Publisher and open government champion Sam Kennedy dies at 91

Former Daily Herald publisher Sam Kennedy and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Obituary by Sue McClure and Tony Kessler

Sam Delk Kennedy, the former longtime publisher of The Daily Herald of Columbia and a tireless open government advocate, died Tuesday at the age of 91.

“As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Broder once said, ‘Sam Kennedy was the real thing,'” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville). “He presided over the Columbia Daily Herald with an unusual combination of warmth, dignity and utter professionalism.”

“My visits over the years to Sam Kennedy’s office and Mule Day seemed completely intertwined,” Alexander added. “He set a fine example for other editors and journalists and reminded politicians that we should set an example as well.”

Former Vice President Al Gore Jr. said, “Sam Kennedy was a good family friend and a strong, progressive community and state leader. Tennessee was fortunate to have Sam, both as an outstanding journalist and as a public servant, and he will be missed by all of us who knew him.”

Mr. Kennedy was publisher of The Herald when President Lyndon B. Johnson came to town to dedicate Columbia State Community College, the first such institution of higher learning in Tennessee, in 1966. The president even invited him to enjoy a libation on board Air Force One.

Born, one of eight, in the tiny Maury County community of Kettle Mills, Mr. Kennedy, the son of Dr. Henry Grady Kennedy and Annie Porter Delk Kennedy, graduated valedictorian of Hampshire High at 16, served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, went to college on the GI Bill, and received a law degree from Cumberland School of Law, then in Lebanon. He entered the private practice of law in Columbia, subsequently becoming the area’s youngest general sessions judge and district attorney general. He later entered the newspaper world, eventually becoming a nationally recognized champion of open government and a free press.

Just as important as his professional accomplishments was his devotion to his family. He was accompanied on his remarkable journey by his partner in everything, wife of 64 years, Betty Finney Kennedy, who survives.

Mr. Kennedy became editor and publisher of The Daily Herald in 1965, following the death of his father-in-law, John W. Finney. Despite being “a known Kennedy Democrat,” Mr. Kennedy was a great favorite of Mr. Finney’s, and his interest in the community and public policy made him a natural fit to lead the paper that had been in his wife’s family for two generations.

Freedom of Information Fighter

In the early 1970s, Mr. Kennedy led the charge in Tennessee to make local governments, school boards and law enforcement more accountable to the people who elected them and paid their salaries.

As Mr. Kennedy explained it in a 2016 interview with The Herald, “That may sound like common sense today, but 50 years ago, when we started pushing for a Sunshine Law, there was opposition at every turn.”

The campaign culminated in 1974 with the state’s passage of the first Sunshine Law.

Mr. Kennedy served as chairman of the Tennessee Press Association’s Government Affairs Committee for more than 30 years and built strong relationships with governors and state legislators.

“Sam Kennedy made extraordinary contributions to his community, state and the profession of journalism,” said Frank Gibson, retired public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. “I will miss him as a mentor and dear friend.”

In September 2016, Mr. Kennedy was recognized for his lifelong passion for government openness and was inducted as the 16th national honoree in the State Open Government Hall of Fame.

Because of his “insider’s view” of the legal, government and journalism communities, Mr. Kennedy “clearly understood the value of a truly open government and of the enormous dangers to democracy a lack of transparency represents,” said Gregg Jones of Greeneville, executive vice president of Adams Publishing and a life-long friend.

“Today many Tennesseans who have no idea who Sam D. Kennedy is are benefiting from his ceaseless fight to keep our local and state governments as transparent as possible,” Jones added.

“Wealth of knowledge”

In 1983, the Kennedys sold The Daily Herald to Donrey Media. Over the course of his lengthy career, Kennedy also published The Parsons News Leader, The Buffalo River Review in Linden, The Mt. Pleasant Record, The Waverly News-Democrat and The Lawrence County Advocate.

He also served a term as Maury County Executive during the time General Motors was building its Saturn automotive plant in Spring Hill.

The Kennedys hosted scores of politicians over the years at their home, Greenway Farm. Visitors came to soak up his vast knowledge and listen to him hold forth on topics ranging from redistricting to cattle farming and mules.

“I’ve known Sam and his family for more than 35 years and always enjoyed visiting with him,” said former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. “He did so much for the community and was a wealth of knowledge on all things Tennessee. He will truly be missed.”

Mr. Kennedy’s civic involvements included the Columbia Kiwanis Club, which he joined in 1956.

“Sam filled key leadership roles in many worthwhile causes in our community,” said Waymon Hickman, longtime president of First Farmers & Merchants Bank. “He worked tirelessly to help start Columbia State Community College and also served on the bank’s board of directors and attended the bank meeting two weeks ago.” Active until the end.

Final “Barrister’s Bit”

In Mr. Kennedy’s popular editorial page column “The Barrister’s Bit,” he tackled various local, state, and national issues, but the homespun wisdom and civility never strayed very far from his humble upbringing in Kettle Mills.

“I try to put into proper perspective all the various strident viewpoints that pervade the land and come up with some logical conclusions based on reason rather than emotion,” Mr. Kennedy explained in a 1970 column during the height of the Vietnam War. “I know that we have drifted toward anarchy — that we have stood by entirely too long and permitted decisions to be made in the street.”

He punctuated the column with words that still carry more than just a ring of truth today: “We have become a nation motivated and moved by the rabble rather than one that sits down to quiet study of problems with a view toward reaching national consensus of action and direction.”

Funeral arrangements are set for 4 p.m. Friday at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, followed by a visitation/celebration of Mr. Kennedy’s life at Greenway Farm, 1149 Mapleash Avenue. There will be a private family burial on Saturday at the Wilkes Cemetery near Culleoka.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to Columbia State Community College, First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, the James K. Polk Home and the Maury Regional Health Care Foundation.

Full statement from Sen. Lamar Alexander“As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Broder once said, ‘Sam Kennedy was the real thing.’ He presided over the Columbia Daily Herald with an unusual combination of warmth, dignity and utter professionalism. My visits over the years to Sam Kennedy’s office and Mule Day seem completely intertwined. He set a fine example for other editors and journalists and reminded politicians that we should set an example as well. Honey and I express to Betty and the entire Kennedy family our respect for his life and our friendship with them.

Note: The Columbia Daily Herald story, including many more comments from politicians and others, is HERE.

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