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The Eagle Never Sleeps

Why one tiny Kentucky newspaper still screams for press freedom

Tom Gish (foreground) and Pat, back left, in the old Eagle offices not long before the fire. Photo by Tom Bethell.

The fire started in a disused apartment in the back of the old stone building sometime after midnight, in Whitesburg, Kentucky, August 1, 1974. By the time the town’s all-volunteer firefighting crew extinguished the last of the flames at 2am it had torn through three rooms and destroyed most of everything. Although it was the Letcher County seat, Whitesburg was small and the fire truck’s siren loud and so most of the thousand or so residents probably knew that something in town was ablaze. It was only when the sun came up that they’d discover it was the offices of their newspaper The Mountain Eagle which had burned. 

The Eagle building was at 120 West Main Street in a bend of the North Fork Kentucky River and in the center of things as far as life in Whitesburg was concerned. Enter the storefront and there was a reception area on the right where you could renew your subscription for $3 a year for Letcher County residents or $5 for those living outside of the county. On the left were a few other desks with typewriters on top that had seen better days, most of them covered in splashes of whiteout. You could barely see the editor Tom Gish’s desk at all, so stacked was it with papers. The Eagle’s staff thought of the office as “barely controlled chaos” but despite this, Tom and his wife Pat managed to publish the newspaper on time each Thursday and had done so for just shy of 20 years.

The night of the fire the Gishes were at a meeting three hours away in Lexington and they didn’t find out about it until mid-morning the following day when their daughter called. By the time Tom and Pat got there it was a smoldering pile of charred paper and ash, the walls black with soot, and the heavy, acrid smell of smoke. It may not have destroyed the entire building but it was no longer habitable. The worst damage, they noticed, had been caused by the fire hoses.

Tom and Pat salvaged what they could. Most of the stuff could be replaced, but the biggest tragedy, they thought, was the boxes of historic photographs of Appalachia that had been destroyed, together with a collection of books and articles on eastern Kentucky. They were irreplaceable. A couple of days later Pat found a pile of charred envelopes just inside the back door to the apartment, off a little alleyway, and noticed they were stained red and orange and that they smelled like kerosene. A windowpane in the door had been smashed. As she dialed the number of the state fire marshal, Tom turned to the handful of staff who had gathered in the room behind them, and with tears in his eyes said: “Who could have done this to us?” Then Tom promised them they wouldn’t miss an issue; The Mountain Eagle would come out the following week. “Even if we have to use just one typewriter.”

In those moments standing in the gutted building, when Tom and Pat first suspected arson, they had no idea just what was around the corner; no clue that what happened that night was the culmination of a bitter battle between press freedom and a corrupt establishment. Tom and Pat were used to telling stories, but this one — the story of retribution on them and their newspaper for doing its job — was to be the most compelling of all; bigger and more outrageous than anything they’d ever relayed in the pages of The Mountain Eagle. It was a story that would resonate far into the future, too; a future in which local newspapers, so crucial to a healthy, functioning democracy, were being decimated, and newsrooms gutted.

The same year The Eagle burned, Tom and Pat would stand on stage at the University of Arizona to collect the Zenger Award for freedom of the press. The previous year, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post had won for her coverage of the ‘Pentagon papers’ – the top secret study of US political and military involvement in Vietnam. The year after, it would be the turn of Seymour Hersh of The New York Times for his coverage of the Watergate affair, the burglary that resulted in President Nixon’s resignation. Sandwiched between these two journalistic titans was eastern Kentucky’s humble Mountain Eagle: a local paper dedicated to truth telling, whatever the cost.


Tom and Pat met in a Spanish class at the University of Kentucky in the mid-1940s. Tom, who was born just up the road from Whitesburg in the SECO coal camp where his father worked, had embarked on an engineering degree with the aim of becoming a mining engineer like his dad; Pat was studying journalism and she talked Tom into reporting for The Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper she edited. Soon, he’d switched majors to join her, deciding he’d rather become a journalist instead. Tom was a year older than Pat, and when he graduated he landed a job working for United Press in Frankfort covering labor relations. After she left college, Pat was hired as a general assignment reporter at the Lexington Leader. Tom always wanted to return to Whitesburg someday, and after his boss told him that a promotion would see him transferred to either Ohio or England, he looked for ways to stay in Kentucky. In 1956 the owners of The Mountain Eagle and Hazard Herald newspapers wanted to sell up, and Tom’s father persuaded them that Pat and Tom might make the perfect new proprietors. The couple seized the opportunity, choosing to take over The Eagle.

Tom and Pat Gish outside the Eagle office in the mid- 1990s. Photo by Pat Arnow.

Whitesburg was the archetypal American small town, straight out of a Rockwell painting. Its small Main Street featured two hardware stores and post office, with The Eagle at the west end of the street across from a funeral home run by a part-time Baptist preacher. It was a busy little town, nestled in a valley dominated by Pine Mountain to the north, its rugged peaks and evergreen forests contrasting with the abandoned coal mines scarring its slopes. On Saturdays, miners and their families frequented one of two drugstores with their soda fountains, the handful of restaurants, and the 10-cent store. But its idyllic setting, nestled along the river, belied a depressed economy. Like many other community newspapers, The Eagle was funded largely by revenue generated from printing stationery for other clients. In truth, before Tom and Pat came along there wasn’t much actual reporting being done at all — its stock-in-trade was obituaries, wedding announcements, and lengthy reports of Rotary Club and 4H meetings.

The Gishes agreed to take over The Eagle when Pat was pregnant with their third child, Ben and living in Frankfort with the children until Tom found them a place to live in Whitesburg. They were determined to publish real journalism, and they got their chance a few months later when Whitesburg found itself under water. A month after their first issue hit the newsstands, the North Fork of the Kentucky River burst its banks and the biggest flood of the century swamped the town. Water levels rose so fast that townsfolk had to evacuate without their belongings. There were few staff back then; until Pat joined him, Tom wrote the stories himself — reported them and copy edited them, before sending the paper off to be printed. It wasn’t just Whitesburg that was impacted by the deluge. Southwest Virginia and northeastern Tennessee had also borne the brunt of catastrophic flooding. In southeastern Kentucky, the headwaters of the Big Sandy, Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers, swollen by heavy rain and snowmelt, flooded the counties they meandered through. The Red Cross proclaimed parts of Kentucky a disaster area — parts that included Corbin, Jackson and Whitesburg. In nearby Hazard, Kentucky, floodwaters swept more than 50 houses away. Ironically, the Hazard Herald, the paper Tom and Pat had been offered but which they’d declined to buy in favor of The Eagle, was destroyed. There was no gas for cooking, locals suffered food shortages, mudslides took out roads, homes were ruined, people died, and ninety percent of the coal mines in four counties closed. That industry — the region’s economic lifeblood — would never really recover.

The Gish family in 1967. L-R: Pat Gish, Kitty, Ben, Sarah, Ann, Tom, and Ray. Photo by Tom Bethell.

Tom and Pat were determined to make their newspaper a success and raise their kids in Whitesburg; they had an overwhelming commitment to the place and its people. Tom was a slim man who smoked five packs of cigarettes a day; Pat had short, wavy dark hair and wore round, black-framed glasses and, as one employee had it, possessed “more energy than God ever gave any woman.” Both had an astute sense of humor and the newspaper office was often filled with laughter. The Gishes lived on School Hill, near the high school, in a wooden two story house with steep steps that climbed up to the front door; big enough for Tom, Pat, and their five children, not to mention the numerous guests Tom and Pat regularly entertained. Rare was the night they didn’t have a dinner guest and reporters from far afield would often show up to volunteer or cover news events, crashing at Tom and Pat’s when they were done for the day. When they weren’t at school, the Gish children, Ben, Ray, Katherine (known as Kitty,) Sarah and Ann, would help out in the newspaper mailroom, or, when they got a little older, typesetting the news. If it got late and they got tired, they’d curl up on cardboard pallets on the floor of the office. By the time they reached the age of 16, each of the Gish children could publish a newspaper by themselves if they wanted to.

Coal is at the heart of this story. Coal and money. Tom and Pat took over The Eagle at a time when the economy of the Appalachians was in free fall. People were near starvation and it was one of Tom’s old schoolmates, Harry Caudill, who had brought national attention to the dire problem. Caudill was a powerful presence; a local lawyer who had served in Kentucky’s House of Representatives, prone to quoting Shakespeare and Dickens on the courthouse floor and in the legislature. In his book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, published in 1963, he describes the history of coal and its impact on Appalachia. Following the outbreak of WWII, the Allies had placed huge orders for American coal. Hotels across the Cumberland Plateau which had stood empty during The Depression, were now filled with coal brokers and their agents. Local miners, who had inherited family tracts and camp houses, watched their values rise. Caudill wrote that they were suddenly able to mortgage that inheritance and go into business, “turning paupers into princes.” But only for some. Caudill painted a vivid picture of the disparity it caused: while hundreds dashed around flashing their new-found wealth “in the most irresponsible and profitless manner,” schoolhouses, meanwhile, were heated by pot bellied stoves that couldn’t compete with the Appalachian winters; water was drawn from wells “shockingly close to stinking, fly-blown privies.” And while some coal miners enjoyed the spoils of the boom, schoolteachers, doctors and nurses had to live on meager salaries. Eventually there was an inevitable exodus of the very people the plateau needed. What’s more, automation in the mines meant thousands of idle miners, too, joined the flight out of the mountains. The “Continuous Miner,” a massive machine that cut and loaded coal in one uninterrupted operation and resembled a huge orange monster with devastating teeth, together with belt systems and shuttle cars, rendered a lot of human labor redundant.

The industry they left behind was rife with unscrupulous practices. Operators paid miners for “short weights” — rigging the scale so a car of coal showed a load way under what it actually measured. Housing for mineworkers was cheap, built alongside highways and on hillsides from unseasoned low-grade lumber, causing their walls and floors to buckle and sag as the unrelenting Appalachian weather took its toll. Meanwhile the booming industry began to tap seams of coal in previously untouched areas, far from existing roads. These new rural roads were carved out of the shale, unstable clay and crumbling limestone in order to transport coal down the mountainsides, and as those roads inevitably deteriorated too, Caudill wrote that the dust the coal trucks kicked up changed the color of trees and fields, making its way into homes. Loose rock and soil congested drainage systems; roads flooded; and pavements cracked as the drenched earth froze and expanded in winter.

There’s a chapter in Caudill’s book called “The Rape of the Appalachians.” It tells the story of strip mining, a branch of the industry that was about to invade the Cumberlands on a vast scale. With strip mining, the soil above is scraped off and the coal scooped out, leaving a hellish landscape. Many of those coal seams contained huge quantities of sulfur; when that gets wet it produces sulfuric acid which “bleeds into the creeks, killing vegetation and destroying fish, frogs and other stream-dwellers.” Caudill’s book was a devastating indictment of the industry, one which soon came to the attention of Homer Bigart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. Back then, if you were a journalist from an American newspaper or TV network and wanted to see what was happening in the Appalachians, Tom, Pat and The Mountain Eagle were the obligatory pit stop. And so when Bigart visited the Cumberlands, Tom and Pat gave him a tour of the area, introduced him to people they knew were essential in telling his story, and showed him their own reporting on the collapse of the region’s economy, its health and housing problems and issues of food insecurity. “He went away and wrote the story and it was spread across the front page of The New York Times,” Tom said. “And the story goes that John F Kennedy, who would read The Times in bed on Sunday mornings, saw Bigart’s story about Kentucky, called an emergency cabinet meeting that Sunday afternoon, and set up a program of emergency relief for impoverished mountain families and jobless coal miners.”

In his Times piece, Bigart described the devastating consequences of the automation of the mining industry. “Replaced by machines,” he wrote, “the miners can find no work.” He described how one man even pretended to be blind by putting snuff in his eyes in order to become eligible for welfare; that once he’d fooled the welfare board, his wife did the same — with equal success. His ruse was only exposed when he brought his daughter in to claim a third check. Bigart described “dirty-faced children [who] haul water from the creek, which is fouled with garbage and discarded mattresses.” Letcher County’s public health officer even told Bigart that he’d seen children “pot-bellied and anemic … eat dirt out of chimneys.” Following Kennedy’s assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson told America during his State of the Union Speech in 1964 that he would prosecute a “war on poverty.”

The Mountain Eagle’s reporting on what was happening caused some in the area — particularly the mining companies — to assume the Gishes were “anti coal.” But Tom, Pat and their family were in Whitesburg because of coal. Tom’s father, Ben, had worked as a miner for the Southeast Coal Company before becoming a mine superintendent. He’d invented a device that made modern mining possible: a roof bolt which could shore up otherwise fragile shafts in order for miners to extract coal, metal ore or stone, free from fear of the roof collapsing in on them. Tom’s father’s invention had made mining safer for humans, not machines. By now, Tom and Pat were shocked at how coal operators — and those in government — had created a kind of local tyranny and they were aghast at the tragedy unfolding in their quiet little corner of Kentucky. That concern, which they articulated in their coverage and editorials in The Eagle, together with reporting on black lung disease and strip mining, inevitably rubbed those at the top of the mining pyramid the wrong way. When Pat first attended a school board meeting in Whitesburg she was told the forum was closed. Tom informed them that the state’s Open Meetings Law gave the press access to public meetings, and while the board eventually conceded, their concession apparently didn’t extend to giving Pat a chair to sit in, even when she was pregnant with their second child.

Because of the massive interest in stories about the War on Poverty, a general hostility to the media hung like coal smoke over the Appalachians. Reporters, Ben Gish recalls, “were more concerned with showing pictures of abject poverty instead of showing the homes of the coal company owners.” And some locals objected to that.

 In September, 1967, a Canadian filmmaker called Hugh O’Connor visited eastern Kentucky to conduct interviews for a documentary he was working on that had been commissioned by the United States Department of Commerce. Unaware of the hostility to outsiders, particularly members of the media, O’Connor and his crew spotted a miner sitting on his porch, still covered in coal dust, and the man agreed to let them film him. But while their cameras were rolling, his landlord, a man named Hobart Ison, who objected to them being on his property, ordered the filmmakers to leave. They packed up their gear but as they were walking toward their car, Ison pulled out his revolver and began firing. One of the bullets hit O’Connor in the chest and he died on the spot. Later, Ison would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter but he’d serve just a year in prison. This was the climate the Gishes operated in as the new decade dawned.

The staff of The Mountain Eagle weren’t immune to abuse. In 1971, reporter Phil Primack went to cover a protest — a group of five women were attempting to get a strip mine shut down in Knott County. Primack recalls three men present that day — him, a man who ran an anti-strip mining pressure group, and one other — were beaten up “by a bunch of drunk, pissed off hard hats who thought they were protesting their livelihood. They weren’t going to beat up the women so they beat up the men there instead.”

In the summer of 1970, Tom suffered a major heart attack and two years later underwent open heart surgery. It failed to slow him down though, and back at The Eagle office, he and Pat worked a brutal schedule. On press day, Tom, who now sported a big reddish beard, was at his desk late into the night, sleeping on a cot in the office so he could be up again at the crack of dawn, back to work. Pat had taken a job at the housing corporation so she could bring home a steady paycheck, but after she left the office each day she’d head straight to The Eagle, working into the night alongside Tom to make sure the paper, the circulation of which now hovered around 7,000, came out on time. Tom and Pat had gotten wind of the fact that coal companies planned to double the weight limits on their coal trucks at a time when mountain roads were already falling apart. What’s more, those companies had managed to persuade the local legislature to agree to change the weight limits without telling the public, figuring they’d get away with it as long as the Gishes didn’t find out. But those coal companies were oblivious to Tom and Pat’s dogged commitment to the First Amendment. Jim Branscome, who started reporting for The Eagle in 1971, said the couple weren’t revolutionaries but “they were people prepared to fight for the elemental principles of journalism.” And right now they were ready to go to battle.

At one coal company meeting at the Letcher County Courthouse which was ostensibly “public” although everyone there was sympathetic to the coal companies’ plans, a coal truck owner stood up and announced that if the Gishes disclosed details of the “arrangement” in which officials had agreed to overlook the overweight trucks, they would “burn their building down.” Nobody apparently noticed a reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal sitting quietly at the back of the room, taking notes. After Tom heard what had happened he wrote in the next issue of The Eagle how disgusted he was that a threat like that could be made without challenge — not to mention the fact that the local judge was at that meeting, albeit in his capacity as someone with a financial interest in a local coal business. Tom called on the judge to “repudiate those who made the public threat to burn down The Mountain Eagle.”

There was another issue the newspaper had sunk its teeth into. And this one upset the local police department. Not long after The Eagle revealed the secret agreement between county officials and the coal industry, it took issue with what it felt was unnecessary police harassment of Whitesburg’s youth. It was 1974. By now Tom and Pat’s son Ben was in high school and he remembers he and his friends would hang out on a bridge over the North Fork Kentucky River near the center of town, something young people had done for generations. There, Ben and his pals would listen to “Bluebird” by Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles band Wings over and over on an eight track stereo. One night, the police picked them all up for disorderly conduct, insisting the bridge was a hive of drug activity, despite never making a single drug-related arrest. “Have you heard that song?” Ben would say. “It’s a ballad.” At city council meetings, concerned parents brought up the various threats they said the police had made to their kids. “And so dad wrote an editorial saying if the city really wanted to keep kids out of town at night they could put up a drawbridge and dig a moat,” Ben said. 

Tom didn’t stop at one Op-Ed; all summer The Eagle ran news stories and editorials condemning the police treatment of young people in the county. In return, the police ensured Ben and four of his friends showed up in juvenile court. The judge threatened to send Ben and his friends to juvenile camp, but the case was later dismissed. On April 1, 1974, Whitesburg enacted a curfew requiring parents to keep their children off the streets after midnight — and which stipulated that the parents themselves could be arrested and charged with a criminal offense if they didn’t. Ben recalls that every time he’d drive through town, one officer in particular, a man by the name of Johnny Caudill, would pull him over, accusing him of speeding, which Ben says he never did.

Nobody was exempt from criticism if Tom and Pat thought they deserved it. Mining companies, the school board, police, local officials. All were fair game. Tom said over time they realized that if the newspaper was going to project any kind of opinion it was bound to offend somebody, and as a result it would lose advertising. If that happened, so be it. “Never think you’ve won any permanent friends ‘cos you have not,” he said. The Letcher County establishment, led by the coal industry, saw The Eagle and the Gishes as a threat to their power. And they retaliated by boycotting the newspaper and attempting — unsuccessfully — to strip it of its status as the county’s official paper of record.


When Sarah Gish called her dad to tell him that The Mountain Eagle office had been all-but destroyed in a fire, Tom thought it must have been a wiring issue: it was an old building, after all, and these things sometimes happened. By now Jim Branscome had left the paper and was living in Tennessee. When he heard, he drove straight to Whitesburg and found Tom sitting on his front porch. By then Tom suspected foul play. A typewriter stood on a small table in front of him and, determined not to miss an issue, he was already hammering out a front page. On the left hand side of the masthead was the familiar sketch of an eagle, its wings outstretched. Prior to the fire, underneath that the masthead had read: IT SCREAMS! in all caps. But Tom had altered it for the next issue. Now it read: IT STILL SCREAMS!

A few days after The Eagle burned, Kentucky State Police arson investigators turned up in Whitesburg to inspect the newspaper office. Tom thought they only came because of the support he and Pat had got in the immediate aftermath from the other major dailies in Kentucky who had leaned heavily on the authorities to investigate. Even then, he said there was a lot of looking and talking — which went on for a few months, after which not very much happened. Tom was disappointed, but unsurprised, that not one member of the city council expressed concern or sympathy for what had happened. At first the arson investigators said they could find nothing conclusive.

“Then the big frame-up started,” Ben said. “Whitesburg police said someone had seen me and some friends running from the back of the building that night; that me and a couple of buddies had been in the back office smoking pot.” In fact, Ben said, he had been “buzzed out (his) mind” that night — but nowhere near The Mountain Eagle office. “A month earlier a girl I’d been seeing was killed in a wreck when a truck crashed through barrels where a bypass was being built and t-boned the car she was in, killing her and her brother. The night of the fire I’d bought a six pack of beer and had gone to her grave to drink it. I had no alibi. I went home by myself and got to sleep pretty quick.” The state police made Ben take a lie detector test — which he passed.

Two months after the fire, suspicion had fallen on 25-year-old Whitesburg city police officer Johnny Caudill — the cop who had targeted Ben earlier in the year, and had no relation to Tom and Pat’s friend Harry Caudill. As one former reporter said, Caudill was an incredibly common name in the area. “If you count people with the last name Smith, Craft, Caudill and Collins, you’d have about half the county.” Someone who lived near The Eagle office had spotted three men that night and recognized them, but they hadn’t come forward straight away. A state police officer, already suspicious of Johnny Caudill, was able to get one of those young men, Benny Bentley, to confess. Bentley, then a freshman at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond studying law enforcement, happened to be a former classmate of Ben Gish; the pair had known each other since kindergarten. Caudill, Bentley told the officer, had paid him and another other young man, Roger Stewart, $50 each to pour kerosene into The Eagle office that night and set it alight, assuring them there was no need to worry about any repercussions. “We won’t let anybody touch you,” he said. 

Reverend Ray Collins, who owned the funeral home opposite The Eagle, once told his congregation that Jesus would approve of what Tom and Pat and Harry Caudill were trying to do, educating people about what was happening in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. After the fire he offered an empty building he owned across from the hospital as a temporary refuge for the newspaper. Tom was determined not to let emotions get in the way of unbiased coverage of Caudill’s trial. They’d cover it in detail; and they’d play it straight. Harry Caudill, who would represent one of the young men hired to set the building on fire, told Tom there was no doubt that “coal money” had paid for the arson attack.

A year on from the fire, in August, 1975, Johnny Caudill finally appeared before a jury at the Letcher County Courthouse, a three story concrete, steel and glass building built a decade before that stood proudly on Main Street in downtown Whitesburg. He was accused of “procuring the willful and malicious burning” of The Mountain Eagle offices. Caudill was, the jury heard, encouraged to torch the building due to The Eagle’s criticism of his police department and its treatment of the town’s teenagers, including Tom and Pat’s son, Ben. Four months earlier Benny Bentley and Roger Stewart had pleaded guilty to reduced charges and were each fined $300. Now they were telling the court about Caudill’s involvement; about the cash he’d paid them and how he had masterminded the entire thing. Bentley and Stewart’s testimony sealed Caudill’s fate, and the jury recommended a sentence of a year in the state reformatory. But the punishment that Judge F. Byrd Hogg would ultimately mete out turned out to be shockingly lenient. Hogg, who himself happened to own several coal mines, gave Caudill a one year suspended sentence and instructed him to report once a month to his probation officer. In other words, Caudill was free. Tom wasn’t surprised and he headlined his next editorial: “Open Season on The Eagle,” noting that Caudill had got away with arson.

No one knows for sure if any coal companies were complicit in the arson plot. Reporter Phil Primack said that at the very least their animosity created an enabling environment for Caudill to do what he did. “I remember one day waking up to see the entire length of Main Street plastered with stickers in support of the coal industry. It had happened overnight. The two exceptions were The Mountain Eagle office and Harry Caudill’s office. And you take that as a message.”

Jim Branscome said surprisingly little changed in the aftermath of the fire and trial. “Tom always carried a simmering residue of outrage; Pat a little less so, but it was there. There were always threats to his life, his children, the paper, from coal interests, going back decades. I think he was probably surprised this one was instigated by a policeman.”

For the year he was on probation, Johnny Caudill left Whitesburg. When he returned, he ran a used car dealership and each week he’d place an ad for his company in the pages of The Eagle. For a long time, Ben said the pair wouldn’t acknowledge each other. Eventually, as time passed, they’d nod: a simple gesture, but it was a recognition of their shared existence. It wasn’t friendly, but it wasn’t hostile either. With time, some of the pain had healed. 

Today, Benny Bentley volunteers for Whitesburg’s fire department.


I first met Tom, Pat and Ben in 2004, around the 30th anniversary of the fire that could easily have destroyed their business and any desire to stick around in Whitesburg. It was midday when I drove through eastern Kentucky, past houses and barns nestled in hollows between mountains. There were trucks parked up, piled high with logs. I could hear the rumble of coal trucks as I motored past a diner serving “breakfast anytime steaks” and a little flea market selling fruit and vegetables, while each station I tuned my car radio to offered equally generous doses of religion. Although officially retired — Tom and Pat had handed the reins of the paper over to Ben — they each still had an office in the newspaper building. We sat in the living room of their modest home in the valley, Pine Mountain almost entirely filling the window frame. In an adjacent room, a seven foot tall painting, proudly displayed on the wall, was of an open hand with an eagle above it and flames overhead — a reminder, Pat told me, of the resilience of The Mountain Eagle.

The year before I met them, Tom and Pat were honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Professional Journalists. At the ceremony, the SPJ’s then-president Al Cross said Tom and Pat had lived “a life consumed — and sometimes put at risk — by the journalism they have practiced for 45 years,” and that “their careers could make a great book or even a motion picture.” Tom was typically modest when talking about the numerous accolades he and Pat had received over the years. “They’ve tried to put us outta business, threaten us, intimidate us,” he told me. “And we got a fair amount of attention from other media people who are concerned about freedom of speech.” But none of that really mattered to them. It was all about the reporting; speaking truth to power.

In 2005, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky launched the inaugural Gish Award. Its first recipients were Tom and Pat Gish, “for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.” Last year it was Uvalde Leader-News Publisher Craig Garnett for the newspaper’s reporting on the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Ben Gish began working for The Eagle in the 1980s after he graduated from college. He planned to — in his words — “just hang out there” until he found a job and got married. But Tom told me back in 2004 that working for the paper soon consumed him. Ben’s siblings never followed him into the newspaper trade. His sister Katherine is still a doctor in Kentucky; Sarah, a now-retired kindergarten teacher, and Ann, who died in 2020, was a social worker in Virginia, while brother Ray worked for Greenpeace for a decade before leaving to become a bartender — and now bar owner — in Brooklyn.

Tom died in 2008, just a few years after we met. In the obituary he penned, Phil Primack wrote: “Newspapers do face serious financial and other challenges today, but Tom Gish faced them every week for half a century and prevailed and published until the end. His Eagle, now edited by his son Ben … a hopeful sign in dark times that newspapers still matter and can — must — survive.” Pat died eight years later. Jim Branscome wrote of Pat that her life was a profile in courage, endurance, and dogged hard work “all driven by a deeply principled commitment to the idea that there is nowhere a free people unless there is a free press.”


Today, Whitesburg is far from the bustling place it once was. The legalization of alcohol sales in the mid-2000s has meant more restaurants and bars, so the town is busier at weekends, but the coal industry is decimated and the streets all but empty during the week. Pine Mountain casts its shadow both literally and figuratively over the town. As The Mountain Eagle itself noted: “If all the coal mined in Letcher County since 1900 were loaded onto 100-ton rail cars, the coal train would reach from Whitesburg to Los Angeles more than 22 times.” Today it’s a different story. “Now, the mineable coal — and the money that came with it — is almost gone.”

Pat Gish at typewriter, with their daughter Kitty in 1968. Six years before the fire. Photo by Tom Bethell.

Jim Branscome told me that in the early days of Tom and Pat’s tenure, The Eagle called attention to the problems of strip mining and black lung disease; in the ‘60s it was hunger and nutrition; today, with Ben in the editor’s chair, it’s poverty and flooding and the loss of jobs.” While the issues it reports on have changed, The Eagle still screams. 


January, 2022

With the deadline fast approaching, eight more candidates filed their paperwork to run for election in Letcher County. Among the numerous positions, for county clerk, coroner, magistrates, constables, conservation and education boards, were the candidates for mayor. Throwing their hats in the ring were Tiffany Craft, Patty Jo Wood, and a name familiar to most in Whitesburg: Johnny Caudill.

Tell the news. Inform the community. Play it straight. That’s what Tom and Pat always did. 

“Johnny Caudill has become the third person to file for Mayor of Whitesburg,” The Eagle reported. “Caudill was convicted in 1975 of arson, for his role in a fire that destroyed The Mountain Eagle offices on August 1, 1974.”

Caudill quietly withdrew his candidacy.


Alex Hannaford

Alex Hannaford is an award-winning journalist who has contributed to national newspapers and magazines for more than two decades. He is the host of Dead Man Talking, a criminal justice podcast series, and is a Fellow of The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University. His latest book, Lost in Austin, is published in September 2024.

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