Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Institute founder one of six Rural Heroes at National Rural Assembly

Al Smith walked down Main Street in Russellville, Ky., one Sunday morning in the late 1950s, past the Logan County Courthouse, where the county singing convention was in full sing. He thought for a moment that he belonged there, but kept walking, down the street to the bootlegger -- and, perhaps, to oblivion.

It was a small piece of a life's journey that he recounted for the first National Rural Assembly last night, as he accepted one of its six Rural Hero awards for his work in journalism -- most recently the establishment of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

Smith never joined the singers, but he did kick liquor, with the help of the people in Logan County, and his journalism career began looking up. He began writing articles for big-city papers, and "It was soon evident I could go back to the city," he said. But then he realized: "These people took me in when I didn't have a friend . . . and I decided I'd stay with them."

His decision was confirmed by the woman he soon married. Martha Helen Smith told him that living in a rural town was OK "as long as that city-limit sign doesn't obscure your vision of what lies beyond the border." And after he built a small chain of rural newspapers and sold it, that outlook helped inspire the Institute, which helps rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities -- including reporting and commentary on state, regional and national issues that have a local impact on such things as education, health care, the economy and the environment.

The idea was planted by Smith's friend Rudy Abramson, a former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and found support in 2001 from Dr. Lee Todd, who had just become president of UK. "Without Todd's acceptance of our vision, it never would have worked," Smith told the National Rural Assembly. The Institute operated on an ad hoc basis until 2004, when grants enabled UK to hire Al Cross as its director. It recently held a National Summit on Journalism in Rural America and presented programs in Iowa and Tennessee, but its work remains grounded in Kentucky and Central Appalachia. It works with policy experts like those at the Rural Assembly to illuminate issues for rural journalists. Smith saluted the work of the advocates for rural America and said, "I'm just happy to be part of the choir."

Other rural heroes recognized at the Assembly were Bill Bynum of Jackson, Miss., founder of the Enterprise Corp. of the Delta, for leadership in investment and entrepreneurship; Dr. Forrest Calico of Stanford, Ky., former director of the Appalachian Regional Health Corp., for health care; Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation in South Dakota, for advocacy; Sharon King of New York City, president of the F.B. Heron Foundation, for philanthropy; and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for government.

The National Rural Assembly is designed to " strengthen rural America by giving its leaders a platform to be heard, raising the visibility of rural issues, organizing a national network of rural interests, and developing specific rural policy initiatives," says the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the chief co-convener, with the Ford Foundation. It continues today, then tomorrow with a congressional hearing on rural issues. (Read more)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Al Smith is a hero. Not just rural, but a real hero who moves in the circles of the powerful but never forgets to carry the message of the small and suffering.