Legendary journalist Al Smith dies at 94

SARASOTA, FL (WTVQ) – Journalism icon Al Smith died Friday at his home in Sarasota, Florida at the age of 94.

He owned a chain of weekly newspapers across Kentucky.

He spent nearly three years in Washington, D.C. as head of the Appalachian Regional Commission under President Carter and President Reagan.  He was a celebrated author and civic leader.

He moved to Lexington in 1985 and developed the program “Comment on Kentucky” on Kentucky Education Television (KET).  He hosted the round-table discussion program featuring journalists from across the state and opinion leaders for 33-years.  It is still on today, making it the longest-running program on KET.

He co-founded the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

He was part of the initial class inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1981.

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, released the following statement upon learning of Smith’s death.

“Al Smith was the gold standard of community journalism in the Bluegrass. On radio, on television and in print, he covered everyone from Kentucky’s most famous to those who wouldn’t be known outside their small town.

“In short, Al told our story.

“As a teenager, Al found his voice in speaking competitions. He honed his skills over the years and went on to build a publishing powerhouse and the Commonwealth’s longest-running public affairs program. Wielding a skilled pen and an unflappable memory, Al became an essential feature of Kentucky’s public discourse and dinner-table conversations.

“After years of covering public officials, Al became one. He led the Appalachian Regional Commission under presidents of both parties to help lift families toward new opportunity. Along the way, he earned a reputation as an effective voice for rural Kentucky.

“Al trusted his audience enough to open up about his personal challenges. In writing about his human vulnerability, he became an inspiration for his readers to face their own. It’s my hope others will follow Al’s path of integrity and professional excellence.

“Elaine and I share our sincere condolences with Martha Helen and their family. Al was a Kentucky legend through and through. We will miss him.”

Statements were also released by KET.

“Through his more than 30 years as host of Comment on Kentucky, Al established KET as the place to be on Friday nights. Known for his many colorful stories, Al’s passion for addressing the issues facing Kentuckians fueled a remarkable career in journalism.”
Shae Hopkins, KET executive director and CEO

“His love of our Commonwealth was undeniable, and the forum he created to debate its
issues and celebrate its triumphs remains the gold standard by which the rest of us strive. I, and others, will cling to memories of his feisty spirit, fervent intellectual curiosity, and deep passion to connect our experiences and elevate rural communities.”
Renee Shaw, KET Public Affairs Managing Producer/Host, who in 1997 began working as a
producer for ‘Comment on Kentucky.’

KET also shared a news release on Smith’s passing.

In 1974, Al Smith, who owned and managed a chain of rural weekly newspapers based in
Russellville, made his debut as host of the KET program Comment on Kentucky. The program featured journalists from across the state discussing the Commonwealth’s weekly news, and the series soon became a must-watch event with Smith as host.

From the start, Smith used Comment on Kentucky to emphasize rural journalism as a vital
voice that informed citizens throughout the state’s 120 geographically and culturally
disparate counties. Under Smith, the program became renowned for its spirited discussion
across the political spectrum — driven by his knowledge of the Commonwealth’s civic life
and his talent for storytelling.

“The Comment show was a wonderful third life for me,” Smith said in 2007 upon his
retirement as host. “I was able to be a journalist on a larger stage. KET turned on the lights and the cameras, and we were talking to the whole state of Kentucky.”

Smith received numerous honors for his journalism and his public service. Among them are
the Al Smith Award, established by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2011. He also earned several honorary doctorates, including a Doctor of Letters from the University of Kentucky in 2011. In addition, Smith served as the head of the Appalachian Regional Commission under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan from 1979 to 1982.

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