Friday, November 21, 2008

Crusading publisher who took on mining interests dead at 82

Tom Gish, the crusading editor and publisher of The Mountain Eagle and my first boss in the newspaper business, died today. He was 82.

Gish was Frankfort Bureau Chief for United Press International and his wife Pat was a reporter for the Lexington Leader when they bought The Mountain Eagle and moved back to Tom's native Letcher County. Leaving his pregnant wife in Central Kentucky until the baby was born, Tom took over the operations of the paper in January 1957, just in time for the worst flood in 30 years. Hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and much of the paper's history was lost to the flood waters. Tom put the paper out by himself as water rushed by the foundations of the building, appealing for help for the county.

Under his leadership, The Mountain Eagle gained a reputation for taking on entrenched interests in Letcher County. Both Gishes were tireless advocates for the poor, for the environment, for education, and for ethics in public office. In the 1960s, the paper became one of the first to decry the abuses of strip mining and it was burned to the ground for its trouble in 1974. A Whitesburg police officer was convicted of procuring arson in the crime, but a local judge probated his sentence.

Over the years, reporters for the paper have been threatened, harassed, prosecuted and even beaten. When I went to work there in 1986, right out of college, Pat's advice was: "If anyone doesn't like what you've written, just smile, tell them you're sorry they feel that way and walk away." Tom's advice: "Tell them to go to hell."

He was among the members of the first state school board to be installed following the landmark KentuckyEducation Reform Act of 1990, and spent many days traveling to Frankfort and around Kentucky, helping to implement the reforms.

Gish has been in ill health for years, and suffered heart failure Tuesday night. He had been in a coma ever since.

His leadership will be missed.

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