Founding Champion for Education Improvement Encouraged Us to the End
Prichard Committee Members Remember Al Smith
“I have known Al for 58 years all told. He was a remarkable man able to overcome obstacles to become a leader in Kentucky through his journalism and otherwise, particularly as an advocate for public education. His wife, Martha Helen supported and encouraged him, helping him use his many gifts for the betterment of Kentucky. He will be missed!”
– Fannie Louise Maddux
“Al was much more than a renowned KET icon. He put his heart and soul in improving everyone he touched. I met and worked with him in his role as the Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. As with everything he touched, he made it better.”
– David Bolt
“Al was a valued evaluator of my public service. ”
– Former KY Gov. Paul Patton
“Al was unique in his incessant curiosity and ability to connect what he had seen and heard over many years to current issues and situations. He was a true journalist. We need many more of his caliber in today’s public sphere.”
– Cindy Heine
“When Al Smith came to his adopted state as a young journalist, he quickly took on the mantle of promoting and improving rural journalism. He fervently believed that rural Kentuckians deserved the very best information and reporting to make them better citizens of the Commonwealth.
He then expanded that passion and became a force for improving education everywhere in Kentucky but particularly rural Kentucky, knowing that improved educational outcomes translated into better lives for all. As a founding member of the Prichard Committee, Al used his oratorical skills, his prowess as a journalist and his influence as one of the state’s most important public figures to spread the message far and wide that Kentuckians deserved a world class educational system.”
– Hilma Prather
Al Smith, a founding member of the Prichard Committee, died on Friday, March 19, at his home in Florida after suffering renal failure. He was 94.
Smith was appointed in 1980 as an original member of the Committee on Higher Education in Kentucky’s Future. After issuing its report the following year and seeking change, the group recast itself in 1983 as the Prichard Committee, a non-profit citizens group focused on K-12 improvements.
Decades later, Smith’s prominent connection led the Prichard Committee to name its endowment campaign in his honor. At its annual meetings, he often addressed the group with a colorful mix of historical perspective and bold calls for action.
“Al Smith held all of us to the highest standards of honesty and commitment to the public good,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, President & CEO of the Prichard Committee. “He was an unabashed champion for rigorous improvements in education, which would undoubtedly serve the state and its people well, far into the future.”
Albert Perrine Smith Jr. was born in 1927 in Sarasota, Fla. As he grew up in rural Tennessee, his knack for bringing a persuasive voice to public issues began early. At age 15, he won an American Legion national oratorical contest for high schoolers. Smith started his journalism career in Louisiana and moved to Kentucky after serving as state editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His experience as editor of the weekly Russellville News-Democrat coincided with overcoming alcoholism and expanding his business interests, starting with founding The Logan Leader. He went on to own several rural newspapers as part of Al Smith Communications in 1968.
In 1974, he became the founding host and producer of “Comment on Kentucky,” a weekly public affairs show on KET. He hosted the show until 2007, taking a leave from 1979-82 when he was appointed federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission under the Carter and Reagan Administrations. Smith was a member of numerous state boards. Among his civic projects, he was involved in the founding of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, Leadership Kentucky, the Governor’s Scholars Program, and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“I am very much a man engaged — that’s the way I view myself,” he explained in a 1996 interview for the UK Oral History Collection. “I enjoyed the papers giving me a platform for a public life without running for office.”
Smith received honorary degrees from nine universities. “For 40 years, Al Smith has been an important fixture on the public-policy stage in Kentucky, holding the state, its officials, its institutions and its journalists to higher standards that we must achieve for the state to realize its potential,” UK proclaimed in awarding him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2011.
He frequently called attention to improving educational outcomes. “Indifference or outright hostility to academic progress has always been an issue in Kentucky,” Smith wrote in a 2010 commentary applauding the Prichard Committee’s work. He said the group was elevating what he called Kentucky’s most important challenge: “how to help our children become competitive in a knowledge economy.”
In a 2017 appeal to Prichard members and education advocates to contribute to the group’s work, Smith wrote, “The roll call of early supporters of the Prichard Committee who have died since our battle for better education began in the early 1980s reminds us of how much they gave to improve our schools and the challenge we still face in the struggle for our children’s future.”
Smith hailed the sustained push for education improvements in a 2013 commentary.
“No longer a place of barefoot feudists, Kentucky abounds with champions for education — in many schools, of course; in factories and at the literacy centers that tutor kids after school, train parents to read to infants and help with homework, and show aspiring writers how to compose books.” While noting progress, he concluded with an appeal for new activism. “The widening poverty gap is screwing up our dreams for a better Kentucky. Who are the new leaders to fix that problem, and how will they do it?”
“In a letter from Al a little over a year ago, he encouraged us to stay the course, to push forward with evermore vim and vigor, as the battle was far from won,” said Blom Ramsey. “In Al’s honor, we are doing our darndest to build a new groundswell of champions committed to ensuring measureable progress in education – that serves to break generations of poverty, once and for all, moving Kentucky from the bottom rungs of the nation.”
Prichard Committee Members Remember Al Smith
“Although Al to many, Al Smith was always Mr. Smith to me. Born a generation too late, I met this legend of Kentucky journalism, education, and politics only in passing. Yet, his presence was always imposing and his credibility unquestioned during our brief conversations. Mr. Smith may not have been Governor, but his public service as the “social conscious “ of Kentucky was even more impactful. Mr. Smith will always be remembered as one of the “good guys” and his absence will certainly be missed, not only by his family but our Commonwealth as a whole.”
– Wynn Radford
“I once had the pleasure of driving Al from Lexington to Owensboro for the funeral of our mutual friend Morton Holbrook. The stories of journalism, politics and folklore were non-stop and amazing…like taking a graduate course in Ky history. I already miss him and his era.”
– Dave Adkisson
“In 1987 while in law school at UK, I was appointed by Gov. Martha Layne Collins to serve on the Kentucky Counsel on Higher Education. It was an honor to serve along side of great Kentuckians such as Burt Combs, Terry McBrayer, and yes, the great Al Smith. Following my first meeting as a member of the counsel, I recall Mr. Smith approaching my guide dog Simon and me and commenting that, “You were a perfect new member to the Counsel today. You didn’t say a word.” I thanked him for the compliment!
I also had the pleasure to serve with Mr. Smith on a presidential search and screening committee at Morehead State. We spent a long weekend at Carter Caves State Park pouring over resumes and applications of candidates to fill the presidency. Mr. Smith was insightful as always and graced us with his insight and wit. He was truly a great Kentuckian. Our Commonwealth is better for having called him a Kentuckian. “
– David Holton
“Al Smith was a central figure in Kentucky’s political world, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. With his great story telling, his timely critical coverage of Frankfort events, and his wonderfully entertaining news program on KET, he taught us all the important and colorful facts and legends about Kentucky. And thank you, Al, for advocating the way to a better education for Kentuckians.”
– Pam Miller
“I got to know Al early in my Kentucky life, a West Virginia girl who moved here from North Carolina after receiving a Master’s degree in journalism at UNC. Al and I were both named to serve on the Governor’s Commission on Education in Kentucky’s Future (I was then education chair of the national League of Women Voters) and Al’s deep interests in public education, citizen participation in political governance, and the newspaper business bound us together in our advocacy efforts. With others who served on the Commission, we went on to form the Prichard Committee and continue our efforts.
Al was a wonderful teacher, and I would even say a role model, for me. I went on to a professional career in journalism (as a reporter, editor and publisher, mostly for Knight-Ridder) combined with strong advocacy for public education and good governance in all their forms.”
– Dot Ridings