Sixteen years is a long time to survive as the editor of a major American newspaper. With the exception of David Hawpe and Mark Ethridge, in modern times, no person has lasted so long at any Louisville newspaper. That achievement has been one more of the many achievements that Bennie L. Ivory has recorded in a 40-year career as an American journalist. He stepped down last Friday as executive editor and vice president of The Courier-Journal, where we worked closely with him for most of those sixteen years.
Bennie was a product of the South, in his case Arkansas, and he was steeped in the culture, good and bad, of the region he knew best. As a boy growing up in a home where education and hard work were his parents’ compass, Bennie also was painfully aware of the scourge of Jim Crow, for 1950s Arkansas remained highly segregated. In the years in which I worked with him, he would only occasionally refer to that past, but he did when a current event seemed to spark a memory.
For instance, the spring that Rand Paul was making his run for the Senate and raised questions about the efficacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Bennie remembered working as a bus boy in the kitchen of a big resort hotel in Hot Springs, Ark. Some of the patrons were good to him, but others were not. He also recalled a time when a policeman pulled his family car to the side of the road for no reason other than the fact that his father was an African-American man. The goal was to shame his father, but the result was to strengthen the son and to inspire him to go on to important work to change that society.
When some of us would gather to report on new movies we’d seen the weekend before, Bennie would rarely chime in, although he watched plenty of films on his big-screen TV in his comfortable suburban home. You see, his memories of segregated movie theaters —when black patrons had to sit in the balcony (or “crow’s nest”)—were too painful.
When he was only 38, as manager of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., Bennie led the staff’s investigation that resulted in the re-indictment of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. His reporters also exposed the network of misdeeds by the infamous White Citizens’ Councils, which attempted to target African Americans for attempting integration in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the time he arrived in Kentucky in 1997, however, he had come far beyond his regional roots, having served in a number of other posts, including as editor in Wilmington, Del., and as part of the startup team for USA Today in the 1980s.
Few of us realized in the spring of 1997, when he first came to town, that the world of print journalism was on the verge of an upheaval greater than Hollywood faced in the late 1920s, when sound movies swept the world. In our case, the change came from the Internet, which was to break up the time-honored business plan that supported daily newspapers and would revolutionize the speed and manner in which news was reported. As had been the case in its long history, The Courier-Journal continued to be a leader in the industry, even in times of stress.
To do so, Bennie was a tiger when it came to a free and open press. He and his editors and reporters, emulating Barry Bingham and David Hawpe, aggressively sought information that the public was entitled to, often incurring staggering legal bills to achieve a favorable outcome. His superiors at corporate may have blanched at the cost, but they blanched too often anyway, and the citizens of Louisville and Kentucky benefited from the investment. Over and over again, important stories emerged from the legal efforts of The Courier-Journal over the past 16 years. Among these were documents about the University of Louisville Foundation and the donations to the McConnell Center, the Metropolitan Sewer District’s profligate spending, and perhaps most notable of all the proposed merger of the University of Louisville Hospital with Catholic Health Initiatives in 2011.
It was during that period when I saw Bennie at his best. The newspaper raised questions about how the merger might jeopardize coverage for indigent patients, and women in particular. At roughly the same time, our reporters dug through records to discover the shamefully high death rate for children in state custody in the commonwealth. The efforts by authorities to keep the details secret caused a circuit judge to hold the state in contempt and order release.
The list is much longer than this, and all the while these local stories were covered aggressively, big national and international stories—the Monica Lewinsky affair, the Bush-Gore election, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama election, and so forth— also were carefully covered by our newspaper.
As a long-time writer and editor myself, I am very proud of some of the achievements The Courier-Journal chalked up over the last century. We were the first major newspaper in America to appoint a woman as editorial page editor, back in the 1960s. In the 1970s, we were the first in the country to appoint a woman as managing editor. With Bennie’s appointment, he became the first African-American executive editor in the newspaper’s history, and at the same time, perhaps the most influential black leader in the state.
I don’t know what Bennie’s plans are, but I was pleased to work with him, and David Hawpe, and Stephen Ford, and Betty Baye, and Jill Keeney, and Pam Platt, and Marjorie Duvall, all great leaders, to shape our newspaper’s role in Kentucky, and America.
Keith Runyon spoke to WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian on Thursday about Ivory’s retirement and reports of job cuts at The Courier-Journal. Listen below:
Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.