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Bill Straub: Al Smith was a character in every sense of the word — and made a big mark on Kentucky

The story goes that Charles de Gaulle, president of France, was riding in the backseat of his limousine with one of the many sycophants charged with reminding the founder of the Fifth Republic something he was already quite aware of – that he was a great man.

The sycophant arrived at the part of the routine where he remarked that de Gaulle was “irreplaceable.” They happened to be passing a cemetery at the time. de Gaulle gazed out the window, waved his hand and said, “Grave yards are filled with irreplaceable men.”

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

Maybe so. But it should be noted that Kentucky, and the nation for that matter, lost an irreplaceable man last week when my dear friend Albert P. Smith Jr., known to one and all as Al, passed away in the city of his birth, Sarasota, FL., at age 94.

Al was a character in the best sense of the word. Garrulous to a fault. Full of ideas that he freely disseminated. Insanely curious. Poking, prodding and pushing. All with the idea of making his adopted home state of Kentucky a better place to live, often, it seemed, against the Commonwealth’s collective better judgment.

His life was the quintessential American tale, one he never got tired of telling. Al found himself in New Orleans, as a reporter writing for the old Times-Picayune and States-Item in the 1950s where he collected dozens of wonderful stories and, unfortunately, a taste for brown liquor that required his departure from the Crescent City.

He landed in Russellville as editor of the weekly News-Democrat, eventually sobered up and subsequently owned and published seven weeklies in the Commonwealth and Tennessee. He also happened to become acquainted with a young woman named Martha Helen Hancock, his guiding light for more than 50 years and as wonderful a person as you would ever hope to meet. Where you saw Al you saw Martha Helen. They constituted as great a team as Kentucky has ever had the fortune to embrace.

I first met Al, briefly, when he was running the Sentinel-Echo down in Laurel County sometime in the early 1980s, when I was a reporter for The Kentucky Post headed to cover the floods that used to frequently plague the southeastern part of the state.

I was familiar with the Sentinel-Echo, having covered Laurel County for the Corbin Times-Tribune in 1975 in my first journalism job out of college. By the time we met Al was already hosting the precedent-setting Kentucky Educational Television program, Comment on Kentucky, featuring a panel of Kentucky journalists discussing and analyzing that week’s state news every Friday evening. He was helpful as always, providing me with the lay of the land before I lit out for points east.

In the following years Al sold off his newspapers and dedicated himself to moving the Commonwealth forward in whatever way he could, a process no simpler than raising the Titanic. The self-described “last of the New Dealers” was dedicated to finding avenues to improve Kentucky’s moribund educational system, an issue that always led the agenda, and health care. His interest in rural affairs helped lead to the creation of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, led by our mutual friend Al Cross.

He never lost the touch of an old reporter, a characteristic that shown through every week on Comment on Kentucky, which he continued to host until 2007. It was perhaps his grandest achievement. Al’s brainchild has proved must-see viewing for anyone interested in the ongoing civic affairs of a disparate state stretching from the Big Sandy to the Mississippi. And it’s true to this day. The conversation is almost always enlightening and often provocative. It remains an elixir to help unify the state in some way.

It even stretched beyond the commonwealth’s borders. In 1988 I was in Atlanta covering the Democratic National Convention and happened upon Tennessee Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, who at the time was on friendly terms with then Kentucky Gov. Wallace Wilkinson. I moved up to introduce myself and he waved a hand.
“I know you,” said McWherter, who lived across the Kentucky border in Weakly County, TN, “I see you on Al Smith’s show all the time.”

It was through Comment that I got to know Al. I became a fairly regular panelist as the Frankfort bureau chief for The Kentucky Post and it can be said the figure he cut on the program was very much the same as the person you’d run into off screen – intellectually energetic, witty, incisive and a born storyteller. And what you’ve heard is true – the on-the-fly pre-show meetings and the post-program dinners were even more enlightening than the show itself.

It helped that Al, through force of personality, knew almost everyone in the state. On the Democratic side he was on friendly terms with former Gov. Bert T. Combs. On the GOP side he often was in contact with an old Logan County acquaintance, Larry Forgy, a Lexington attorney and erstwhile gubernatorial candidate himself. Nothing of significance escaped Al’s notice and he was always eager to offer his learned analysis on any occasion. Few had their hand on the commonwealth’s pulse like Al Smith.

Al, in turn, became a trusted mentor to many Kentucky journalists, old and young, rookies and tired hacks with doubtful futures like me. He was, I told a friend recently, the mahatma, from the Sanskrit for great-souled and, according to Noah Webster, a person to be revered for high-mindedness, wisdom and selflessness. He promoted an untold number of journalists, provided knowing advice and embraced the “old school” way, doing things right.

Next to Barry Bingham, it’s difficult to conceive of an individual who did more to advance journalism in this state.

Now that he is gone and the game of journalism is suffering from economic decline and public disinterest, it’s hard imagining anyone filling the void created by his departure. So, yes, we all suffer from this loss.

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One Comment

  1. Marv Dunn says:

    I grew up in northern Kentucky but spent most of my working years elsewhere. I retired back to northern Kentucky in 2003 and found Comment on Kentucky shortly thereafter. I was hooked. He, probably more than any other, caused me to become a contributing member to KET for many years since. Some of the hosts have been better than others but none rose to his stature.

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