Friday, February 15, 2008

Rudy Abramson, author and co-founder of Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, dies

Author Rudy Abramson, a co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and chair of our national Advisory Board, died Wednesday after suffering massive head injuries in a fall at his home in Reston, Va. He was 70.

Rudy was our good friend and close adviser. He came up with the idea for the Institute after retiring from the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times and continuing reporting in Appalachia, where he saw the need for an organization to help rural journalists cover the big issues facing their communities, especially those driven by faraway players such as coal companies and federal politicians.

“Although he was always a big city reporter, Rudy never forgot his rural roots in northern Alabama,” said Al Smith, the Kentucky journalist who co-founded the Institute with Rudy. “He was passionately concerned about environmental and economic problems in Appalachia. While writing stories about the region, he concluded that one major improvement might be to help local news folks do a better job covering the serious issues.”

Rudy co-edited the Encyclopedia of Appalachia with Jean Haskell and wrote two books: Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986 and Hallowed Ground: Preserving America's Heritage, "about the Piedmont region of northern Virginia, where some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place," the Times' Elaine Woo writes. He successfully organized "opposition to a plan by the Walt Disney Co. to build a history theme park near a key Civil War site, the Manassas Battlefield at the eastern end of the Piedmont." (Read more)

Rudy told our friend Howard Berkes of National Public Radio in a 2006 interview about the encyclopedia that the word "hillbilly" first appeared "in the New York Sun about 1900 and the definition of it was a white person from Alabama without visible means of support, ambition or much of anything else. And I suppose that was one of the reasons that I got involved in this project. It seems that I'm the absolute hillbilly by that definition." That quote was in The Washington Post's obituary of Rudy, by Adam Bernstein.

Rudy Paulk Abramson is survived by his wife, Joyce; daughters Kristin and Karin; and three grandchildren. Cremation was chosen. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26 at the Freedom Forum's new Newseum at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington. The family asks that memorial gifts be made to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, 122 Grehan Bldg., University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042, or the New Opportunity School at Berea College.

Rudy was a native of Florence, Ala., and a graduate of the University of Mississippi. He was a political reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville before joining the Times in 1965. He covered the space program, the White House, the Pentagon, arms control and the environment, among other topics. He was White House correspondent when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974.

"After leaving the Times in 1996, Abramson became one of the most prolific and powerful voices for and about rural communities," says the Daily Yonder, the online rural news site that he helped start. He was nearly finished with a biography of Harry Caudill, an Eastern Kentucky lawyer and environmentalist whose 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the Cumberland Plateau and the rest of Central Appalachia. "The project was an examination of how the War on Poverty began and the role played by Caudill and by Tom and Pat Gish, editors of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.," says The Yonder, which also recalls Rudy's fight against a "Beverly Hillbillies" reality show and his love of fried okra. (Read more)

An expanded version of this item appears on the Institute's home page.


Unknown said...

As a veteran of more than 35 years in journalism, I am among a generation that is gradually losing the beacons of journalistic integrity and depth that inspired me to get into the business. Let's hope a new generation
sees the light that Rudy and others blazed and follows that trail.

Anonymous said...

Like many people touched by his work, I feel the loss associated with Mr. Abramson's death. He was a mentor to so many of us in journalism and Appalachian Studies. Since I have worked with him and teach both subjects, I can only hope his legacy will be more journalists stepping up to uncover injustice in rural communities. My best to his family, and especially, my friend, his daughter, Kristen. I hope she finishes his book on Harry Caudill.

Kathy Kiely said...

Rudy was a great journalist who managed to grow without ever losing touch with his roots. He has left a great legacy in this institute.