Friday, November 21, 2008

Tom Gish, inspirational rural editor-publisher, dies

Thomas E. Gish, who set an inspirational standard for courage in rural journalism, died today amid the Appalachian Mountains he struggled to protect as publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. He was 82. His wife, Pat, survives, and his son, Ben, is editor of the paper.

Tom Gish died of heart failure, but his journalistic heart beats on in the Eagle, which began crusading in the public interest soon after the Gishes took ownership on Jan. 1, 1957. First they took on local officials who tried to close meetings, and that fight helped pass Kentucky's first open-meetings law. (A much stronger law was passed in 1974.) Then they took on the environmental and safety practices of the powerful coal industry, and became the target of advertiser boycotts, personal shunning and eventually a firebombing of their office.

"The Mountain Eagle became the first newspaper in Eastern Kentucky to seriously challenge the environmental damage caused by strip mining," writes Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Read more) Tom Gish was "the conscience of the mountains, and also the conscience of the press," Pineville lawyer Steve Cawood told R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal. "When the statewide press, the regional and national press, weren't paying attention to the principal issues of the region, it was his coverage that brought that press in." (Read more)

With the help of friends and supporters around Kentucky and the nation, the Gishes brought the paper through hard times and continued reporting on state, regional and national issues that affected Letcher County. In 2004, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues created the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. From the start, there was no question whose name the award would bear, and the Gishes were the first recipients. For more on them, click here. For an essay they wrote in 2000 on their work, click here.

Visitation will begin at 5 p.m. Sunday at Letcher Funeral Home. Services will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the Presbyterian Church in downtown Whitesburg.


Sam Adams said...

Thanks for writing something about this. I just posted on my blog an obituary that I first posted on a listserve for work.

Tom was a true leader and hero.


Anonymous said...

Tom Gish wrote the most passionate, lucid and incisive editorials I've ever read - bar none. We're lost one of the great minds of Eastern Kentucky.

Randy Patrick said...

As a young newspaper reporter and editor, I wanted to be like Tom Gish. I still do. Kentucky has lost a courageous spirit and an exemplar of independent community journalism.

Anonymous said...

What a loss, but what a great human being. My heart goes out to the family.

Don Mussell
Kilauea, Hawaii
(former resident of Whitesburg)

Al Cross said...

From Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, part of the family that won the Tom and Pat Gish Award in 2007:
I was deeply saddened to hear of Tom Gish's death this weekend. I only met Tom once, but felt immediately that I had known him my whole life, so like my father was he in all things that mattered: in his honesty, humility and fierce but plain-spoken courage -- the kind that gets under a reader's skin and inside his head -- and in his love and respect for words and their transformative power. The world is a bit more lonely for me today knowing that he is among the fallen, but his fine example of the kind of journalism that matters will always stand as an inspiration to me, and as a constant prod to try harder.