In 1929, at age 12, Al Smith left Sarasota — a town where he and his family had experienced a lot of heartbreak. He would grow up to become one of Kentucky’s best-known journalists, but his success wasn’t easy.
From learning his craft as a broke reporter in New Orleans, to overcoming alcoholism, to purchasing a chain of weekly papers in Kentucky, Smith’s career took him places he never imagined he’d see. But it was a chance encounter on a train, 40 years after he left Southwest Florida, that led him home.
Smith spent his childhood with his parents and sister in Sarasota’s historic Acacias Mansion, where the Sarasota Bay Club now stands.
“It was quite a romantic place,” Smith remembers. “It was rooted in so much history.”
His father tried to sell the mansion, but after he was unable to find a buyer, the Smiths found themselves in Depression-era financial trouble and were forced to move. This sudden change of luck marred Smith’s otherwise positive memories of Sarasota and led his father to develop a drinking problem. Smith followed in those footsteps later.
With some financial help from relatives, the Smiths moved to a farm in Tennessee.
“We went from living in this mansion to living in a ramshackle farmhouse with no running water,” Smith says.
At 15 years old, Smith wrote a speech about the U.S. Constitution that enabled him to win a national competition.
“It earned me a $4,000 scholarship, which was a lot of money back then,” he says. “I got to go around the country giving my speech. ... It was my way out of the farm.”
At 17, Smith joined the U.S. Army. He earned an opportunity to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but turned it down in favor of Vanderbilt. Shortly after that, Smith abandoned his scholarships and dropped out of school to pursue a journalism career in New Orleans. Smith showed promise as a young reporter. He found a lot of success in New Orleans until his drinking problem got him fired.
“I went back to Nashville to dry out,” Smith says. “When I got sober, I started working for a weekly paper in Russellville, Ky. Coming from New Orleans, I thought this small town was nothing, but it turned out to be everything for me.”
There, Smith was offered a 10% share of the paper. He eventually bought a chain of seven weeklies, became a well-known fixture on Kentucky radio and television and became engaged in politics.
By the early 1980s, Smith’s life was a far cry from that of the struggling reporter with empty pockets and high hopes. Smith found himself recounting his childhood experiences to a woman on a train ride. Hailing from Sarasota herself, she informed him the Acacias was scheduled to be demolished.
Nearly 40 years after first leaving, Smith finally returned to visit his childhood home.
“I fell back in love with the town that had caused my family so much heartbreak,” he says.
Ten years ago, Smith and his wife, Martha Helen Smith, bought a condominium on Siesta Key, which they call home several months of the year.
“It’s almost home,” said Smith. “But I owe Kentucky too much to stay here full-time.”
Smith recently wrote a book about his experiences; it is titled, “Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism.”