One of my childhood heroes was buried today. Tom Gish, who made the Mountain Eagle (It Screams!) a light in the darkness of the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, went to his Maker at the too young age of 82.
As a girl growing up in Knox County, I knew well the poverty and despair that Tom and his wife exposed. Although I was a “townie”, a city girl, transplanted from Dee-troit to city school, living in a city house with all the modern conveniences that the early 60s could provide, I spent a great deal of time with my father’s grandmother in Coalport Holler, a few miles down the road from Artemus, Kentucky. No running water, a narrow path up to the outhouse, coal chunk heating in the fireplace, my great grandma’s house was always clean and neat. The feather beds were made up with her handmade quilts. The old pictures on the mantle and the picture of Jesus were kept dusted and straight. Her biscuits cooked up in the old wood stove were heaven and she made a “yaller cake” that cousins are still trying to duplicate without success.
She was a wise, but illiterate. Aunt Sarah Jane, as the neighbors and kinfolk called her, passed out advice to all who came up on her porch and sat on her porch swing or on the chair rail, legs dangling loose. A tiny woman, she bent with a dowager hump almost in half, her white hair that hung past her hips always knotted up on her head. Her sharp cheekbones confirmed the Cherokee blood she claimed. She never left the holler from the time she came on a wagon over Black Mountain with her new husband in the nineteen century until she left it for the last time in mid 20th century after breaking her hip in a fall. She predicted her death and wept that she would not see her home again.
What I saw in Aunt Sarah Jane and Tom Gish articulated so well is that the people of Eastern Kentucky were not the cartoon figure layabout hillbillies, so often the subject of coastal ridicule, but a proud people who valued independence to the point that they cut themselves off from the rest of the world, which passed them by. Pride goeth before a fall and my native Eastern Kentucky, so proud of its heritage, failed to look to its future.
Tom Gish and his paper in Whitesburg said things that the rest of us thought, but feared to say. His eloquence brought the big guys from Washington to come and take a look. His efforts saved lives, whether through Head Start or the tech programs that brought real do-able jobs to mountain women.
In my home county, one of the programs that came with the War on Poverty was a big van set up as a mobile clinic. My mother was one of the nurses who went out in the van every day to give pap smears and very personal exams to women who never had any care before. Diseases were detected, further treatment was arranged and women, who would have died, had a chance.
I never met Tom Gish. I wish I had. It is one of those “to do” list things – driving to Whitesburg is even farther now – that I put off too long. I am glad to see his son following his footsteps. I suspect the women of the Gish family are right beside them egging them on, as Mrs. Gish was for Tom.
Tom Gish saw stuff that would make a saint cynical, but that never seemed to stop him.
That’s why he was one of my heroes.