WHITESBURG, KY -- Tom Gish, the crusading owner of The Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg, died Friday afternoon. He was 82. Mr. Gish had been suffering from kidney failure and heart problems, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader in its Saturday edition.
"He was the bravest and most honest man I ever knew," said his son, Ben Gish, who is editor of the newspaper.
Thomas Edward Gish was a United Press International bureau chief when he and his wife, Pat Gish, a reporter for The Lexington Leader, bought the Letcher County weekly in 1956. They started running it in January 1957.
The Mountain Eagle became the first newspaper in Eastern Kentucky to seriously challenge the environmental damage caused by strip mining. The Gishes scrapped the paper's motto: "A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday." The new motto: "It Screams."
The Gishes pried open the meetings of public agencies and took on corrupt politicians, rapacious coal companies and bad schools.
They were respected nationally but made plenty of local enemies. In 1974, after the newspaper published stories about local police mistreating young people, an officer paid arsonists to throw a kerosene firebomb through a window at the newspaper, destroying the building. Mr. Gish said he later learned that coal company money was behind the crime.
Al Cross, a former Courier-Journal reporter who now directs the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said the Mountain Eagle expanded its reach far beyond Letcher County. It reported, for example, on policies at the Tennessee Valley Authority that encouraged the worst kind of strip mining.
"He was the consummate journalist," said David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association. "When I talk about the media being the watchdog for the public, I'm thinking about Tom Gish."
Mr. Gish was a Whitesburg native. Pat is from Paris in Bourbon County. They met in a Spanish class at the University of Kentucky and worked together on the student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel.
Gishes' efforts to open those meetings to the press and public laid the groundwork for what became open meeting and open records laws in Kentucky.
The Gishes won a wall full of awards for their coverage of the region's poverty, corruption and strip mine abuses. They included Society of Professional Journalists' Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award (2002); the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award (1983); two Elijah Parish Lovejoy Awards; Environmental Policy Institute: Recognition for Coverage of Coalfields Issues (1987); Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, The Gish Award (established to honor Tom and Pat), first recipients, 2005.
Mr. Gish is survived by his wife, three daughters, two sons, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Arrangements are incomplete at Letcher Funeral Home, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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