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August 5, 2009

A.D. (After David)

Love him or hate him, longtime C-J staffer David Hawpe will be missed

The saddest thing about the news that David Hawpe is retiring from The Courier-Journal is how little news it made. Sure, there had been an anticipatory stir locally over the past couple weeks, and plenty of web busybodies have been dancing on the professional grave of the liberal they loved to hate. Editor & Publisher wrote about it.

But there was a time when David Hawpe’s retirement would have stirred up plenty of inky commentary from parts near and far. Maybe not the kind of flurry we saw with the Bunning-is-a-quitter story, but trust me, there was a time when people would have paid more attention.

Hawpe had mattered, and not just because his newspaper had mattered so much. In 40 years of service to The Courier-Journal (and The Louisville Times), Hawpe helped define what being a newspaper editor could mean, in an era when it still meant quite a lot. And he did it in a state and a city where such a figure was and is badly needed, in a time before the title “editor” was just another way of saying “vice president” in a room full of them. Along the way, he filled some of the biggest footprints in the industry. The name Bingham is of course familiar. But to a whole generation of American journalists, much older than me, the names Norman Isaacs or Mark Ethridge might as well have been translated as “newspaperman.” Hawpe arrived the same year Isaacs departed, and in that way he is one of the paper’s last remaining links to The Courier-Journal’s storied history.

I worked for Hawpe’s newspaper, but never for him directly. He was named editor in 1987, just a year after Gannett bought the paper. By the time I arrived in 2002 to spend three years on the state desk, his role had long since been scaled back to that of editorial page editor. But while executive editor Bennie Ivory was clearly — and I mean, completely — in charge of the newsroom after 1996, Hawpe’s presence never felt far removed. And for readers, it never dimmed. For 22 years, the face of The Courier-Journal has remained the slightly bulbous, now grayed visage of David Hawpe.

Readers got a dose of Hawpe twice a week in his columns — sometimes they hated him, sometimes loved him, but rarely neither. What devilishly prickly prose Hawpe could pen. He loved to pick a fight, and he was often downright pugnacious in picking them with favorite targets like Anne Northup, Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning. He seemed quick to anger, sometimes contemptuous and often thin-skinned. He feuded with people I admired.

But he kept the paper’s institutional focus, first as top boss and then as editorial director, on uplifting the weak and keeping an eye on the powerful. Under Hawpe, the paper’s editorial voice has steadfastly opposed privilege, governmental secrecy, bigotry and the ongoing environmental and economic raping of eastern Kentucky.

In 40 years, Hawpe has reported on, and later railed against, coal mining excesses, Kentucky’s laggard legislators, and its poverty. He backed Paul Patton’s higher education reform, championed KERA, and was a voice for inclusion in a state that too often played the bigot. Closer to home, The Courier-Journal under Hawpe has been outspoken in support of the city’s Fairness Ordinance and other gay-rights issues, for downtown development and the riverfront, for public schools and integrity in college sports.

He wasn’t always right. He dismissed LEO, for one, and it’s still going strong. He championed a goofy news council for Kentucky papers. And as editorial editor, he completely blew it when he allowed personal disapproval of Hunter S. Thompson’s character to minimize the attention his pages paid to the death of Louisville’s most important literary son.

But he cared about the state, even when it was no longer possible to circulate in and, later, to report on much of Kentucky. “David was the point man inside the C-J for keeping it a state-oriented newspaper, and the reason it was one of the last to abandon statewide circulation and coverage,” long-time political reporter Al Cross, himself a link to the paper’s past, told me last week. “… Few other journalists have had as much impact on Kentucky as he.”

Many of those things will continue without Hawpe, just as its newsroom continued to pursue excellence, despite a steadily shrinking staff, under Ivory’s leadership. (Though it’s sometimes easy to forget, C-J reporters have twice been finalists for the Pulitzer since 2004.) But with Hawpe’s retirement, the C-J loses its most recognizable face, much of its personality, and maybe its most accomplished writer.

No newspaper is what it was 20 years ago, and few editors are either. But flaws and all, Hawpe still sets an example we’re going to miss when he is gone.