Never short on words, Al Smith makes them count in autobiography
By Jim Turner

Posted on January 1, 0001 12:00 AM

One of Al Smith’s favorite stories involves famed Kentucky historian Dr. Thomas Clark whispering to him as he neared death, “Al, nobody wants to read more than one book about one man!”
An acknowledged master of the American language with an abundance of words ever at his disposal, Smith has heeded the advice of the wise man and limited his recently released autobiography to one volume. WORDSMITH: My Life in Journalism is a mere 448 pages, no trivial fete for this fluent man who often needs double-figure minutes just to introduce two people to each other.
Throughout all his many years as a state and national figure, Smith has often framed his analogies and anecdotes around his experiences in Logan County, where he spent 22 life-altering years as newspaper editor, owner and legend. So it should be of little surprise that almost 200 of the book’s pages are devoted to his time in Russellville, even though that time span figures out to be only slightly more than a fourth of his 85 years.
Al Smith will be ‘home’ next Sunday, Dec. 11, to talk about his book and to autograph copies for those who wish to purchase them. It will begin at 2 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church where he and his family were members. A percentage of the proceeds will go to a community project being planned by church leaders. The public is welcome to the free program.
A look at the Russellville portion of the masterfully written book follows:
Instead of accepting a chance to interview in Chicago to replace John Chancellor as a correspondent for NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Hour, Al Smith opted to take the editor’s position of a weekly newspaper in Russellville, Ky., changing both his life and Logan County journalism for decades to come. Tennessean columnist Elmer Hinton was the go-between in securing Al for the job and the job for Al.
Smith was hired as editor of the News-Democrat by Ailene Evans (known universally as “Mrs. Evans”), who had published the paper every since the death of her husband, Byrne Evans, over a decade earlier. When Al reported for work on the first Monday in January 1958, the staff included receptionist/ society editor Tookey Kemp, advertising manager Dan Knotts, and pressmen Eugene Carnall and Johnny ‘Popcorn’ Carter.
He was welcomed to Russellville by Jim Lyne, who was the newspaper’s attorney. Lyne set him up in an apartment at the home of his mother, Myrt Lyne, who later kicked him out in fear that he would pass out while smoking and burn the house down. (Forty years later, Smith was instrumental in the induction of Jack Lyne, Jim’s son and Myrt’s grandson, into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Jack died unexpectedly last week.)
On that first day on the job, Jim Lyne introduced the new editor to political kingpin Emerson ‘Doc’ Beauchamp, who said, “I suppose you are a Democrat. Mrs. Evans wouldn’t hire any other kind.” Al also met County Judge Homer Dorris, Republican leader Lawrence Forgy, Beauchamp lieutenant Rayburn Smith, and politician/ businessman Fount Shifflett.
The political sparring of that day was over the appointment of a new road foreman. Beauchamp was backing former sheriff Guy McMillen while Judge Dorris was championing John Q. Hite Sr. Beauchamp’s man prevailed. Al learned, however, that Doc hadn’t been winning every battle recently. Governor Happy Chandler had vowed to put a fence around Logan County after he defeated Beauchamp protégé Bert Combs. Doc, who had been lieutenant governor, let the handsome, smooth-speaking Combs run for governor instead of himself. And Joe Wheeler had been elected county attorney instead of Beauchamp pick Jim Lyne when Wheeler’s brothers-in-law, Granville Clark and Carl Page, carefully watched the polls and the vote counting.
Granville, Doc and Rayburn appear prominently in the early chapters of Al’s memories of his life in his new hometown, as does Rockwell manager Harry Whipple/.
Throughout his early years in Logan County, Smith learned from the inside how grassroots politics works, being tutored along the way by Rayburn Smith. Al Smith earned marks for journalistic integrity, however, when he reported in the N-D that Kentucky’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Mary Louise Faust, was investigating alleged improprieties in allocating county funds by Lyne and County Clerk Bailey Gunn.
Smith created a column for the News-Democrat in which he took the guise of “Cousin Charlie” and wrote letters to “Miz Evans” satirizing Logan’s public figures, often quoting the fictitious “Wicked Cousin Odrow.”
He learned about politics on a higher level in watching Beauchamp orchestrate a win in a Congressional election for Frank Albert Stubblefield over Happy’s candidate, Noble Gregory. Stubblefield took Logan County 2,276 to 443, and won the multi-county district by a mere 341 votes. Chandler was so mad that he sent state police to investigate. Smith’s headline: “Stubblefield wins; Chandler sends troops to Logan County.”
Over the years as Al Smith became close friends with governors and Congressmen and worked for presidents of the United States from both parties, he realized that all politics is based on “who controls the rock,” a reference to coveted road maintenance.
After being asked to leave Mrs. Lyne’s rental room, Smith moved to the Kaintuck Hotel on Russellville’s Park Square, which he termed a “three-story brick pile” lit by dim bulbs. Later that site became the home of Southern Deposit Bank, which financed Smith’s ascension into newspaper ownership and corporate prominence. BB&T bank is now in that location. He lived there six years before becoming affluent enough to rent a room from Bobbie Kirkpatrick Martin in one of the more affluent sections of Russellville.
J.M. Richard owned the Kaintuck Hotel. It was there that Smith met many of Logan County’s less prosperous citizens, often drinking alcoholic beverages with them as well as with some of the uppercrust.
Throughout WORDSMITH, Al Smith talks openly about his battles with alcoholism during his early adult years. He credits John Clark, who was administrator of Logan County Hospital, for drying him out repeatedly as a guest of the hospital. A turning point came when Circuit Judge Thomas A. Noe took him to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement of First Christian Church on a Monday evening in October 1966. Al was 36 years old. At that meeting, Smith told “eight friends and four strangers, ‘My name is Al and I am an alcoholic.”
Later, in what was a partial attempt to repay John Clark for his help in overcoming this disease, Al ardently supported passage of a tax to remodel expand the hospital. Smith later learned that Forgy, Gunn and Rayburn Smith had been involved in creative vote counting to make the tax pass. Sewing factory plant manager Clay Franklin assured Al that wasn’t a first, that the same procedure had been involved to secure funding in the original construction of the hospital.
In addition to the decision to take the job in Russellville and becoming a dedicated member of AA, Smith writes about other turning points in his life. They include the following:
* He seriously considered talking jobs with The Courier-Journal in Louisville or The Tennessean in Nashville, but took stock of the situation when legendary Tennessean reporter Nat Caldwell observed, “I don’t see why you should start working again for someone else who picks your stories and tell you how much to write.”
After a period of introspection, he remembers thinking: “Why would I leave a community when they have taken me in-a drunk, itinerant editor no one knew? The people of Logan County had saved me from myself: first in the local hospital, and then again when I asked for help in a church basement when it wasn’t even Sunday… Somewhere that night, between consciousness and dreaming, I told myself that Logan County was a microcosm of Kentucky, maybe even of the world. There was no bigger job for me than the one I had.’”
*He met and married Martha Helen Disharoon Hancock of Hopkinsville. Into his life came not only a lovely, strong, intelligent woman but two young children, Catherine and Carter Hancock. Later a third child, one with Al’s DNA mixed in, joined the family when Ginny Smith was born. Martha Helen and the children gave Al roots and stability. Later Catherine’s husband, Bill McCarty and their sons Connor and Evan, Ginny’s husband Bill Major and their daughters Susannah and Ava, and Carter’s daughter Lauren added to the extended family
* Upon the encouragement of Martha Helen and fellow News-Democrat employee Virginia Page, Al first tried to buy the newspaper and then eventually began the Logan Leader. That transition didn’t come smoothly. Mrs. Evans didn’t want to sell the paper at all, and she especially didn’t want to sell it to Smith, who she felt was betraying her after she had put up with his alcohol mishaps in the early years of their relationship. Whipple assembled a group of local leaders in his office, including attorney Sam Milam, Mayor Wallace Herndon, banker Earl Davis, and businessman Marvin Stuart, who encouraged Al to stay.
Eventually Al and Virginia started their own newspaper with monetary investments from banker Bob Kirkpatrick, attorney Bill Fuqua, industrialist Bos Grier, librarian Lillian Noe, and newspaper staff members Tookey Kemp, Wanda Scott and press foreman Charlie Snyder, who had owned the Adairville Enterprise along with his wife Dottie.
The Leader was so successful that Mrs. Evans relented, sold the News-Democrat to Al and his partners, and soon left Logan County. Smith felt guilty about that because she had been good to him in many ways, but it was the beginning of a new career in journalism for Smith-now a publisher.
From those roots came Al Smith Communications, which owned and published newspapers in Kentucky cities Cadiz, Morgantown, Leitchfield, and London. Smith was also an owner of The Harpeth Herald in Tennessee, now known as the Brentwood Journal.
* In 1974 Al’s presence expanded statewide. He was an officer of the Kentucky Press Association, eventually serving as chairman of the statewide news organization. His friend famed columnist John Ed Pearce, wrote a lengthy article for the Feb. 10 Courier-Journal Magazine about Al called “Gadfly Editor-the Devil and the Darling of Russellville.” This increased his name recognition immeasurably. Then came his television career, fostered by documentarian Alfred Shands and Kentucky Education Television Executive Director Len Press.
For 33 years with only brief interruption, Al was moderator of the state’s best-known political television show, “Comment on Kentucky,” which ran live on Friday night’s at KET’s studios in Lexington. I-65 drivers were unaware they were in danger because Al Smith was driving from Russellville to Lexington, writing his Comment script on a legal pad as he sped along. Kentuckians were infinitely more informed about what was going on in the Commonwealth because of who and what Al and his guests knew and perceived. During the Bicentennial, Al produced 17 documentaries about representative Kentuckians 200 years after the birth of the nation. Among his subjects were Colonel Harland Sanders, mountain journalists Tom and Pat Gish, noted author Harriette Simpson Arnow, and black education pacesetter Lyman Johnson.
Al asked Gov. Julian Carroll to consider authorizing the recording of Kentuckians’ remembrances of earlier days in their lives. As a result, Smith was appointed chairman of the newly formed Oral History Commission. Later, when Courier-Journal Publisher Barry Bingham and Louisville Gas and Electric Chairman Hudson Milner urged Carroll to become more involved in supporting the arts, the governor appointed Al to the Kentucky Arts Commission. After Milner’s death, Al became its chairman. Then with the help of Len Press, Democratic leader Terry McBrayer and Republican stalwart Larry Forgy (Lawrence’s ‘boy’), gubernatorial debates began with Al as statewide moderator.
*The Tennessee Valley Authority had been an important part of Al’s youth, and a concerted movement was forged to convince President Jimmy Carter to appoint Smith to one of the three positions on the TVA board. Among his top supporters were U.S. Senators Ford and Walter ‘Dee’ Huddleston, Gov. Carroll, and Dale Sights, the president’s point man in Kentucky. Former Senator John Sherman Cooper, however, learned that Carter was going to choose fellow engineer David Freeman for the position.
Wendell Ford had another plan for Smith. He spearheaded Al’s appointment as chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He orchestrated Smith’s winning over powerful Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia to confirm Smith for the position, which involved helping 13 states with finances to meet infrastructure and other needs. Smith worked with the governors and Congressional delegations from those states, broadening his influence and connections. He also came to know Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Vice President Walter Mondale, UMW President Sam Church, Pulitzer Prize winner and Allensville native Robert Penn Warren, and other national figures.
When Republican Ronald Reagan ended Carter’s presidency at one term, Smith and his family remained in Washington as the new president’s ARC co-chairman until Reagan could decide how to deal with what Republicans considered a liberal giveaway program. Al helped find a moderate Republican woman to succeed him. When Winifred Pizzano of Pennsylvania was chosen, the Smiths came back to Kentucky to live. Instead of returning to Russellville, though, they made their home in London where Al Smith Communications had purchased the Sentinel Echo.
An era in Logan County had ended.
The first chapters of WORDSMITH deal with Al’s childhood in Florida and Tennessee and his days as a drinking newspaperman in New Orleans. The final chapters are about his and Martha Helen’s loves in the quarter of a century that has followed since their time in the Land of Logan came to an end with the sale of Al Smith Communications to multi-media mogul Roy Park of New York.
Among Smith’s roles and accomplishments since then:
*Served as chairman and moderator of the Shaker Roundtable for 10 years
*Appointed by Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. to the Council on Higher Education
*Selected by former Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt to the founding board of Leadership Kentucky and became its chair
*Employed as adjunct instructor at the University of Kentucky in political science
*Persuaded UK President Lee Todd to create the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues with Smith’s protégé and friend, Al Cross, as its director
*Received honorary doctorates from UK and eight other colleges and universities
*Selected as a Distinguished Rural Kentuckian by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives
*Presented Flame of Excellence Award by Leadership Kentucky
*Received Gabbard Distinguished Kentuckian Award from the Kentucky Broadcasters Association
*Received the first Al Smith Award for Community Service through Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists, Bluegrass Chapter

In addition to those already mentioned above, some of the Logan Countians named in WORDSMITH include the following:
Early Days in Russellville
Becky Bouldin, Dr. Walter Byrne Jr., Oakley Cisney, Margaret Clark, Earl Davis, Thomas P. deGraffenried, Virginia Edwards, Col. Byrne Evans, J. Taylor Fuqua, Dr. John Pepper Glenn, Jim Gordon, Joe Gunn Gregory, Lucy Gregory, Bob Guion, Pete Hancock, Dr. W.L. Harris, Dick Hite, Ed Johnson, Dr. L.E. Johnson, Reuben Kemp, Robert ‘Budgie’ Kirkpatrick, Ben Klein, Butch Klein, Nathan Klein, Dorothy Evans Knotts, Bebe Evans Knox, Rev. Harold Knox,
Blake Lamb, Jimmy Lee, Lorene Leedom, Walter Leedom Jr., Allie Mae Linton, J.T. Linton, Lucy Lyne Locke, John Henry Marion, Rena Milliken, John Moore, Don Neagle, Longbarrel Page, Elvis Perry, Mrs. Pillow, Edgar Reed, Thomas S. Rhea, Gene Riley, Jesse L. Riley Sr., Mrs. Silvey, Winky Sosh, Coleman Taylor, Manning Taylor, Nancy Taylor, Beasley Thompson, Congressman John Albert Whittaker

In Recovery
Buck Browning, Rev. Joe Carrico, Mary Rebecca Clark, Bill Coke, Gaston Coke, Calvin Colburn, Joe Copple, Sam Copple, Buddy Duncan, Alice Allison Dunnigan, Viola Felts, S.J. Freeman, Wilba Ruth Freeman, Nell Gorrell, Jewell Graham, Oscar McCutchen, Rev. Tom McGloshen, L.J. Northern, Chick Ray, Ab Rhea, Burvin Stanley, Addie Vancleave, Maudie Vancleave

Martha Helen and Newspaper Ownership
John Barnes, Betty Barrett, Marion Barrett, Jeannie Leedom Bowles, Joe Gran Clark, Walter Collins, Larry Craig, Patty Craig, Patti Cross, Milburn Covington, Roberta Covington, Karl Dawson, Frank Gorrell, Lilburn Gorrell, Sally Mae Gorrell, Mark Griffin, Pete Hancock, Virginia Lloyd, Bess Martin, Judy Murphy, Leslie Page Jr., Leslie Page III, Shelley Barrett Page, Evelyn Richardson, Lon Sosh, Jodie Brown Stuart, Robert Stuart, Jim Turner, Wilnah Upton, Larry Wilkerson

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