Led newspapers to win 4 Pulitzer Prizes
By Andrew Wolfson
Former Courier Journal editor David Hawpe, an unapologetic liberal who championed school reform, working people and his beloved Eastern Kentucky in 40 years at the Louisville newspapers, has died.
He was 78.
His death Sunday night was confirmed on Facebook by his sister-inlaw, Hilda Miller, and his close friend and former opinion editor Keith Runyon. Hawpe had been in the hospital with multiple health problems. Hawpe began his career in 1969 in The Courier Journal’s Hazard bureau, covering mine disasters and the region’s intractable poverty. He was later a copy editor, an editorial writer, the city editor of the Louisville Times and the CJ’s managing editor, editor and editorial director.
On his watch, the newspapers won four Pulitzer Prizes.
“David Hawpe was one of the finest journalists Kentucky has produced,” said former attorney general and congressman Ben Chandler. “He believed in fair journalism” but also in “editorial positions that held politicians accountable and consistently pushed them toward more progressive stands.”
Former Washington correspondent and Frankfort bureau chief Robert Garrett said Hawpe was a perfect steward of the Bingham family’s tradition of serving the entire state and their belief that government could be a force for good. The Binghams owned The Courier Journal and Times before selling them to Gannett.
“He was the personification of the best of journalism,” said Garrett, now the capital bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. “He was committed to ‘journalism of place’ and he was ‘provincial’ in the best sense of that word.”
Hawpe waged decades-long wars of words with conservatives he thought stood in the way of progress for Kentucky. For years after the beltway around Louisville was named for Republican U.S. Rep. Gene Snyder, Hawpe insisted on calling it the Jefferson Freeway, its original name.
He once wrote of frequent antagonist Dan Seum that the Democrat-turned-Republican’s state senator’s last name “rhymes with slime.”
And he fought relentlessly to end a program in which he charged the University of Louisville “whored” for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell by allowing donors to ingratiate themselves with the powerful Republican by making secret contributions to a scholarship program that bore his name. After The Courier Journal sued, the Kentucky Supreme Court ultimately ended the practice.
In a statement when Hawpe retired from The Courier Journal in 2009, McConnell said: “David has been a determined adversary over the years. While I rarely ever thought he was right on an issue — except when he endorsed my position on campaign finance reform — I never questioned his love of our commonwealth. In that, we were always in total agreement.”
Hawpe was hardly perfect.
Runyon, the opinion page editor who worked with him for 40 years, 30 of them on an almost hourly basis, said: “He was a man of great passions, immense vision and sometimes downright petty responses. It was a recipe for journalistic genius.”
A hillbilly from the South End
Hawpe, who was born in Pikeville and grew up in Louisville’s South End, was lampooned for claiming to be from both.
Benny Ray Bailey, the former state senator from Hindman, once quipped that Hawpe had been away from Eastern Kentucky so long that he could no longer call himself a “hillbilly” — he was now a “hill-William.”
Roasting him upon his retirement, former Gov. Steve Beshear said: “Depending upon the audience, depending upon who was in the crowd and who he wanted to impress, David has — shall we say — been a bit casual and loose in describing where he’s from. By casual and loose,” Beshear continued, “I mean he’s claimed virtually every town in Kentucky as his hometown.”
Beshear also joked that Hawpe claimed to be “a man of the people, hero of the working class, defender of the downtrodden, poet laureate of the proletariat — and yet he spent the last several years living in affluent Anchorage and off luxurious Lexington Road.”
But, Beshear added, “No matter where you claim to be from on any given day, there was never a question about where your heart was and where your heart is. You are a Kentuckian. And we are all better for it.”
‘David Hawpe loved Kentucky’
After his retirement, Hawpe served for six years on the board of trustees of his alma mater, University of Kentucky, whose president, Eli Capilouto, saluted his commitment to his home state.
“David Hawpe loved Kentucky — every coal town and community, every hill and holler, and all the contours and contradictions of its history,” Capilouto said in a statement. “He believed deeply that journalism and education — particularly his alma mater, the University of Kentucky — were essential to advancing the future of his beloved commonwealth.
“As a member of our board, he reminded us with a powerful eloquence that our mission is to serve Kentucky,” Capilouto said. “His life was uncompromisingly dedicated to a place and its people and he always believed in them both.”
Hawpe also spent the past eight years as volunteer legislative aide to the 37-year younger state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, working, as Hawpe called it, as the oldest legislative intern in Frankfort.
He moved from Pikeville with his parents when he was 3 to a home near Iroquois High School.
The family of his father, Chester, had owned and leased coal Pike County, while many relatives of his mother, Frances, including his grandfather, were members of United Mine Workers in West Virginia’s Mingo County.
Hawpe later prominently displayed a large lump of coal in his office, which he said his father gave to him “so I would not forget where I came from.”
Hawpe championed diversity in the newsroom. One of his closest friends, Merv Aubespin, who was one of The Courier Journal’s first Black reporters, said, “David was very interested in making sure the business was open to people who looked like me.”
Hawpe and Aubespin, the newspaper’s associate editor, traveled to Europe and Africa together and fished together in Kentucky lakes and streams.
“We were brothers,” he said. “We were that close. He opened doors for me, and I opened them for him.”
Hawpe also was committed to decency in the workplace. When he named Steve Ford managing editor on Feb. 7, 1992, he told the staff, “I have asked Steve to ensure we adopt a fully collegial approach to operating the newspaper staff. The best work comes out of a process that is open, inclusive and dynamic.”
When his secretary and assistant, Sue Kunz Logan, died at an early age of breast cancer, Hawpe delivered a moving eulogy that talked about the closeness of the newsroom.
“Here we are again, gathered in a sad place for another ceremonial moment of our family life. I say ‘family’ because so many of us have worked together for so long, and we’ve shared so many of the seasons of life with each other, that we have come to function, for better and sometimes for worse, just like a real family.”
Hawpe quickly climbs the ladder
As newspaper chains, including Gannett, which acquired The Courier Journal in 1986, made cuts in newsrooms nationwide, Hawpe fought to retain the statewide bureau system that made the CJ unique.
And he kept it intact for 10 years, which Al Cross, director of UK’s, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said was one of his greatest accomplishments.
A graduate of Male High School, Hawpe began his journalism career reporting for the Associated Press in Louisville and Lexington and then wrote editorials for what is now the Tampa Bay Times.
Joining his hometown paper’s Hazard bureau, he wrote his first front-page story Dec. 12, 1969, about a disabled “tall, gaunt 30-year-old father of 5 who went as far as the second grade” and said he was denied county assistance to help “lift his family out of its destitute existence on Bear Run in Owsley County” because “he doesn’t vote the way he was told to.”
The next year Hawpe covered the Hyden mine disaster in Leslie County that killed 38 men. Watching family members file into a gymnasium to identify the dead, Hawpe said he vowed to do anything possible to “reduce the chances of that happening again. I’ve tried all this time to be true to the promise I made to myself.”
Hawpe was honored as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1974-75, then, after just 1 1 ⁄2 years as city editor of the Louisville Times, in 1979, at age 36, was named managing editor of The Courier Journal, succeeding Paul Janensch, who had been promoted to executive editor. Janensch said Hawpe had
“a knack for motivating talented people.”
Eight years later, he was elevated to editor, in charge of news and editorials, succeeding Mike Gartner.
Tackling the mining industry and nursing homes
Under Hawpe’s leadership, The Courier Journal successfully fought to rein in the excesses and environmental degradations of the mining industry.
It reformed Kentucky’s nursing home industry and its often woeful death investigations under the state’s poorly trained county coroners.
It strengthened the policing of bad doctors by the Kentucky Medical Licensure Board.
It fought for tougher rules on bus safety and stricter drunk driving laws after the 1988 church bus crash in Carroll County killed 27 people, including 24 children. The newspaper’s coverage earned it a Pulitzer Prize.
And while Hawpe kept The Courier Journal’s focus on Kentucky and Indiana, he sent reporter Joel Brinkley and photographer Jay Mather to Cambodia, where they won another Pulitzer for International Reporting for coverage of the aftermath of the genocide there.
Hawpe also led the scorched-earth legislative coverage that turned the General Assembly, once a political doormat, into an independent, coequal branch of government.
Republicans often railed against him for his unabashed liberalism.
“David Hawpe is stuck in a time warp,” U.S. Rep. Anne Northup wrote in an op-ed. “He still believes in the Great Society. Most Americans and most people in this community believe government’s ability to create a Great Society is a fairy tale.”
Hawpe offered no apologies for his views.
“Why can’t conservatives just admit the truth,” he wrote. “There are some needs, besides national defense, that we can’t depend on the market to meet without creating an unacceptably large crowd of victims in the attempt.”
Northup, who ousted Hawpe’s friend, Democrat Mike Ward from Congress, insisted Hawpe targeted her unfairly because of it.
But Chandler, who counted Hawpe as a close friend, recalled that Hawpe often dinged him in editorials, including one that criticized him (and the rest of Kentucky’s congressional delegation), for voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
Hawpe also was willing to honor his longtime adversary, McConnell, whom in 1998 he gave The Courier Journal’s First Amendment award, named for the late editor and publisher Barry Bingham Sr.
“He deserved it,” Hawpe wrote. “I wasn’t a bit uncomfortable about honoring him in this way. He has been a stalwart on the First Amendment, consistently opposing the effort to amend our federal Constitution so that flagburners could be punished.”
Defending controversial choices
As the newspaper’s leader, he endured its travails as well as triumphs.
In 1988, it was forced to publish 10 corrections, two clarifications and an apology for a series on illegal high school sports recruiting — ironically named “Hollow Victories” — after one of the reporters involved, who resigned, admitted he made up quotes for the series.
“Our system of editing to ensure accuracy was operating in this case, but it was thwarted,” Hawpe wrote. “The system rests on a foundation of trust between reporter and editors. If that trust is broken, the system cracks.”
The next year, after Joseph Wesbecker’s rampage at Standard Gravure killed eight workers, Hawpe was condemned by hundreds of readers for his decision to publish a front-page photograph that showed the face of a victim lying on a conveyor belt in the basement of the printing plant.
A union rep called the photo “obscene” and the victim’s family sued for invasion of privacy. The suit was dismissed in the courts, and Hawpe defended the publication of the photo, saying it captured the consequences of gun violence.
Hawpe also was at the helm in 1991 when the CJ was forced to close its money- losing Sunday magazine, whose glossy pages had been a showcase for fine writing, imaginative design and excellent photography.
On April Fool’s Day in 1996, Gannett relieved Hawpe of his duties as a news executive and assigned him to run the editorial pages. He put the best face on it, saying it would allow him to write a column, which he did for the next 13 years.
Hawpe ‘burned with the fire of Appalachian independence’
Besides fishing, Hawpe loved to eat and to cook and to go to the movies, usually with his wife, Linda, to whom he was married more than 50 years.
Former reporter Howard Fineman, later chief political correspondent for Newsweek, said Hawpe will be remembered as the “voice of the mountains” and of working families whose roots are there.
“Although he knew his way around paneled rooms in ivied homes full of people with Ivy credentials, he burned with the fire of Appalachian independence for those who do not understand the realities of life in Appalachia or anywhere else that people live nervously from week to week,” Fineman said in an email Sunday night.
“I went down to Kentucky hoping to meet people such as David, and luckily I did,” Fineman said. “I loved him like the country cousin I never had.”
Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adwolfson.