The following remarks were prepared for delivery at the SPJ President’s Installation Banquet Sept. 6, 2008.
By Al Smith
Fellow of the Society
I was a copy boy on election night at the Times-Picayune 60 years ago when a tipsy Earl Long called the editor to gloat over his defeat of the newspaper’s choice in the governor’s race. Sam Jones, our reformer candidate — “Sweet smelling Sam Jones,” Long called him — was finished politically, and the manic victor would be immortalized in A.J. Liebling’s classic book The Earl of Louisiana and in the Paul Newman movie, “Blaze,” about the governor’s romance with a Bourbon Street stripper.
A Vanderbilt University dropout at age 20, I was an unknown hire only three months on the job, and starving, but somehow in the confusion of that night the editor, George Healy, learned that I was a nephew of a former chairman of Louisiana Power and Light Company.
Two weeks later I was promoted from copy boy to assistant state editor, my salary jumping from $20 a week to $52.50. I didn’t know a pica from a pencil, but it was an early lesson in American business: Connections will trump merit nearly every time!
But Mr. Healy was national president of Sigma Delta Chi, which became SPJ, so he recognized talent when it was brought to his attention, right?
And so did I, nearly three decades later, when I hired for my weekly paper in Kentucky a young college graduate, Al Cross, who would also become a national president of SPJ. Twenty-five years later, SPJ helped fund the research to establish the national program for rural journalism and community issues which Cross directs at the University of Kentucky, with me still looking over his shoulder.
Talent, truth, and energy were the stated principles of SPJ when George Healy gave me a break on the Times-Picayune. Courage was a given, and these are the ideals we support for the journalists who serve 60 million rural Americans. I have never seen a crisis in the business of the news business like the one today, so I accept this award in the name of all those, famous and anonymous, who bring honor to journalism and serve truth as they keep on keeping on.