Former Leader publisher moved newspaper, town into new era

Jul 2, 2021

Former Ruston Daily Leader publisher Tom Kelly (left) attends a Louisiana Press Association event in 2019. To his right are Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Senator Jim Fannin of Jonesboro. (Photo by Jerry Pye)

Ruston Daily Leader

Friends and former coworkers of long-time Ruston Daily Leader publisher Tom Kelly are remembering Kelly as a brilliant writer who help moved Ruston, Louisiana, and the newspaper into a new era.

Kelly, 90, died June 5. Funeral services were held June 9 in his native Winn Parish, Louisiana.

Kelly was publisher of the Leader from 1962 to 1980. In total, he spent more than 60 years in the newspaper business.

“He was a writer — a damn good writer. That’s what he thought about. That’s what he lived for,” said Nick Drewry, the Leader’s advertising manager during part of Kelly’s tenure.

Kelly was born at Gaar’s Mill near Dodson in Winn Parish, the son of a Baptist minister. After graduating from Dodson High School, Kelly entered Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge but dropped out to go to work.

He later graduated from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, with a degree in journalism.

Kelly began his newspaper career as a reporter for the Winn Parish Enterprise in 1949.

During his first 10 years in the business, he served in various positons at the weekly Sevier County-News Record in Sevierville, Tennessee, at the Gladewater (Texas) Daily Mirror and the weekly Natchitoches Enterprise.

In 1959, he joined the Jennings Daily News, a Fackelman Group newspaper, as managing editor, and in 1962 he became a partner and publisher of the Ruston Daily Leader.

The Florida-based Fackelman Group had bought the Leader from previous owner Clarence Faulk.

“While Faulk was not impressed with the prospects of a young guy who had been the editor of a paper to succeed him, I think he eventually came to accept, possibly even to respect, my administration of the Daily Leader, after I determinedly began the ultimate successful effort to overhaul and upgrade the outdating publishing place we had acquired, to bring the paper mechanically up to the level necessary to adequately serve the rapidly growing Ruston community,” Kelly wrote in a draft of a memoir he’d worked on for several years prior to his death.

Kelly was 31 years old when he became the Leader’s publisher on June 1, 1962. The front page that day includes a story about the group’s acquisition of the paper, as well as the appointment of F. Jay Taylor as the new president of what would become Louisiana Tech University.

“Other signs of a new beginning were also in the air, in this, the largest and most obviously multi-layered city that I had ever worked in up to this point,” Kelly wrote.

Over that few months in 1962, Kelly took over the Leader; Taylor became Louisiana’s Tech new president; and John W. Perritt was sworn in as Ruston new mayor, having beaten two-term incumbent Thelbert Beasley for reelection.

At the same, work was continuing on Interstate 20, and the town’s hospital — what was then Lincoln General Hospital, — opened a new, modern facility.

“It became obvious almost immediately that Ruston was at a pivot point in its growth, in no small part because of what obviously come when the new interstate highway was up and fully running,” Kelly wrote.

“But there was more. Within the 90-day period just before, during and after we moved into ownership of the local daily newspaper, several key agencies and organizations that formed the backbone of the community’s fortunes were simultaneously changing directions with new management and expanded services,” Kelly wrote.

On Aug. 29, 1969, the Leader’s building, located at 301 West Mississippi Ave., burned. Little was retrieved, but the paper still printed a daily edition.

“He said ‘we are not going to miss a day of production.’ I was very proud of him for that,” Dingler said.

The paper had an abbreviated four-page edition, reportedly still reaching subscribers by 4 p.m. At the time, the Leader was a five-day-a-week afternoon newspaper.

By late fall 1969, the Leader acquired, renovated and occupied its current location, the former Ritchie Grocer Company building at 212 West Park Ave.

Former employees remember Kelly working in the darkroom and in the production department, not only trying to fix equipment, but also trying to teach them a variety of skills.

“He was my mentor because the day I walked in there, all I knew how to do was years of throwing newspapers,” Drewry said.

Not only did Kelly modernize the newspaper — the Leader got its first computers while Kelly was publisher — but also he joined forces with Ruston’s elected and business leaders to push for things he thought would make the community better.

Kelly was president of the Ruston-Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, the Ruston Kiwanis Club and chaired the Louisiana Peach Festival.

Jerry Pye, a retired newspaper publisher who lives in Marshall, Texas, went to work for Kelly as a paperboy. He became the Leader’s circulation manager before eventually managing several other newspapers.

Kelly “had a deep understanding of the news side (of the business). He knew how to manage people. He had a way to build up the community, and Ruston was the beneficiary of it. Tom Kelly had the interest of Ruston at heart,” Pye said.

Former colleagues said Kelly wanted his staff to write about things that could advance Ruston, as well as cover the hard news.

Kelly developed a close friendship with Perritt and in 1972 became chairman of the citizens committee responsible for getting Ruston’s current City Hall-Civic Complex built.

Although the building has been updated several times since its completion in 1975, it remains almost one-of-a-kind for cities Ruston’s size.

“It’s incredible,” current Mayor Ronny Walker said. “When you look around at cities our size, nobody has a complex like this.”

The Civic Center allows the city to host events that in Kelly’s day would have been impossible.

City Hall had been in a small building on East Mississippi Avenue that now houses an engineering firm. The Board of Aldermen met in the mayor’s office.

Kelly’s oldest daughter, Gwen Kelly Dingler of Ruston, remembers going with her father to a meeting.

“He just wanted me to see what it was like,” she said.

Kelly also joined forces with another of his close friends, hospital administrator Frank Jerome, to push for — and get — a new wing on the hospital.

Drewry spent a stint in the Leader’s production department before becoming advertising manager and eventually getting a publisher’s spot with the group.

“I think (Kelly) was a father figure to a lot of newspaper people,” he said.

By the time Drewry left the paper for Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1976, “I would have done anything for that man,” he said.

Ron White, a retired Louisiana Tech journalism professor, said Kelly opened the newspaper door to a number of Tech students.

“Tom Kelly not only was an excellent writer, editor and publisher but served as a springboard for many whose careers blossomed in the journalism industry,” White said.

Early on, Kelly apparently tried his hand at writing sports. But acquaintances say he hated it. That’s when — and why — Kelly hired the late award-winning sportswriter O.K. “Buddy” Davis when Davis was still a high school student.

Kelly also hired German immigrant Ruth Alexander, who became the Leader’s Lifestyles editor.

“He developed people, and they rose in the industry to top positions,” Pye said.

Billy Ray Davis of Ruston now owns his own job printing company. He worked for Kelly and the Leader from 1962 to 1970.

“Tom was an old school newspaper editor,” Davis said.

Davis recalled the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Davis and Kelly were coming back from lunch when they heard the news. That day’s front page had already been built. Kelly redid it. “Tom completely did that front page in its entirety and wrote most of the articles in there,” Davis said.

He said Kelly was in his “zone” when he was writing under pressure.

“When he was doing what he was really, really good at, he would shine,” Davis said.

When Kelly left Ruston, he moved to Slidell and managed he Slidell Daily Times.

He was also an organizer and president of the Enterprise Group Inc., a newspaper ownership and management company that published newspapers in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Florida.

He attempted semi-retirement when he and his late wife, Mariam, moved to Las Cruses, New Mexico, but soon he bought a weekly newspaper in Hatch, New Mexico, and ran it for 10 years.

However, the lure of his Winn Parish roots was strong. At age 65, he returned to Winn Parish and founded the Piney Wood Journal, a monthly publication dedicated to agriculture and the forest industry in Louisiana, Texas and the middle South.

After 22 years, he sold the Journal in March 2019 and retired at age 87.

In 2019, the Louisiana Press Association honored Kelly for his years in the news business.

At the time, Cody Richard, the Leader’s current general manager, talked about having known Kelly because Richard’s father worked for Kelly, both in Jennings and in Ruston.

The younger Richard said he remembers stories of Kelly being described as a gentleman and a journalist who cared about his family, friends and staff.

He still calls those stories “part of the mold that helped shape me into the man I am today.”

Pye said Kelly’s legacy is simple: “He established the Ruston Leader as the paper of Ruston and Lincoln Parish.”

Kelly is survived by his daughters, Gwen Kelly Dingler and husband, Jerry; Gaynell Kelly; and Camilla Kelly Pyles and husband, Johnny; eight grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; a stepson; two step grandchildren; one brother; one sister; nieces; nephews and other relatives; and his four-legged companions, Beau and Mike.

Donations may be made to, or by mailing donations to Heart of Louisiana Humane Society, 1617 East Lafayette St., Winnfield, LA 71483.