My first encounter with legendary journalist and KET host Al Smith was in late 1973, where he was publishing the Logan Leader newspaper in Russellville. At the time I ran a monthly advertising publication out of Bowling Green, but printed it in Indiana.
I wanted to get closer to home, so Russellville filled that need. In doing so, Al and I became friends, and frequently saw each other in our travels across Kentucky.
Al passed away on March 20, 2021, at the age of 94.
In December 2002, Kentucky Monthly magazine’s publisher Steve Vest asked me to do a feature story on Al. I must admit to being a bit nervous about the assignment. After all, he had spent a lifetime interviewing people in high places for newspapers and television. Still, I was up for the challenge.
Arriving at his beautiful townhouse in Lexington, on the corner of Clay and Central, not far from Woodland Park, Al and his wife Martha Helen greeted me, and after some small talk, he led me into his well-appointed den. The room looked like a set for one of Al’s TV shows. A mantled-fireplace with shelves full of books on each side, it couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for an interview.
In the 2003 March issue of Kentucky Monthly, I wrote the following story, which was published:
Al Smith likes to talk. He likes to talk a lot. For most of his 75 years he has made a living by talking.
A veteran newspaper and broadcast journalist, he is in his 29th year of hosting and producing “Comment on Kentucky,” on Kentucky Educational Television’s longest running show.
If a list was compiled of all the awards, chairmanships, co-chairs, honorary degrees and special recognitions directed his way, there wouldn’t be enough space here to find out what makes him tick, and how he managed to do a one-eighty with his life.
From overcoming a self-destruction life stye, to achieving an impeccable reputation, that included Presidential appointments, Smith’s life could very well be a case study of an underachiever who finally made good.
As a 15-year-old in 1942, he won the National American Legion High School Oratorical Contest and a college scholarship. He even toured the United States talking about patriotism and the flag. His future — a bright one— was ahead of him.
Although born in Sarasota, Florida, Smith spent a good portion of his youth on a farm in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just north of Nashville.
He never got around to using that scholarship. Instead, after graduating from Castle Heights in 1944, he did what a lot of young men his age did then, he joined the Army.
Two years later he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “I spent most of my time in the neighborhood saloons and would on occasion go to class,” recalls Smith. “And by the fall of 1947, I had decided college was interfering with my life.”
He dropped out of school and was soon on a bus headed for New Orleans, seeking fame and fortune.
Upon being hired as a copy boy at the Times-Picayune, he became the fourth generation journalist of his family. He was 20-years-old and making $20 dollars a week.
“This was my journalism school and I learned the business at the copy desk,” he said.
Smith eventually became state editor, but was still encountering the same problem he had at Vanderbilt - alcohol.
“I was fired,” he says. “So I moved over to the other paper in New Orleans, The Item, and worked my way up to assistant city editor.”
He lost that job, too. He had been in New Orleans 10 years.
Smith returned to Tennessee, and after spending 30 days in a VA hospital drying out, life was not good.
“I got a call that the newspaper in Russellville, Kentucky was for sale,” said Smith. “The Evans family owned the paper and I thought I’d go up there and work a little bit. I needed a job.”
The “big city reporter” arrived in Russellville by bus in 1958. He wasn’t overly happy to be there and the locals weren’t all that impressed with him either. He rented a room in the old Kaintuck Hotel, and although not the classiest place, it did provide him with access to local bootleggers to prop up his alcohol habit. It was a habit that at age 31 had already caused him to drop out of college and cost him two newspaper jobs in New Orleans.
In Smith’s mind, Russellville may not have been the end of the line, but from his status in life he could see that the line wasn’t very long.
“I actually thought I’d only stay a month and ended up staying 22 years,” he laughs.
Ailene Evans, the widowed owner of the News-Democrat, was so desperate for an editor when she hired Smith that she bought his story that he would stay until the Nashville Tennessean called. They never did.
Smith says that those years in Russellville are what made him whole again, what gave him a sense of community, what allowed him to develop his insight on education, the arts, historic preservation, economic development, libraries, health care, and of course, politics.
But most important, Smith gives credit for the years he spent in Russellville for saving his life.
“It’s where I had a life change,” he says. “It’s where I quit drinking and got serious about a lot of things . . . I got control of my life.”
Ten years after arriving in the Logan County town with only a small suitcase, Al Smith bought the News-Democrat. During those years he had a lot of help.
“It was a friend who made me go to an AA meeting that saved my life,” he said. I had a serious problem. “I was a drunk.”
It was in 1967 when Smith married his wife, Martha Helen. She was a social worker, and the year before it was a chance meeting with her to discuss some issues with one of his employees.
“I took her to lunch where we spent 10 minutes on the boy’s case and three hours on our own.” Smith once wrote in the Courier-Journal. “That night I called her in Hopkinsville and proposed. A year later she married me.”
Smith’s life had turned. A brief failed marriage in New Orleans, an addiction to alcohol, and a negative outlook on life in general were behind him.
The Smiths eventually owned and published six weekly newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee. They sold them to Park Communications in 1985.
A Presidential appointment came his way, when in 1979, President, Jimmy Carter tapped him as federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission. And although Smith is a lifelong Democrat, the Reagan White House requested him to remain head of the agency until 1982. The ARC is an economic development agency for 13 states including 49 counties in Eastern Kentucky.
From Russellville to Washington, the Smiths also lived in London, Kentucky, publishing the London Sentinal. It was while living here for six years that he developed his interest for the mountains and the people that live there.
They also enjoyed a home in Sarasota where they stay from January to April. Nevertheless, Smith commutes weekly to do “Comment on Kentucky.”
“I’m in on Friday morning and out on Saturday,” he says.
Smith has never lacked for an opinion or been caught without something to say. One thing, however, he will not say is what political candidates he supports.
“I took myself out of partisan politics when I sold the papers,” he says.
A lifetime of talking to people, as a newspaperman, and radio-television commentator, will be what Smith is remembered for by the average reader and listener.
“I’m a lot nicer person than I used to be,” he said. “I’ve mellowed.”
For an admitted yellow dog Democrat who once thought he could drink a fifth of whiskey a day and still do his job, and who even confesses to voting for “some Republicans” now and then, Al Smith says he still has some unfinished business.
“When I left Vanderbilt in 1947, I told the dean I was going to New Orleans to write a book,” he says. “When I sold the newspapers in 1985, I told everyone I’m going to write a book. I’ve told all my friends in Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky, that I’m going to write a book.”
He still hasn’t written the book.
So will the book project ever come about? ”I hope so,” Smith grins. “I’d like to be remembered as a person who wanted to write a book and surprise his friends by actually doing it.”
In 2011, Al’s ambition of wanting to write a book finally happened. “Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism,” hit the bookstores and so did his true to life stories come spewing out. He later followed it with “Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years of Kentucky Journalism.”
My time of knowing Al Smith was peppered with his candor, humility and humor. He never seemed to let his fall from a big city reporter get in the way of becoming Kentucky’s most well-known back water journalist.
The last time I spoke to him was in late 2019. I was in the process of gathering some background on a book I was writing, “Murder on Younger’s Creek Road.” The book heavily involved Russellville and Logan County in the late 60’s, and Al provided me with what I needed to make my book better.
Thanks Al Smith! It was a pleasure knowing you.
There’s no excuse, get up, get out and get going!
Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com.