I wish all of you could have known Al Smith. I first knew about him from watching the program he started on Kentucky Educational Television, “Comment on Kentucky,” but I had never met him.
My first contact with him came via telephone call. A lady on the phone asked if I would hold for Al Smith. He said, “Mr. Estep, I’m Al Smith and I have purchased the Sentinel-Echo newspaper in London and I want to talk to you about a job. I’m in Washington right now,” at the time Al was the Director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, “but I will be in London this weekend. Could we meet?”
I agreed to meet with him. He offered me the job of advertising director at the newspaper. I told him I would think about it. A couple of weeks later he called me and I told him that I appreciated the offer, but I declined.
Two weeks later I received another call from him and agreed to meet with him in London. I had never worked at a weekly newspaper and I wasn’t sure about working at one. But Al convinced me that weekly newspapers were at the heart of journalism.
As much as the job duties, it was Al’s infectious personality that convinced me to take the job. I’m glad I did because Al Smith made me see in myself possibilities that I had not discovered before.
He would fly back and forth from Washington to London and every Thursday we would have our staff meetings. I wish I had recordings of those meetings. What a joy.
Al shared his life story in those meetings and he made sure that every staff member knew exactly where the paper stood, its earnings and its potential.
I loved to hear him talk. He had that twang in his voice that would raise to a high pitch. He always called me “Estep”, never Don. He would say, “Estep, you are the most opinionated person I have ever met,” when I gave my opinion on a subject. We would laugh and enjoy every minute of the meetings.
He wrote a column for the newspaper every week and every week we had to wait on him. He never finished on the deadline, but so what, his columns were about subjects for a better community. This continued for seven years. After that he sold the newspaper and I departed.
He supported me in every way and soon we had the biggest weekly newspaper in the state. Every week we were running 60 pages and more.
He put a lot of faith in me and a few times he had me appear on his week TV show, Comment on Kentucky.
After many years apart he never forgot me. He invited me to take part in forums with people from around the state. O. Leonard Press was always a part of those. Mr. Press was Kentucky Educational Television’s founder and first executive director. How fortunate I was that he was the director of the Radio Arts Department at the University of Kentucky when I started school there in 1957.
I listed my major as “Radio Arts.” As my counselor Mr. Press called me in to his office and grilled me with questions on why I wanted to be a broadcaster. That was the beginning of my meeting one of the three men in my life who have brought me to where I am today.
Mr. Press took me under his wing and gave me opportunities I had only dreamed about. He saw to it that my dream of broadcasting Kentucky football and basketball was fulfilled, along with getting a good education.
He was one who never forgot his students. Several times, years later when he would be driving down I-75 he would stop off at my office just to say “hello.”
Eleven years ago when I had my lung cancer operation Leonard Press hunted all over the UK hospital, I was in an isolated area that was hard to find, to visit me.
How fortunate I have been to know these two great men. Mr. Press died two years ago at the age of 97 and Al Smith died last week at the age of 94.
Al Smith is Mr. Journalism in the state of Kentucky. None will ever take the place of these two great men who left marks on this state that moved it forward light years.
I have mentioned only two of the men that gave me opportunities in journalism. The other is my present boss, Terry Forcht. Our final story is not ready to be written yet.
But in 1987 Terry and I agreed on a plan to start a newspaper in Corbin as a companion piece to the one he owned in Williamsburg.
It is 34 years later and it could not have been a better journey. OK so I’m 81 years of age and still at it a bit. But I have followed Terry’s philosophy and never used the word “retire.”
Like the other two men, Terry Forcht has impacted my career and it is to the three of them I owe a big “Thanks!”