Sunday, January 16, 2011

Larry Craig, a great rural journalist, dies at 61

UPDATE: Here's a story on the funeral, which bespoke an amazing life.

Larry S. Craig, who blended curiosity, courage, skill and humor to become a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism, died today of liver failure at his home in Morgantown, Ky. He was 61. Larry was this writer's friend, so I'll use his first name and write this initial dispatch mostly from memory.

His main career was Baptist minister, but he was best known as the editor and publisher of the Green River Republican in the 1980s and was a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and president of the Kentucky Press Association, from which he earned many awards. He pastored churches while running the paper and later teaching journalism at Western Kentucky University. When it became known in Morgantown that he had obtained a purported list of Butler County voters who were willing to sell their votes, someone shot through a front window of his newspaper office. He started carrying a gun, earning him the appellation "pistol-packing preacher-publisher." When he told WKU's student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a "putrid cancer," a Klan member and/or sympathizer burned the Warren County church he was pastoring.

A lot of people might find those two careers inherently conflicting, but they’re really not, because they both are founded in morality and justice, and Larry proved it.

Larry loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, in invocations at KPA conventions and other gatherings. "I will never forget his invocation one year, with the governor and top lawmakers in attendance, when he asked for the Lord's help in guiding us through the river of perfidy that flows through the Capitol (or something like that). He spoke truth to power for sure," Michael Lindenberger of the Dallas Morning News, a former reporter for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, wrote on my Facebook post about Larry. Other posts: "I don't believe country publisher-editors will come along in this vein any more," wrote Josh Givens, news editor of the Butler County Banner-Republican. Our mutual friend Brad Hughes said, "Feisty. Aggressive. Spirited. Energetic. Go-getter. If there was a Kentucky journalism thesaurus, it would include under these words: 'See Larry Craig.'" Former Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe told Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader that Larry was "a special person who actually was an intellectual, sophisticated guy hiding in a country preacher's persona." (Read more)

Larry began his journalism career at the old Logan Leader and News-Democrat in Russellville, benefiting (as I did) from an association with Al Smith, who owned newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. During the national coal strike in 1977, Larry used his connections with United Mine Workers members at his church to do what Nat Caldwell, legendary energy reporter for The Tennessean, called the best reporting on the strike from the miners' perspective.

Larry is survived by his wife, Patricia Grace Craig, and three daughters. His visitation will be held Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. at Latham Funeral Home in Elkton and Tuesday from noon to 8 p.m. and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon at Jones Funeral Chapel in Morgantown, where services will then be held.

Larry leaves a legacy beyond his immediate family. His nephew Ryan Craig is the editor and publisher of the Todd County Standard in their native county, and it has won the title of best small newspaper in Kentucky so many times I have lost count. Godspeed, my friend.

UPDATE, Jan. 18: In Paula Burba's story in The Courier-Journal, Al Smith, 84, calls Larry "a tremendous personality and one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.” (Read more)

4 comments: said...

Mr. Craig was one of the last of the great rural Kentucky journalists. Unfortunately a passing breed in this day of the sterile, corporate owned "blah" of newspapers. It is not the internet which is killing newspapers, it is the accountants and the people who possess no "soul" for newspapering such as Larry Craig possessed. God rest his Soul.

Al Smith said...

Larry Craig's writings in my Russellville newspaper about a national coal strike in the 1970's attracted the interest of Rudy Abramson, a senior Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who came to Russellville to meet him and me because Larry's stories, more than most reporters,' told the miners' side of the dispute. Larry was pastor of a small church in neighboring Muhlenberg County where many members were miners. Rudy and I became close friends and 20 years later came up with the concept for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at UK which publishes the Rural Blog, read all over the world.But for Larry Craig, it might not have happened. --Al Smith, chair, IRJCI national Advisory Board

Homer Marcum said...

I'm sorry to hear of his passing, but had been informed that his health had been failing for some time. Larry was a giant in this business. It takes courage to tell a congregation that they need to straighten up their lives, and even more to tell a community and its leaders the same thing. Larry could do both, and smile doing it.

Mary Leidig said...

I didn't know of this journalist. But this special read and tribute inspire.

Thank you, Al, for writing and others for the comments.