John Ed Pearce

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John Ed Pearce, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has been called Kentucky's best newspaper writer, died yesterday, his 89th birthday, at Jewish Hospital in Louisville.

Mr. Pearce was diagnosed with throat cancer several weeks ago and since that diagnosis had had a heart attack and two small strokes, said his son-in-law, Glenn Rutherford.

Mr. Pearce's greatest influence came as an editorial writer and a columnist for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, where he worked for more than four decades.

From 1990 until his death, Mr. Pearce was a contributing columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. His work also appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he wrote several books.

Former Courier-Journal publisher Barry Bingham Sr. said in a 1986 Courier-Journal Magazine article that Mr. Pearce was "the best writer -- ever" for that paper and that his knowledge and interest in Kentucky were deep and rich.

"He knows more about what really makes this state different than anybody else I know," Bingham was quoted as saying.

John Carroll, former editor of the Herald-Leader and the Los Angeles Times, said: "I always thought John Ed was the best newspaper writer in Kentucky."

Writing seemed effortless

"He knew an awful lot, and he wrote it in a way that seemed effortless -- conversational and literary at the same time," Carroll said. "John Ed himself came across in his writing as a wry, admittedly imperfect character who'd watched Kentucky politicians come and go and knew better than to hope for much," he said.

"Talented, deeply rooted people like John Ed don't turn up at a newspaper very often. He was a real gift to the readers of Kentucky."

Mr. Pearce was considered the key writer in a campaign The Courier-Journal mounted against strip mining. The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1967.

While working at The Courier-Journal, he also received a Headliner Award, the Meeman Conservation Award and the Governor's Medallion for public service. The Society of Professional Journalists once named him Journalist of the Year, and he was named to the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky in 1986.

"Kentucky has lost one of its strongest voices," said State Historian James Klotter. "He spoke up for much of what is good in Kentucky. He spoke against much of what is bad, and he did it always in an eloquent voice and with passion. Whether as journalist or as historian or as advocate, he meant so much to the commonwealth."

Mr. Pearce and journalist Al Smith are credited with coming up with the idea for the Kentucky Oral History Commission to preserve life stories of Kentuckians. The commission was created in 1976, and by 2000 more than 20,000 interviews of Kentuckians from all segments of society had been done.

Tom Wicker, an author and retired New York Times reporter and columnist, said that Mr. Pearce was a good writer who was "sensible" about politics in general, and Kentucky politics in particular.

"He was a walking fountain on Kentucky politics," said Wicker, who, like Pearce, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1957-58.

Mr. Pearce not only wrote about Kentucky politics, he participated in them.

While an editorial writer for The Courier-Journal, he wrote speeches for Bert Combs' 1959 gubernatorial campaign without objection from Barry Bingham Sr.

Combs' political foe, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, talked about how Mr. Pearce would write a speech for Combs, then write an editorial praising the speech.

"It's the best double-play in politics -- Pearce to Combs to Pearce," Chandler would say, chuckling.

But Mr. Pearce said his work for Combs did not keep him from criticizing the politician in The Courier-Journal.

"Pearce had a talent for invective," Combs told the Courier-Journal Magazine in 1986. "He could cut you up as smooth and fast as about anybody with a fountain pen."

Conflict-of-interest policy

When Barry Bingham Jr. took over the Louisville paper in 1971, he instituted a conflict-of-interest policy, and Mr. Pearce was moved to the Courier-Journal Magazine. Bingham Jr. did not feel comfortable with Pearce writing editorials.

In his book Memoirs: 50 Years at the Courier-Journal and Other Places, Mr. Pearce said that in his early days, involvement in politics by journalists was not exceptional and was widely accepted. Barry Bingham Sr. had been active in both of Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaigns, he wrote.

"But a new group was coming along to whom objectivity was a shibboleth and avoidance of conflict of interest an obsession," he wrote.

"And they were probably right. Objectivity is a rare talent, but I am not sure it is always a virtue."

Several members of Mr. Pearce's family were journalists. His father, also named John Ed Pearce, started a newspaper in Norton, Va., the Coalfield Progress, which became a big success.

Mr. Pearce was born in Norton and spent some of his early years in Pineville and in North Carolina. He was born into a family of some means, but the Great Depression took a heavy toll on the family's finances.

He worked in a Swift meat-packing plant in Norton before moving to Lexington in 1937 to attend the University of Kentucky. He got a job running the press at UK, and was a waiter and a pari-mutuel clerk at Keeneland Race Course.

Later he began working for newspapers and wire services. One of his stories, about a burglar who got stuck in a chimney and died after the family came home and started a fire, made headlines nationally.

He spent four years in the Navy during World War II. He retired from the Navy Reserve in 1971 as a commander.

After the war he moved to Somerset, where he edited The Journal. In 1946, Barry Bingham Sr. called him for a job interview. He told Pearce he was looking for someone to serve on the editorial board and be Bingham's contact with the world of Kentucky politics.

"I'm your man," Pearce told Bingham.

Don Mills, former editor of the Lexington Herald, said: "Of all the Kentucky journalists I've known, no one could write better than John Ed. No one had a better understanding of the English language. ... He knew Kentucky well, like no other Kentuckian."

Began writing short stories

Mr. Pearce began writing short stories to supplement his income at The Courier-Journal. The Saturday Evening Post paid him $750 for his first one, titled Look Homeward, Hayseed, a take-off on Thomas Wolfe.

"I was stunned. My first short story in the country's top weekly magazine!" Pearce wrote in Memoirs. "I could see the glory road stretching out ahead of me. And for a while it did seem that my fiction might change my reality. I continued to sell to the Post, at rising rates, and even rewrote a few stories for television series -- Studio One, GE Theater, Summer Theater."

After Combs became governor in 1959, he created a state parks board and appointed Mr. Pearce as one of four board members. Mr. Pearce started Raven Run and Lake Malone parks and oversaw the design of the General Butler State Park lodge. He also was involved in the development of Pine Mountain State Park. Before he joined the parks board, he and his daughters would go to the parks and pick up trash.

"John Ed had Kentucky in his soul, and he understood the state about as well as anyone I've ever known," said Keith Runyon, editor of The Forum of the Courier-Journal.

"For many young journalists beginning their education or career in the past 40 years, John Ed was someone we looked up to. He was an institution for his knowledge of Kentucky. He was one of the outstanding wordsmiths in the modern era of Kentucky journalism and he always had time to talk to anyone about the craft," said former Courier-Journal reporter Richard Wilson.

In 1990, Mr. Pearce, who had been a freelance contributor to the Herald-Leader while attending UK, began writing again for the Lexington paper, this time as a columnist.

Mr. Pearce was married and divorced twice. His first wife was Jean McIntyre and his second wife was Virginia Rutledge.

"I'm not a good husband, but I'm a pretty good Saturday night date," he once said.

Mr. Pearce is survived by five daughters, Susie Pearce of Sequim, Wash., Marnie Downs of Lexington, Virginia Rutherford of Louisville, Elizabeth Bernstein of Fort Myers, Fla., and Alida Pearce of Louisville; two brothers, Don Pearce and Joseph Pearce; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at noon Saturday at Pearson Funeral Home at 149 Breckenridge Lane in Louisville. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the funeral home. Mr. Pearce's ashes will be scattered at a later date in Norton. Memorial gifts: Gilda's Club, P.O. Box 4061, Louisville, Ky. 40204.

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on Sept. 25, 2006
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