By Keith L. Runyon
Special to The Courier-Journal
David Hawpe often declared that he “loved politics above all else.” During his many years at The Courier-Journal, he often proved that to be so. But he was a man with many loves, beginning with his family, then his city and state, his colleagues and friends, Kentucky history and his newspaper, which he decisively shaped for 40 years.
Certainly, he was one of the “big five” of Courier-Journalists over the newspaper’s 153-year history. He belongs in a select group with founding editor Henry Watterson, whose pen was so sharp that he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918 for a fiery editorial call-to-arms in World War I. And with Mark Ethridge, the Mississippi liberal who made the newspaper a beacon for civil rights and the New Deal in the 1930s-60s. Certainly with Barry Bingham Sr., whose blend of international vision and love for the culture and governance of Kentucky made him a revered national figure in journalism. And with John Ed Pearce, Barry Sr.’s favorite writer whose editorials and columns made him a household name and a political force to be reckoned with across the commonwealth.
My hunch is that David, who died unexpectedly Sunday, July 18 at age 78, would bristle a bit at the comparison to Pearce, but so be it. They were so much alike and their career paths were so similar that it’s a small wonder they approached one another like alley cats, always on the lookout for a scrap.
Yet Hawpe’s career was much greater than Pearce’s in part because he exerted tremendous influence over more than 30 years as a top editor of both the evening Louisville Times, where he was a city editor in the 1970s, and at The C-J, where he became managing editor in 1979. He would later become vice president and editor of the newspapers, the only Bingham-era person to hold those titles after the sale to Gannett, and his leadership and his own writing had much to do with four Pulitzer Prizes, an accomplishment not even Barry Sr. could claim.
The first time I remember David was in 1971 when I was working as an obit writer. He burst into our wonderful reference library, decked out in a bold striped shirt and an orange vest. The combination was unforgettable, and so was his energy in seeking information for the editorial he was working on. Electricity just radiated out of his mouth and fingers as he raided the clipping files.
It was Barry Sr. who hand-wrote the letter (on his personal, baby blue notepaper) urging David’s inclusion as a prestigious Nieman Fellow at Harvard. In memos for our files, it was clear that both Bingham Sr. and his son, Barry Jr., considered David one of the very most promising young journalists in an era when the Louisville newspapers were among the nation’s top 10, and served as farm teams for the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and other national publications. Never did he let them down.
Indeed, his achievements must have exceeded expectations for almost everyone. Although he would on occasion call himself “just a hillbilly” (his roots were in Appalachia, and he spent some of his childhood there), he was even more a product of the very middle-class South End of Louisville just after the Second World War. He loved to tell about his first exposure to the Courier-Journal & Times Building (now, sadly, for sale), as a pre-teen from Berry Boulevard Presbyterian Church, there to sing with his choir on the WHAS-TV program “Hayloft Hoedown.” As a youth, he also MADE news, like the time he joined a picket line to protest the closing of a South End street and found his photo on the front page of the C-J!
At the University of Kentucky, he became a star as editor of the student newspaper, and in due course he made his way through the St. Petersburg Times in Florida to Louisville, where he would live, work and often make waves as a journalist.
There’s no question that, in the course of his long career, David made plenty of enemies. I won’t run a complete list, but they included coal operators, hospital titans, Republican politicians and road builders. He and his family experienced death threats. But he had a lovable streak that made it difficult for those who knew him well to remain mad at him, even when he provoked it.
In moments of drama or sadness, his news instincts were faultless. Like the night in April 1995, when Mrs. Barry Bingham Sr., then 90, was being celebrated at a testimonial dinner and dropped dead in the middle of her speech. Before the ambulance even took her body off to the morgue, he whispered to me to “Get the speech!” So I trotted to the lectern and not only grabbed the text but absent-mindedly, also her reading glasses. So, we had the entire speech, in type, on the op-ed page the next morning. Mrs. Bingham would have expected no less.
David’s end came not quite as dramatically, but it was a shock to his family and friends, who expected him to rise from the hospital bed and storm back to life to do battle for the causes he cared so deeply about. Alas, that is not to be. However, we can truly take comfort that he takes his place in the pantheon of Kentucky newspaper greats. And that’s exactly where he belongs.
Keith L. Runyon retired in 2012 as editorial and book pages editor of The Courier-Journal, where he went to work in 1969. He is currently writing a history of the Louisville newspapers in the 20th century.