Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Amazing Al Smith

The Amazing Al Smith

“It’s amazing. With the blink of an eye you finally see the light.


Legendary Kentuckian Al Smith came to visit me last week.

For a guy who is supposedly retired, Al stays awfully busy.

After retiring in November from a 33 year run as host of Comment on Kentucky, Al spent the winter in Florida. He is working on his autobiography and promoting causes he believes in.

Al is Chairman of the Advisory Board for Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Is it an outstanding program, based at the University of Kentucky, and Al’s been beating the bushes to help the program get money and recognition.

During a long dinner, Al mentioned that every minute of his upcoming week was completely booked. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is going almost 24 hours a day.

I wanted to tell him how busy I’ve been but my 81 year old mentor didn’t want to hear it.

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence is celebrating its 25 anniversary by creating the Al Smith Fund for Education. Al is helping to kick that off.

Al goes through life at warp speed but it wasn’t always that way.

He fought a severe battle with alcohol in the early part of his life. He lost numerous jobs in New Orleans and wound up in Russellville, Ky. There he stopped drinking, bought the paper he was writing for, bought some other papers and ascended into greatness.

Al didn’t subscribe to the “dog eats dog” business model. He made to the top by constantly helping others. His demons were replaced by angels.

People battle different demons. I’ve never been big on drinking but I fight compulsive eating. I started a weight loss group in Richmond, and we have had tremendous success.

A group can help an individual see the light.

The theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life is that one person can have an impact on those around them.

Everyone needs positive affirmation but those who battle addictions need it the worst. They need to know that they add value to the world.

There is nothing worse than seeing a friend or loved one in the grips of a demon like drugs or alcohol. They feel helpless, and you feel helpless. You want them to “snap out of it.”

Recovery is a process that people have to do for themselves. Something has to guide them to the light.

I turn to Al when I need sage advice. As a man who has seen life’s ups and downs, he has a perspective that commands my respect.

He has not walked my walk, but he certainly knows the neighborhood.

In one of my first conversations with Al, I asked him how he stopped drinking. It was a personal question but I suspected Al wanted to talk about it.

He did. His openness and honesty keeps the demons away. His spirit of candor and compassion is the personality that captivated television audiences for 33 years.

Al has had tremendous success in journalism and business, but what makes him happiest is pushing other people along.

People constantly tell me how Al played a pivotal role in their lives. I hear from the rich and powerful and those who aren’t. He has touched so many people in the journalism business that I stopped counting.

Al is like Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence got his wings by helping George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart’s character) recognize his worth.

Al helps people discover talents that they didn’t know they had.

Bailey had done much for his community, but he needed Clarence to point that out to him.

People battling demons need a Clarence in their lives. It might come from a group or another person. I’ve seen people inspired by public figures.

Al makes an impact in a public and private manner. His energy is fed by the knowledge that he is making a big difference.

It’s amazing.

Don McNay is the Chairman of the Board for McNay Settlement Group in Richmond, Ky. You can write to him at or read his award winning syndicated column at McNay is the author of Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers & What to Do When You Win The Lottery.

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