May 30, 2024

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Al Smith, first host of ‘Comment on Kentucky,’ dies at 94

Al Smith before his final appearance as host of “Comment on Kentucky” at KET studios in Lexington on Nov. 16, 2007.

Al Smith before his final appearance as host of “Comment on Kentucky” at KET studios in Lexington on Nov. 16, 2007.

Herald-Leader File Photo

Al Smith, the journalist and civic crusader best known for his 33 years as host of Kentucky Educational Television’s public affairs program “Comment on Kentucky,” died Friday at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 94.

Smith had been under hospice care for several days after suffering renal failure.

A crusading editor in Russellville who owned a chain of weekly newspapers around Kentucky, Smith spent nearly three years in Washington as head of the Appalachian Regional Commission during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

He gained statewide fame during a three-decade “retirement” career of public service. A self-described “New Deal liberal,” Smith led organizations and championed causes such as public school improvement, the arts, rural journalism and health care. He was a frequent op-ed columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Courier Journal into his late 80s.

James C. Klotter, Kentucky’s state historian and emeritus professor of history at Georgetown College, said Smith made “Comment on Kentucky” required viewing for anyone interested in the commonwealth.

“He read incessantly, not just in the news of today but also in finance, history, and numerous areas, and that showed not only in his selections of guests but also in his erudite comments,” said Klotter. “He was a one-of-a-kind journalist, a good friend, and a better man. His earthly voice may be silenced, but his example will long live on, for all of us.”

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Smith “was a titan in the world of journalism. His contributions to the press are unmatched and the commonwealth is a better place for the knowledge he imparted to us. Al will be missed, but his legacy is sure to continue. Our prayers are with his family and the many colleagues and friends he leaves behind.”

U.S Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Smith was “the gold standard of community journalism in the Bluegrass. On radio, on television and in print, he covered everyone from Kentucky’s most famous to those who wouldn’t be known outside their small town. In short, Al told our story.”

Former Gov. Steve Beshear said most people consider Smith an icon in the world of journalism, “but he also actively worked to make life better for Kentuckians.”

Steve Beshear said when he was elected governor in 2007, Smith solicited a promise from him: Do something about dental care in Eastern Kentucky.

“I vowed to do so, and when I did, he wrote an op-ed praising what we called the ‘Healthy Smiles’ initiative,” said Beshear. “That was vintage Al. He cared deeply about Kentuckians, he helped fight their fights, and he knew how to ‘work the system’ to be successful. Jane’s and my thoughts go out to his family.”

‘I got sober’

Albert Perrine Smith Jr. was born Jan. 9, 1927 to a hard-drinking Tennessee lawyer and his wife who had hoped to get rich in the Florida real estate boom but did not. When Smith was 12, the family left Sarasota and moved back to Tennessee, settling on a farm north of Nashville.

At age 15, Smith won the American Legion’s national oratory contest. He used some of the $4,000 scholarship prize for a year of college prep at Castle Heights Military Academy, where he fell in love with journalism working on the school newspaper.

Smith spent two years as an Army field artillery instructor at the end of World War II and attended Vanderbilt University, where he was suspended for cutting class. More interested in newspapers than scholarship, he went to New Orleans for a decade to work on the city’s two daily newspapers, the Times-Picayune and Item.

The Big Easy fueled Smith’s passions for journalism, politics and alcohol, the last of which cost him his job. Back in Tennessee, he heard that a woman in Russellville had inherited the weekly News-Democrat and needed an editor.

“By the end of the second month, however, they discovered, sadly, I was just another tramp newspaperman who drank too much,” Smith told the Lexington Rotary Club in a 2012 speech. “The truth was I had been fired for alcoholism off both New Orleans newspapers and Russellville, in rural Logan County, was the end of the line. But they gave me chances to kick the bottle and, after five years of trying, I got sober, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and the love I developed for the community that took me in.”

Another key factor in Smith’s redemption was his 1967 marriage to Martha Helen Hancock, a social worker with a daughter and a son. The Smiths, who had a daughter, became a Kentucky power couple.

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Al Smith and his wife Martha Helen Smith pose at their Lexington home with his memoir, “Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism” on Nov. 4, 2011. Charles Bertram [email protected]

Wanting to be his own boss, Smith tried to buy controlling interest in the News-Democrat in 1967; when the owner wouldn’t sell, he quit and started The Logan Leader to compete with it. Within a year, he owned both papers.

The News-Democrat & Leader became an advocate for progressive growth in Logan County. Smith championed economic development, schools, local hospital control, environmental protection and historic preservation. He always viewed himself as an “engaged journalist” — reporter, citizen, community booster and critic — rather than a detached reporter.

Smith, the Kentucky Press Association president in 1975, bought other weekly newspapers in such towns as Cadiz, London, Leitchfield and Morgantown. He gave each local editor autonomy, and made sure dissenting views were represented on their editorial pages.

“How does a yellow-dog Democrat like you run a Republican paper in Butler County?” former Republican Gov. Louie B. Nunn once asked Smith, according to a 1974 profile that John Ed Pearce wrote of Smith in The Courier-Journal & Times Magazine. “Very cautiously,” Smith replied.

Building ‘Comment on Kentucky’

President Jimmy Carter appointed Smith in 1979 as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which coordinates government infrastructure investments in parts of Kentucky and 12 other states. Smith resigned after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, but the Republican administration asked him to stay on for nearly two more years.

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Al Smith met with President Carter at the White House on Dec. 14, 1979. Smith was Carter’s nominee to be federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Associated Press

Smith sold his six newspapers in 1985 and moved to Lexington. He turned his abundant energy to developing “Comment on Kentucky,” a weekly round-table discussion program of state journalists and opinion leaders that he created in November 1974. Now hosted by veteran TV journalist Bill Bryant, it is KET’s longest-running program.

Renee Shaw, KET’s public affairs managing producer and host, was Smith’s co-producer of the show for 11 years.

“I’d only been at KET a few months as I was hired as reporter/field producer for ‘Kentucky Tonight,’ but I knew I’d get an education from Smith, who, as an ardent student of history, was eager to teach it,” said Shaw. “I, like so many others, were awed by his instant recall of intricate political details animated by his coffee-grinder voice.”

Shaw said Smith “was notorious for skidding into the studio with an armful of newspapers and handwritten notes for the show rundown. Oftentimes, witnessing the green room and after-show talk was as captivating as what made air.”

She called Smith “my personal hero who saw my potential, nurtured it, and at times challenged it, convincing me to bloom where I was planted. Often a stem-winder orator, Al, to me, was gentle in his mentoring pep talks and believed more for me than I could see.’

Smith’s love of the commonwealth, said Shaw, “was undeniable, and the forum he created to debate its issues and celebrate its triumphs remains the gold standard by which the rest of us strive. I, and others, will cling to memories of his feisty spirit, fervent intellectual curiosity and deep passion to connect our experiences and elevate rural communities.”

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Al Smith is the host of Comment on Kentucky. Steve Shaffer KET

Shae Hopkins, KET executive director and chief executive officer, said, “Through his more than 30 years as host of ‘Comment on Kentucky,’ Al established KET as the place to be on Friday nights. Known for his many colorful stories, Al’s passion for addressing the issues facing Kentuckians fueled a remarkable career in journalism.”

Lexington businessman Jim Host, who partnered with Smith on a radio show, said Smith is “one of the best people I have ever known, a most honest person. I have always been fond of Al.”

Host said Smith and he had different political thoughts “but I loved every minute being with him.”

“Comment on Kentucky” and Smith “helped establish KET as a real strong voice of different points of view on Kentucky,” said Host.

‘A life well lived’

Another major contribution from Smith to Kentucky journalism is the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

“In co-founding the Institute with UK, he drew on his career an the editor and publisher of weekly newspapers to stand for the proposition that rural Americans deserve good journalism as much as urban Americans,” said the institute’s director, Al Cross, a former political reporter for the Courier Journal.

“I would like to think that his example, and the Institute, have raised the bar for rural journalism in Kentucky and the nation,” Cross said. “As a leader of the Kentucky Press Association, he helped bring the association into the modern era and get the legislature to pass the Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act.”

On a personal note, Cross said he never would have been a Courier Journal writer or a tenured professor at UK, “if I hadn’t worked for him more than 40 years ago, and with him for most of the time since, in one way or another. He has been a mentor, supporter and friend to many others, and that part of his legacy is so vast it will never be known. A life well lived, leaving the world better than he found it.”

Ferrell Wellman, a former reporter for Louisville’s WAVE-TV, succeeded Smith as host of the KET show.

He said Smith’s “civic-minded journalism” was one of the reasons Smith was inducted into the initial class of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1981.

“Al was a fighter for open government,” said Wellman. “He helped lead the efforts to pass Kentucky’s Open Meetings and Open Records Act.”

But Smith’s role in Kentucky journalism was more than shining a light on local and state government or setting a standard for community journalists to follow, said Wellman. “He helped and promoted more good young journalists than anyone else in the state during my journalism career. He encouraged us to follow the highest standards of journalism and to serve our audience.”

Many Kentucky journalists appeared on the popular Friday night show with Smith, live from the KET studio in Lexington. After the show, they would dine with him at a Lexington restaurant, where their uninhibited comments about politicians would be aired.

Former Courier Journal reporter Bob Johnson, who was one of the early regulars on “Comment on Kentucky,” said, “Two words come to mind when I think back to Al Smith and ‘Comment.’ One is loquacious: Al enjoyed talking. He might turn to you with a thoughtful question and as he continued, Al’s question might evolve into Al’s answer. You had to smile, because Al was enjoying himself.

“The other word is gracious. After the program, we would gather at the Merrick Inn for dinner. Al would preside, a personable host. It was the perfect ending to a long workweek with Al, the perfect Kentucky gentleman.”

Former Lexington Herald-Leader editorial editor Jamie Lucke said she loved and admired Smith “for so many reasons, not least his keen intellect. What I’m remembering is his zest for life. He was curious about everything and kind to everyone. I am so grateful to have had him as a mentor and friend. He’s irreplaceable.”

Mark Hebert, a former reporter for Louisville’s WHAS-TV and now a spokesman for the Jefferson County public schools system, said, “For me and many other journalists, Al Smith was the ‘favorite uncle’ who had more wisdom, historical knowledge and stories than anyone I’ve ever known.

“What he means to me personally in terms of my career, my family and friendship I could never replace, nor would I want to. I will miss him … even his endless stories about Doc Beauchamp.” Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp, from Logan County, was Kentucky’s 41st lieutenant governor, serving under Gov. Lawrence Wetherby from 1951 to 1955.

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Bluegrass music star Sam Bush, right, chatted with newspaperman Al Smith after the Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony in the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort on Oct. 22, 2015. Bush won the national artist award, while Smith won the Milner Award for his longtime service and advocacy of the arts in Kentucky. Tom Eblen [email protected]

‘An encyclopedic knowledge of Kentucky’

Courier Journal reporter Deborah Yetter said Smith was “an amazing character with an encyclopedic knowledge of Kentucky and its politics.

“I first appeared on ‘Comment on Kentucky’ in the 1990s when he was host and will treasure the time I got to spend with him. He had a rich fund of stories about Kentucky and a great sense of humor,” Yetter said. “He always went out to dinner afterwards with the guests on the show and was entertaining, gracious and a delight to be with. He contributed enormously to Kentucky and to KET and will be deeply missed.”

Bill Straub, former reporter for The Kentucky Post, said Smith was one of the major contributors to Kentucky journalism in the latter half of the 20th century.

“He saw a vast commonwealth of disparate needs and constantly engaged reporters to tell the story, not only through ‘Comment on Kentucky,’ but through advice and cajoling.”

Mark Neikirk, former managing editor of The Kentucky Post, said Smith’s “greatness begins with the fact that he didn’t see himself as great. I’ve never met an extrovert who was more humble. Or at least egalitarian. He put himself above no one.”

“A journalist must listen to princes and paupers, and Al was comfortable in the company of both,” Neikirk said. “He was curious. And he was a born storyteller, drawing his material from every person he met, place he went, event he witnessed. His mind wove things together, connected this string to that to produce a pattern. And then he explained it to his listeners. Where many journalists see events, he saw trends. He saw history.”

Activist and author

Smith also threw himself into activism. Organizations he led included the Governor’s Council on Educational Reform, the Shakertown Roundtable, the Governor’s Scholars Program, the Council on Higher Education, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and Leadership Kentucky.

Smith loved to talk, especially about politics, journalism and ideas for improving Kentucky. He also enjoyed telling self-deprecating stories about his life and talk about his triumph over alcohol. For years, his “Comment on Kentucky” panel discussions each Friday night would continue over dinner for another couple of hours after the show. Smith retired as the program’s host in November 2007.

Smith’s first book, “Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism,” was published in 2011 after many years of work and procrastination. Smith toyed with the idea of a two-volume memoir — before and after he became sober — but he claimed the great Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark talked him out of it as he lay dying in 2005 at age 101.

“Al,” Smith said Clark whispered to him. “Nobody wants to read two books about one man.”

But Smith published a second book the next year, “Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism.” It contained essays about Kentucky and some of the colorful characters he had known — governors, senators, legislators and his favorite, the Logan County political boss Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp, who was lieutenant governor in the early 1950s.

Smith had no interest in dishing dirt or settling scores in his books. “I learned in recovery that you begin with confession and there is no need to be hurtful,” he said.

Smith received many awards, including the UK Libraries Medallion for Intellectual Achievement and a half-dozen honorary doctorates from Kentucky colleges and universities. The state’s annual Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowships honor his support for community arts programs, and the Institute for Rural Journalism’s annual public service award is named for him.

Smith’s love for journalism and Kentucky were evident.

“In a state like Kentucky, leadership often falls to political hacks or fresh faces with painless promises, which fail,” Smith wrote in one “Kentucky Cured” essay. “Where is the courage, where is the vision for Kentucky today?”

Arrangements for Smith are pending.