M. Lee Smith, Tennessee Journal founder, dies aged 74

Lee Smith, founder of The Tennessee Journal and M. Lee Smith Publishers, died Tuesday night in Nashville after battling a blood condition for several years. He was 74.

Starting with the Journal in January 1975, Smith built an enterprise that eventually published newsletters in all 50 states, most of them dealing with workplace law compliance. He sold the company in 2005.

He was a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt Law School who in the late 1960s worked on the staff of U.S. Sen. Howard Baker. Among his co-workers was Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator himself. Smith served as general counsel for Gov. Winfield Dunn in the early 1970s.

Despite his background of working for Republican officeholders, upon launching his political newsletter Smith was determined, as he often discussed, to “play it straight down the middle” in political analysis and reporting.

In a statement Wednesday on his longtime friend’s death, Alexander said Smith and his newsletter “participated in Tennessee politics in a straightforward way that commanded the respect of both Democrats and Republicans.”

In 1977, Smith got perhaps his most famous scoop when he spotted Roger Humphreys of Johnson City working in the Capitol as a state photographer. Smith, a Johnson City native, knew Humphreys had been sentenced to prison a couple of years earlier for a double murder. But Humphreys was the son of Gov. Ray Blanton’s Washington County patronage committee chairman. Smith’s note in The Tennessee Journal on the matter set off a political firestorm that continued through Blanton’s administration.

Dan Oswald, who purchased M. Lee Smith Publishers in 2005 and has since expanded the business through a series of mergers and acquisitions, today described Smith as “a true southern gentleman and a savvy businessman.”

“I had the privilege of knowing Lee as a colleague in our industry for many years before having the opportunity to relocate to Tennessee and purchase his company from him,” Oswald said. “… I was lucky to know Lee Smith. I was lucky that he entrusted me with the business he had built and the people he cared so much about. And I was lucky to call Lee my friend and adviser. I’m going to miss him.”

Note: Oswald’s full posting on Lee Smith is HERE and he has a link to another post.

UPDATE: Visitation from noon to 2 p.m. on Friday at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, followed by a funeral service at 2 p.m.

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