Al Smith, who owned and edited the News-Democrat and Logan Leader, and served as a tireless advocate for journalism and education during his lengthy and successful career, passed away on Friday, March 19, 2021, at his home in Sarasota, Fla. at age 94.
Smith was born in 1927 and grew up in Florida and Tennessee. After military service in World War II, he attended Vanderbilt University. His journalism career began in New Orleans where for 10 years he worked for daily newspapers, the Times-Picayune, and the New Orleans Item.
Smith moved to Kentucky in 1958 to become editor of the Russellville News-Democrat. He left the News-Democrat in the late 1960s to start his own weekly publication, The Logan Leader. He then purchased The News-Democrat, where eventually the two combined. The papers took strong stands on public issues, particularly education. Smith sold the company in 1985. The News-Democrat & Leader is currently owned by Paxton Media Group.
In 1974, Smith began a broadcasting career, hosting “Comment” on Friday nights. The show featured a panel of Kentucky journalists discussing and analyzing that week’s news. In the 1970s and 80s, he became involved in several statewide public-service organizations. He was the founding chair of the Kentucky Oral History Commission and chaired both Leadership Kentucky and the Shakertown Roundtable, a forum on challenging issues facing Kentucky. He hosted and produced a daily radio show, “Primeline,” from 1990 to 1996, and wrote two books, Wordsmith and Kentucky Cured.
Before, during, and after Smith’s year as president of the Kentucky Press Association in 1975, he fought for open government and helped lead the effort to pass the state Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act.
Smith earned numerous awards and accolades throughout this career. He was a member of the inaugural class of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1981 and a recipient of the Ralph Gabbard Distinguished Kentuckian Award from the Kentucky Broadcasters Association. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has honored him as a Fellow of the Society, the highest honor SPJ bestows upon a journalist for extraordinary contributions to the profession. In 2011, the Bluegrass Chapter of SPJ and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which Smith conceived, created the Al Smith Award for public service through rural or community journalism by a Kentuckian and made him its first recipient. He holds honorary degrees from eight colleges and universities.
Smith is survived by his wife of almost 54 years, Martha Helen Smith; his children, Catherine McCarty (William) of Birmingham, Ala.; Lewis Carter Hancock of Louisville, Ky., and Virginia Major (William) of West Hartford, Conn.; an “adopted” son, Huaming Gu of Shanghai, China; and his sister, Robin Burrow, of Abilene, Texas. He is also survived by five grandchildren, Evan and Connor (Ikue) McCarty, Lauren Hancock, and Susannah and Ava Major.
A memorial service for Al Smith will be held at a later date. The family suggests memorial contributions may be made in Al’s honor 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.
— Staff report