit. Has there ever been a journalist more devoted to telling the truth in his own hometown?
— David Massey
Wanted good schools
Tom Gish was a great champion of better schools. I knew him in the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) era as a state board member when I served as Commissioner of Education. Some called him “prickly” in his ardent advocacy and independent perspective. I knew him as a passionate man devoted to his people and their future. May peace be with you.
— Tom Boysen
I’ll always cherish knowing how much Dad loved all of us. And when I think of him, I’ll think first of his smile. The road to our house goes right behind his, and whenever I was passing by, on the way to or from our house, I’d look to see if he was outside, working with his flowers or just enjoying the outdoors. And if he was, he would stop whatever he was doing and wave — with a huge smile on his face. Or he might be inside, standing in the doorway — smiling and waving. “Hi, sweetie,” he would call. “Hi, sweetie.” Even if the door was closed, even if I couldn’t hear his voice, I knew what he was saying. I think those are just about the two best words there ever were.
He said those words to Mom, too, more times than I can count. I will always treasure his love for her. He was so proud of her, so proud to be her husband, and always — always — excited to see her.
“Hi, sweetie.” I hope I’ll always hear those words in my heart.
— Sarah Gish Oakes
He gave us courage
One of the great hearts of the Appalachian Mountains stopped beating last week, and we are sad beyond measure at the passing of Tom Gish.
But this is how I will remember him: Tom Gish made me happy. He and Pat will always be two of the brightest lights of my life.
Time spent with Tom and Pat were the best of times for so many of us who came of age in these mountains. The widening circle of friends and adopted “cousins,” to whom they opened their doors and hearts, became our own extended family.
He gave us courage. He gave us hope. He set a standard for truth and decency that is a hard act to follow, and he inspired us to follow it anyway, despite all the pitfalls. He gave many of us the foundation for our life’s work, an on-the-job training and education that was both freely given and unmatched in the world of independent journalism.
He cared, and everything he did followed from that. That was the bottom line. You could be naive, inexperienced, a novice in his worlds of newspapering, photography, and the land and people he loved, but he tolerated all flaws — if you cared.
And he never gave up.
Tom was also a rare combination of realist and visionary who understood the value of home. When their house in Whitesburg was taken to make way for the new highway, Tom and Pat dreamed of a new homeplace for their family. They bought some land up an east-facing hollow off Thornton Creek, and proceeded to plan and plant a little piece of paradise. Today, 34 years later, their Thornton place is infused with his spirit: outdoors alive with his gardens and trees, indoors overflowing with the books and music and people whom he held in his wide embrace.
We are so thankful to have had him in our lives.
— Lauran Emerson
Flowers, berries and family
I write for Tom Gish’s newspaper. I’m also his granddaughter. Those who knew Tom Gish only through his journalistic accomplishments knew only one side of a great man. The other side wasn’t visible while he sat in an office typing powerful editorials.
My grandfather — Daddy Tom — was a family man who took great pride and interest in every single member of his family. He would record television programs and set aside newspaper articles that he thought each of us would like. He loved taking pictures of his family, flowers and Pine Mountain. He printed his pictures and enjoyed giving prints to those he thought would appreciate them.
Daddy Tom loved flowers — all kinds of flowers. He would plant them and give people the plants he had started from seeds.
He planted raspberry and blueberry bushes at his Thornton home several years ago and spent many hours happily picking the berries. Whatever he didn’t give away to friends, he would use to make delicious jams, jellies and sweet desserts.
Daddy Tom loved listening to classical music. He loved gadgets (except for the ones he couldn’t figure out how to work). He was a big fan of University of Kentucky football and basketball. Most of all, he loved spending time with his wife, whom he affectionately called “darling” and “sweetie.”
Daddy Tom had a witty sense of humor, a memorable chuckle and a beautiful smile.
Though he received many prestigious journalism awards throughout the years, Daddy Tom earned a title on July 5, 2007 that he never thought he would live long enough to have bestowed upon him. He became a great-grandfather and one who thought that every little thing his great-grandson did was brilliant.
As his granddaughter I am extremely proud of my Daddy Tom for everything he has accomplished. He is the epitome of integrity.
— Sally Barto
The turnip that looked like Lincoln
“Don’t ever think you know more than the people who read the Eagle, because you don’t,” Tom would (sternly) tell new reporters. “Eagle subscribers are as smart as anybody in the country.” A day or two later, Tom would say it again, just to make sure you understood.
The stories told about Tom since his death describe the courage and integrity he and Pat showed over the past half century. All the stories are all true. And Tom was right about so many things in what he wrote — about failed federal policies, the ravages of strip mining, unsafe mines and dishonest government.
What I remember most, however, about Tom and Pat (because they were and are inseparable) was their complete faith in the people of Letcher County. Tom believed that if the people who plunked down their quarters for the Eagle had all the facts they would come to the right decision. Tom and Pat didn’t consider readers to be customers. They were partners in democracy, and so the first rule of the Eagle was that readers deserved respect.
The second rule was that the Eagle’s community columnists were the most important people at the paper. The columns arrived — still arrive, no doubt — handwritten on taped-together scrolls of yellow paper or pecked out with fading typewriter ribbons on onionskin. Our job was to transfer this work to newspaper columns without alteration. Tom and Pat knew that these reports were the most honest accounts of life to be found in the paper and would only be ruined by trying to force them into standard journalistic forms.
The third rule was that anything and everything went into the paper. If someone walked into the Eagle office with a turnip that resembled Abraham Lincoln, you took a photograph of the presidential vegetable and got it in the paper. Notes from weddings, funerals, visits, promotions, graduations or a picture of long-lost relative, resurrected from a box in the attic — they all found a place in the paper. The Eagle wasn’t something that “we” in the newspaper office produced for “them” in Letcher County. That wasn’t the kind of publication Tom and Pat had in mind at all. They wanted a paper that was the weekly expression of everybody in the county, a journal that was not published for a community but one written by the community.
Tom believed enough in democracy to allow it to live on the pages of his newspaper. Now Tom is gone and it’s up to those of us left behind to remind everyone that what the Eagle says is important, but that how the paper says it is vital.
— Bill Bishop
Recipes not tried yet
Dad taught me not to be afraid of failure. When I was choosing where to attend college, Dad told me over and over that I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted to do. I was scared when I boarded an airplane and flew a thousand miles away to college, but I kept hearing his voice, reassuring me that people from eastern Kentucky are every bit as smart as “city people.”
Dad always told me that even if only half the things I try work out the way I want them to, that 50-percent success rate can make a big difference.
His love of cooking and gardening was contagious. My thumb is not nearly as green as his was, but I’m willing to plant two rose bushes and still feel successful if only one grows. I try new recipes with the knowledge that it’s okay if the results are disappointing — the next try will be better.
We will miss him terribly — but he’s still here, not just in our hearts but in the roses, azaleas, day lilies and rhododendrons waiting to bloom next spring and every spring to follow. And he’s here in the new recipes I haven’t tried yet.
— Kitty Gish
An intense lesson in newspapering
I came under The Mountain Eagle’s wing as an extremely inexperienced, unworldly 19-yearold, a University of Kentucky sophomore planning to major in journalism and lucky enough to land in Whitesburg for a year as part of the VISTA program.
The Gish family, with Tom at the helm, gave me an intense lesson in the art of newspapering. It wasn’t until much later, as a practicing journalist, that I realized what a profound effect Tom and Pat had had on me. Nowhere else could I have learned first-hand the importance of truth, courage and persistence in the newspaper business and in life.
And I learned a great deal about friendship and loyalty, too, as folks from “up North” came to Whitesburg to spend weeks, months or years working at the Eagle without getting paid. And I’m talking about hard work: not only reporting and writing, taking photos and then processing the film and developing the prints, but also pasting down copy, staying up all night once a week to finish that week’s edition, and running the addressing machine the next morning and delivering the papers to country stores all over Letcher County.
People wanted to come and do all that without getting paid? What the heck was that all about? I soon understood how Tom and Pat could inspire that kind of loyalty.
I remember Ben as a devil-may-care high school kid who seemed not much interested in newspapering. But of course as Tom’s son he has always been an integral part of The Mountain Eagle and now he carries on his father’s legacy. In fact, it would be impossible to be a Gish progeny or one of The Mountain Eagle “alums” and not, in some way, carry a part of Tom and Pat’s remarkable determination and indomitable spirit. Those of us lucky enough to do so will keep Tom’s memory alive.
— Sallie Bright
In a word
We’ve lost our hero.
— Ann Gish
Write a fair story
Back in the 1970s when I was a reporter at The Mountain Eagle, still young and searching for my role as a writer, Tom Gish gave me the courage to stick with the truth rather than fiction.
I had come to the Eagle from a run-of-themill daily where I was expected to gather explanations from spokesmen for various companies and interest groups and insert them into my articles even when I knew that their statements were just meant to fog the issues at hand.
I wrote a piece, for instance, about Paradise, a town in western Kentucky whose environs had been turned into an ecologically debilitated moonscape by the Peabody Coal Company, and was told by my editor to focus not on the destruction but on the reclamation work — the paltry reclamation work — that the company had been required to perform. I tried to toe the line, because I feared being branded as a troublemaker and dismissed, but I couldn’t live with being gagged and quit.
Moving on to the Eagle, I hoped I’d have a better chance at writing something of value. My first big story for Tom was about eastern Kentucky’s roads, which were being wrecked by trucks carrying illegally overweight loads of coal. I got information that the authorities were not fining the coal companies that were running the trucks, and I got statements from the companies that the problem was not with their trucks but with whoever hadn’t built the roads thick enough. I took my notes to Tom, wanting to know how to deal with this contradiction.
He looked me straight in the eye and asked, “What do you think is happening?” At once, my mind expanded, gathering together the evidence I’d collected and my intuition and weighing that against the companies’ explanation. The roads were not the problem. Tom said: “Write a fair story.”
I saw Tom get the truth out in more than one way. During the gruesome disaster when the Scotia Mine near Whitesburg exploded twice in 1976, killing 26, the Eagle was the first to get the story: The mine owner had scrimped on ventilation, allowing lethal concentrations of methane gas to build up underground. We had the story, but before we went to press Tom shared it with the flock of big-daily reporters who had descended on Whitesburg. He didn’t care who scooped whom. He invited the reporters to the Eagle’s cramped office, where the paper’s small and intense staff was laying out the paper’s pages, and let them all read our coverage and take what they wanted. And he also had an entire roasted turkey brought in to feed his fellow journalists as they pursued what he hoped would be the truth.
— Helen Winternitz
Stay calm, dammit
He battled environmental abuses of stripmining, but it hurt him — badly — when people said he wasn’t “pro-coal.” And they said it all the time: “That Tom Gish, he’s just an ornery outsider. He doesn’t care about our people.”
He was ornery, that’s true, but he cared, more than they would ever know, and he was no outsider. He was born in a coal camp — Seco — and his dad Ben rose from the ranks to run the South-East Coal Company’s mines, which were among the safest and best-managed mines in eastern Kentucky. He was intensely proud that his dad had invented the roof bolt, which probably saved more miners’ lives than any other technological advance of the 20th century.
Tom Gish fought for mine safety, publicized corruption in the miners’ union, fought for water and sewer systems in the coal camps, fought to save the Miners’ Memorial Hospitals (now ARH), fought to expose TVA for subsidizing low-cost, no-reclamation stripmining, fought to publicize black lung and get it recognized as a compensable occupational health disease. Anticoal? No, he was as pro-coal as they come. He just wanted it done right.
He wanted everything done right. When I was 17, my friend Wayne Palumbo and I tried our hand at raising two acres of cucumbers for Paramount foods. To make our “pickle farm” work we found out we had to have bees, and I became their designated keeper. Dad helped us out by ordering the hives, and when they arrived we went to set them out. He read me the instructions, which said that the bees wouldn’t sting us. There was just one problem. My jeans had a small tear in one knee, and it was only a matter of moments before the bees were inside and climbing. I promptly went nuts, dancing up and down, running back and forth, trying desperately to get away.
And Tom just stood there, looking at the instructions, and yelled: “It says here, ‘Stay Calm,’ dammit!”
I try. And when I can’t, I remember Dad and the bees — and I laugh, which is a whole lot better than crying.
— Ben Gish
The contagion has spread
Tom and Pat — it’s always said as one word, “Tomandpat” or “Patandtom” — have bestowed upon us many gifts: a pretty decent newspaper, for one thing, and some indelible memories. We have been privileged witnesses to a marriage as strong and beautiful as these hills, a marriage that endured for 60 years. And these gifts:
Ray and Kitty, Ben and Sarah and Ann. Sally and Tommy, Meg and Drew. And Grant. They, like Pat and the Eagle, carry on. They carry Tom’s blood and his banner.
Years ago, during dark days, E. B. White wrote: “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” I’ve always thought of Tom and Pat as his models.
We have lost an upright man, one of the very few of whom it may be honestly said that he is irreplaceable. But the contagion has spread.
— Tom Bethell
Note: Adams, Bishop, Branscome, Bright, Clark, Crowell, Massey, Shuford and Winternitz are former Eagle staffers. Bethell, Emerson and Primack are former staffers and current contributing editors. Oppegard is a Lexington attorney and mine-safety expert. Boysen is the former Commissioner of Education for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. All other contributors are family members.