Al Smith, 1927-2021

Apr 1, 2021


Al Smith, who published weekly newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee and co-founded the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, died March 19 at home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 94.

Smith, who was born in Sarasota and grew up near Hendersonville, Tennessee, once owned seven weeklies in Kentucky and Tennessee. For 33 years he was host and producer of Kentucky Educational Television’s “Comment on Kentucky,” the longest-running public-affairs show on a PBS affiliate, taking leave in 1980-82 to serve as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission for Presidents Carter and Reagan.

At age 15, Al won the American Legion’s national oratorical contest and a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, but he left it for a journalism career in New Orleans. He was an editor and reporter for two dailies, but alcoholism derailed his career and he relocated to Russellville, Kentucky, as editor of The News-Democrat. He quit drinking in 1963, married in 1996 and left the News-Democrat to start his own weekly, The Logan Leader. He soon purchased The News-Democrat. With partners, he acquired other weeklies that took strong stands on public issues, particularly education. The largest was The Sentinel-Echo in London, Kentucky.

After selling his newspapers in 1985, Smith broadened his civic work. He and his friend Rudy Abramson, who died in 2008, thought up the Institute for Rural Journalism in the late 1990s, and he persuaded his onetime New Orleans intern, Hodding Carter III, to take it past the study stage with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which Carter headed, in 2004. He was chair emeritus of the institute’s advisory board, a charter member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists, former president of the Kentucky Press Association and an Army veteran.

Smith was founding chair of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, chaired Leadership Kentucky and the Shakertown Roundtable, a forum on issues facing Kentucky. He received many awards and honorary degrees and wrote two books, Wordsmith and Kentucky Cured. The rural-journalism institute and the Bluegrass SPJ chapter give the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian. He was its first recipient.

Smith’s greatest legacy was the many people, including younger journalists, he helped along the way. He was a kind, generous man and irrepressible storyteller, with a Shakespearean grasp of foible and triumph. His curiosity was more than a journalist’s quest for a story; it was a wider curiosity that reflected his love for humanity and its condition. That brought him a wide circle of friends from all walks of life.

Survivors include his beloved wife, Martha Helen Smith; two daughters, a son, five grandchildren and his sister. A memorial service will be held at a later date. The family suggests that memorial contributions be made to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, 343 S. Martin Luther King Blvd., #206 BLD, Lexington KY 40506-0012, and to The Hope Center, P.O. Box 6, Lexington KY 40588.