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Rudy Abramson died this week. He fell at his home in northern Virginia on Tuesday and died of massive head injuries suffered in the accident. He was 70 years old.
Rudy Abramson was born in Florence, Alabama, in the hilly northwest corner of the state. He had a stellar career as a Washington, D.C., correspondent first for the Nashville Tennessean and then the Los Angeles Times. He covered every big national story for a generation, from the landing of men on the moon to Watergate to the Vietnam War. He later wrote a biography of W. Averell Harriman.
After retiring from the Times, Abramson became engrossed in projects in rural America. He helped fight the Walt Disney Co.’s plan to build a history theme park near the Civil War site, the Manassas Battlefield, in Virginia. (His 1996 book “Hallowed Ground: Preserving America’s Heritage” was about the Piedmont region of northern Virginia, where the Battle of Manassas was fought.)
Abramson also co-edited (with Jean Haskell) the “Encyclopedia of Appalachia” in 2006. At the time of his death, Rudy was at work on a biography of Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky author and attorney who wrote “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” the 1963 book that turned the attention of the Kennedy Administration to the Eastern Mountains.
Abramson was also among the group of journalists who helped found the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and, later, the Daily Yonder. He was a trusted advisor to the Yonder and to the Yonder’s publisher, the Center for Rural Strategies.
After leaving the Times in 1996, Abramson became one of the most prolific and powerful voices for and about rural communities. His fight against Disney came to enlist many of the country’s most prominent writers and historians, including William Styron, Shelby Foote and C. Vann Woodward. (Abramson tells the story of the fight against Disney here.) In 1994, Disney pulled out, defeated by history-minded citizens organized by Rudy Abramson.
Abramson spent most of 2001 traveling the eastern mountains writing about the new coal boom — and how it had changed Appalachia. Abramson wrote:
“Mining is now an enterprise that takes place on a vast scale in the mountains. It has outgrown human dimension. The fraternity of men who work underground is gone and camaraderie of coal towns has faded. In places like Whitesville, mechanized corporate mining intimidates its neighbors with noise and dust, and flouts its political influence. Companies such as Massey Energy Company, the Richmond, Virginia-based giant that dominates the Coal River Valley, hire their non-union workers from out of county, or even out of state, to inhibit socializing that could lead to unionizing.
“Such tactics have estranged communities and union families not only from individual companies but from the industry itself, making some former miners openly sympathetic to environmental protests, turning some into outright activists, and leaving many deeply cynical, believing that their state and its politics are effectively controlled by coal money. When a panel of the National Academy of Sciences recently came to Whitesville for a public hearing on coal waste impoundments, Julian Martin, a retired teacher who grew up not far from here, warned: ‘Here, you are going to meet the most cynical people you will ever see outside the Third World.'”
Abramson helped edit the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. National Public Radio aired a report about book in 2006.
In late 2002, Abramson wrote a column for the L.A. Times protesting plans by the CBS television network to begin a new reality show taking off of the old sitcom, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The network’s plan was to pluck rural residents from wherever, put them in swank Beverly Hills and let the cameras roll. “This time we shall see real rural people put on display in circumstances reeking of condescension,” Abramson wrote. “Young urbanites and recent immigrants unfamiliar with Jeb, Granny, Elly May and Jethro will be left to conclude that the bumfuzzled new hillbillies are more or less typical of rural Americans.”
“To be sure, Southerners and mountain folk are somewhat culpable for their region’s image as Dogpatch incarnate. Entertainers from the region have eagerly promoted the hillbilly image. Across the region, hillbilly motifs are on exhibit nearly as prominently as Old Glory. But there is quite a difference between self-deprecation and being manipulated, stereotyped and commercialized by outsiders. The plan to use real-life Clampetts for mass amusement is more than a cute scheme to cash in again on a weathered target of ridicule. Rather, it is a symptom of the mass media’s lack of regard for rural America, a detachment manifest not only in sitcoms’ affinity for Southern hillbillies, hicks and rubes but in urban news organizations’ general disinterest in rural issues.”
After protests from rural residents and the United Mine Workers of America, CBS pulled the plug on the Hillbilly reality show.
At the time of his death, Abramson was deep into his biography of Harry Caudill. The project was an examination of how the War on Poverty began and the role played by Caudill and by Tom and Pat Gish, editors of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Rudy Abramson reveled in a good story. He was a delightful companion, a wise man and a committed advocate for rural communities. Not long ago, Tim Marema wrote a story for the Daily Yonder about “Okra Santa,” Santa ornaments his wife, Liz, made out of okra grown in a summer garden. The story prompted this email from Rudy:
“I think you know that I have held you in high esteem from the day we met, but your piece about okra elevates you to yet another plateau in my admiration and regard. If enough northerners could have been introduced to okra fried in bacon grease, I do believe the Civil War could have been averted. My most treasured memory of my mamma is her mastery of fried okra. It was as light as popcorn and I would have gladly eaten it three meals a day to the end of my life. I often told her that if my failings somehow led to my execution in the electric chair, I wished her fried okra to be the last food that passed my lips on this earth. I hope you have a great new year and another bumper crop. yrs, rudy”
That was Rudy — kind, smart, funny and now, too soon, gone.