John Ed Pearce
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 by Lexington Herald-Leader on Sep. 25, 2006.
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43 Entries
My sisters and I are deeply grateful for the kind comments about our father more than a decade after his death. We will always miss him, but are comforted by those who share their thoughts and fond memories of him. Thank you so much!
Betsy Pearce
February 1, 2017
He truly was a super hero to young people from ky.who were tired of being uneducated.uncouth. And unaccounted for.he was cool in what ever he did where ever he did it
January 31, 2017
It's News Years eve 2016 and my husband and I just got finished a few minutes before midnight watching Mr.Pearce's documentary on KET about route 80 that stretches east to west across Kentucky.
I wanted to thank you Mr. Pearce even though you've been gone now for over 10 years but I look forward to finding and reading what you have written.
And as a 6th great grand daughter of Chief Redbird - I'm glad you mentioned him in your piece about route 80.
Tami Black
January 1, 2017
Enjoyed your gift of writing. I am grateful you made this your profession. Thank you. And thanks to the family and friends who showed you their affection.
Mary Ruth
July 30, 2015
John Ed Pearce was a wonderful writer whose voice and insight will be missed. Fortunately his words will live on in our hearts and minds. His column "Goodbye, Charlie!" remains an all time favorite as are his stories of raising his adorable daughters. I'm sure he is now bringing laughter and love to the angels on high. You are truly missed.
Ernie Sadashige
October 29, 2006
I will always wish I could've known my grandfather better. I will always wish I could've seen him in person before he died, but I will always treasure the correspondence we shared over the last few years of his life. To all his daughters of his second marriage- I would like very much to meet you all. Perhaps we could also get to know each other the way Grand-daddy and I did: through the written word and pictures. With much love always, Elizabeth
Elizabeth Royle
October 11, 2006
John Ed Pearce was a philosopher, a storyteller and an admirable writer. I became a fan of his columns in the C/J Sunday Magazine. He wrote with grace and humor and power. I'll miss his work, but I won't forget it.
Robert Hadley
October 8, 2006
I will never forget those twinkling blue eyes that always made you wonder what John Ed was thinking.He had great stories to tell. All who got to know him were very privleged. The Island will be a little less interesting without you.
Bonnie Symonds
October 5, 2006
As I look at the picture of my grandfather I am touched by the geniune face of my family. I see this face in my mother and at times I see it in me. I know many will miss him and we all know he will be with each of us in a unique and special way. I believe this would make him smile.
Jessica Pearce
October 2, 2006
My family had a close tie with John Ed's family through The Coalfield Progress a weely newspaper in Norton, Virginia that was started by John Ed's father and purchased in the '30 by Pres Atkins, my husbands step-father. We have many fond memories of John Ed and will miss him. Robbie G. Tate
Mrs. Carrol Tate
September 27, 2006
My memories of you are of the many fun times at UofK and especially the time when you were sweating meeting with the board because of the last publication of the "Sour Mash" magazine concerng a "certain" article. I remember clearly when you said "Vince" they are going to kick me out of school. I doubted it. After that meeting, you told me, I'm still here but the "Sour Mash" isnt. Just one of many great memories. I appreciated your talent, as did so many others. Vince Fanelli
R. Vincent Fanelli
September 27, 2006
Will (and have for several years) miss his humorous, frank, descriptive writings in the Sunday "Courier Journal" 'magazine section'. His articles were always thought-provoking. Such a gifted writer! We miss you John!
Bobbi Barber
September 27, 2006
John Ed was always one of my favorite people. I used to visit him at the Courier-Journal. Once at a SPJ meeting, my mother (Thelma Willlis, managing editor of The Meade County Messenger, Brandenburg) and I were seated by him. He didn't eat his chicken, and was surprised when I asked to take it home to feed my cat. Mom told him that the cat ate chicken bones and all, and that one time she had gotten up at 10 p.m., dressed and went to Dairy Queen to buy him a piece of chicken. John Ed thought we were crazy, but handed over his chicken, and Mom put it in a little plastic bag she usually carried. He will be missed by all--journalists and readers alike.
Jane Marlow Willis
September 27, 2006
Our deepest Sympathy, is with your Family. John Ed will be missed,so very much by all of us on Upper Captiva, Island. He was one in a million.. God Speed
Carolyn & Charlie Creagh
October 1, 2006
I would like to express my condolences to the family and especially my friend Betsy. I am so glad I got to meet your dad just 4 months ago for the first & only time. He was very happy to visit with us and I learned a little bit about his history. He seemed to be happy living on the island and expressed how much he loved the environment and all its beauty. He was so proud when he showed us all the plants & trees he had planted that made up his "tropical garden". I know you and your family will miss him. You have many memories that will live on along with his legacy and all his great accomplishments. God Bless
Barbara Reilly
October 1, 2006
As a young boy, I was lucky enough to be the subject of one of his essays.
Milton Dortch
October 1, 2006
My sympathies to my dearest sister-in-law, Susie Pearce and
to her family. I am happy that she was able to see her father before he passed. Rest in Peace!
Ronna Tuteur
October 1, 2006
My earlies memories are of a happy childhood in our home in Pineville, Ky.from 1922-1927. Up the street was the home of my best friend, John Ed Pearce. We were not always the best behaved of boys. Our playground was the sandy banks of the Cumberland River, where we dug tunnels, played at pirates, tried smoking one of Mr. Pearce's cigars, and drinking a bottle of my father's home brew - they didn't go down well. We moved to Louisville in 1927, when I was 10 and on to Lexington in 1933. Our paths crossed again in 1937 at the University of Ky. - we ran into one another occasionally, stopping only to chat. I greatly treasure those years in Pineville. I am extremely proud of being a Kentuckian and having had as my best friend, one of the greatest Kentuckians of my generation. A fond farewell John Ed, may you rest in peace.
Edward Brown
October 1, 2006
Edward Brown
September 30, 2006
I will really miss John Ed. He was a friend and a dear, sweet man. I will miss his visits to me for help on a lost email or a lost column he was writing on his computer. He would stop by and we would reminisce about travels we had done. And he was a help to many people on the island. I'm so sorry he is gone.
Cheryl Bredin
September 30, 2006
a haiku remembrance for my esteemed friend, John Ed...

sparkling blue wink
books, bourbon...and ballet!
cold winter sand
Bill Curry
September 30, 2006
For Betsy....I know that today and tomorrow will be especially difficult. I just wanted you to know that I am holding you tight in my thoughts. I send my love to your family.
Linda Schenker
September 29, 2006
To the family of John Ed, my heart goes out to you. He has been my dearest friend for over ten years, and I feel honored and blessed for all our time together. Our daily visits will be missed, and North Captiva will not be the same without you. Thank you for showing me the true meaning of being a friend. You are at peace, and your island will always be your home. Loving you always, Robin and Nicole.
Robin Hathy
September 28, 2006
My deepest condolences go out to everyone in the Pearce family and especially to his daughter (and my friend) Betsy Pearce Bernstein. Her Dad, John Ed was an incredible writer and his incredible talents were passed down to Betsy. May his written word be shared forever as a memory to what a wonderful man he was.
MaryLouise Chiappetta
September 27, 2006
Dr. and Mrs. Frank G. Dickey and family send their heartfelt condolences to the Pearce family. Commander Pearce was not only one of our favorite writers, but touched the lives of every Kentuckian with his conservation efforts. His efforts on behalf of the University of Kentucky made UK a better place, as well. He will be missed.
Dickey Family
September 27, 2006
I will always remember John Pearce when he lived on North Captiva Island FL. My husband and I worked on the island for many years. My husband Frank did a lot of work for the Pearces (construction) and always talked so well of both of them. My husband died last Nov. I remember Mr. Pearce walking over to the Island Club frequently. I think he just liked to walk instead of driving his golf cart.Whenever I would see him I would think about the island and the changes he must have seen over the years. . I am sorry that I did not know the great connection he had to Ky since I am from there too. I would have truly enjoyed talking to him about it. John Ed Pearce was an instution on the island and his face will be missed and thought of often.
Beulah Alwardt
September 27, 2006
For any aspiring journalist in Kentucky, John Ed Pearce was the model we all wanted to follow. He was a gifted writer and insightful observer of the political scene and the human condition. He will be sorely missed but leaves his daughters to continue his legacy.
Ron Mitchell
September 27, 2006
My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Pearce's family and to his beloved daughter, Betsy. I never had the honor of meeting John Ed Pearce, but read his columns for many years, even after moving away from Kentucky--how I loved his commentaries on not only Kentucky politics, but but his take on national and world affairs as well. A couple of times I was so taken with his columns, that I simply had to email him and he always quickly responded--how honored I felt that the great John Ed Pearce took time to respond to an email from me! He was an incredible writer and I will so miss his columns. Godspeed John Ed Pearce!
Judie Parish
September 26, 2006
Thank you Mr. Pierce for all that you gave to Kentucky. You will be greatly missed, may your family be comforted by all the good you did.
Matthew Boyd
September 26, 2006
John Ed pearce was my friend but i am only 9 years old i will miss him very very much You will not be forgoten john ed.
Amber Moremen
September 26, 2006
Several years ago, Mr. Pearce was kind enough to respond to an e-mail I sent regarding one of his columns. We engaged in an interesting conversation. It's just a little thing, but I'll always remember it. He seemed like a good soul.
Melanie Jackson
September 26, 2006
We send our sympathies to Mr. Pearce's entire family--particularly his daughter Betsy who is special to us.
Linda, Richard and Adam Schenker
Linda Schenker
September 26, 2006
We will miss the voice of Kentucky. John Ed Pearce was an incredible writer; he and his words will be sorely missed. His family is in our thoughts.
KL Hermes
September 26, 2006
Too often a person must die for us to appreciate all he has accomplished. Thank you John Ed for all your gifts.
Douglas Begley
September 26, 2006
How I will miss John Ed's articles in the Sunday paper! It was always the first place I began reading. He is one of the all time great Kentuckians.
Gail Wilson
September 26, 2006
It's been several years since I first met John Ed Pearce. I helped introduce him to the new electorinic era. John had never used e-mail before. Once I setup things for him he was ever so gracious in thanking me. I remember him vacationing in Florida and sending me test e-mail messages. Thank you John for the memory....I'll see you again on the other side.

God Bless.
Bill Pinkston
September 26, 2006
I've enjoyed John's columns for years. I didn't realize how very much he'd done for Kentucky, though. We are truly lessened by his passing.
Sarah Glenn
September 26, 2006
I looked up to John Ed more than to any other journalist on the planet. He was the best. I thought he got it wrong once in one of his pieces on Kentucky counties and I wrote an article to say so. He then wrote me to say I was right, that he had indeed got it wrong and that he was sorry for the whole thing. Not only was he a real writer, he was a real person. Always with a twinkle in his eye. I wish I'd got to say good bye. He will be missed.
Charles House
September 26, 2006
September 26, 2006
I will treasure my few e-mails from John Ed. I can't believe his age in relation to his thoughts and writings.

Certainly a blessing for me to cross paths with him.

Will be thinking of you.
Mike Sawyer
September 26, 2006
With the passing of John Ed, a large portion of Kentuckiana has also passed. He will be missed.
Tim Cornett
September 26, 2006
John Ed was one of the greatest chroniclers of one of the greatest shows on Earth: Kentucky politics. He thought and felt deeply, wrote honestly and beautifully, and lived fully. Journalism has lost a giant.
Steve Shaw
September 26, 2006
To the Pearce Family,
I did not know Mr. Pearce personally but I have enjoyed his writings for many years. He will be missed by many people and you all are in my thoughts and prayers. May you rest in peace Mr. Pearce.
Roy Burns
September 25, 2006
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