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A tribune to Robert A. Fay: Part II

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He changed lives in Shelby County

By The Staff

Another championed cause that took years to gain the attention it needed began with Bob Fay sending me down an alley in Shelbyville that he said deserved a photo page. What I saw in the short drive down the alley, unknown to most residents along Main Street, brought me to tears.

Houses  with front doors resting on rusted hinges and leaving a gap at the top and bottom were crumbling to the ground. Old men sitting on porches that had holes in the floor with weeds growing through them waved shyly as I passed.

I got out of my vehicle and spoke… said I was from The Shelby News, “I’d like to take some pictures of you and the houses along here. Would that be all right?”

“Yeah, that’d be good,” said a younger man whose curiosity had brought him out from behind the window with a broken pane to become the designated spokesman. “People oughta know how we’re living here. Wanna’ come inside and look around?”

I stepped over the doorsill to a dirt floor. A scatter rug placed to absorb moisture had been pushed to the side as the door drug across the hard, packed earth. The house had no foundation. It was wood walls on dirt; a shack in which you might house chickens.

Places on the walls were covered with newspapers, and I could see daylight through them. No indoor bathroom. No running water. A walk through what now I remember as a three-room structure led me to the yard landscaped with an outhouse by a water spigot.  

In the weeks and months that followed, Fay ran photos and stories about the deplorable living conditions of many of our African American neighbors residing in the Shelbyville districts of Martinsville, Bunker Hill, Red Onion, and even Indianapolis.

With housing that backed up to the city dump, residents endured unpleasant odors and vermin infestation. The city did not provide even basic services like water and sewers to areas of those communities between 8th & 10th Streets and two blocks north of Main.

A daily ritual for many residents was to carry fresh water from the nearest resource, another outdoor spigot. Two train tracks ran through the area, C&O, L&N, giving the term “living on the wrong side of the tracks” a picture of misery and depravation.

One morning after taking new pictures along the alley, I got a call from one of the slum landlords. The angry inflection of his voice had alarmed our church editor, Katharine Daniel, who handed the phone to me. “You that girl taking photos for the paper?” screamed the caller.

“Yes, sir,” I timidly replied. He identified himself and in one breath continued, “The next time I see your little blue station wagon driving down my alley, I’m going to shoot you right between the eyes.” To prove he was capable of such an act, he added, “I shot many a damn Nazi in Germany and it won’t bother me to take you out, too.”

Hanging up the phone without a word of reply, I ran, calling, “Mr. Fay. Mr. Fay. Mr. ---------- says the next time he sees my little blue station wagon driving down his alley, he’s going to shoot me right between the eyes. What’ll I do, Mr. Fay? What’ll I do?”

Rubbing his chin for a second, he gave me the perfect solution, “You’ll drive my brown station wagon.” And that’s just what I did.

The battle to erase the blight of drug dealers on the corners of Martinsville, get water and sewers into the communities ignored for years by civic leaders was a long, uphill struggle that continued well after Bob Fay had left Shelby County.

Sally Fay, Duanne Puckett and others worked with black and white leaders of Shelbyville. Life-long Martinsville resident Brenda Jackson said she didn’t remember Bob Fay starting the work to rehabilitate her community, but she did remember meeting in the editor’s office when The Sentinel-News was located on the corner of 6th and Main.

Staff and black community leaders were plotting strategies to attract the attention of HUD (Housing and Urban Development). Those plans eventually gained community support and the government funding to destroy the houses on the very alley that had incensed Fay.

There are so many other things people should know of this good man, like his helping the down-on-his-luck businessman who could run his ad free because Fay just couldn’t make him pay since the merchant recently lost his wife. Every town character in Shelbyville could count on a job of delivering papers or sweeping the sidewalk when they needed money rather than suffer a handout and destroy their dignity. No school festival went without some donation from the newspaper, and no employee missed a paycheck though Fay could barely pay the light bill.

Shelby Countians have three journalists who are members of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame: Max Heath who recently retired from Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., owner of The Sentinel-News; the late Bennett Roach, Fay’s former father-in-law, and publisher of The Shelby News; and Duanne Puckett, Shelby County Public Schools Community Relations Coordinator and former editor of The Sentinel-News.

Bob Fay asked a high school graduate working part-time for her father at Puckett’s Men’s Shop and assisting with a kindergarten program in Shelbyville to come to work as a receptionist and “odd job reporter” in his newspaper. Duanne gratefully acknowledges, “If Fay had not asked me to work for The Shelby News, there is no way a woman with no college education, let alone in a wheelchair, could have ended up being named to the Journalism Hall of Fame.”

The always self-effacing Fay told his employees there was nothing altruistic in his decision to hire the popular daughter of the city clerk/former mayor, a woman who had been crippled in a tragic auto accident three years before. He said it made good business sense to put Duanne at the front desk.

“Everybody loves Duanne, her warm greeting (and the fact that she’s in a wheelchair) will disarm anyone that is mad; by the time they get to the editorial team, they won’t be so upset. Her presence could even diffuse the whole thing.”

Fay never told anyone the real reason he hired Duanne until he shared this with me about five years ago; and only after I gave my word I would never tell Duanne until after his death.

Fay said he felt a chain of circumstances had given him a unique insight. Believers would call it a nudge from God. The “nudge,” Fay explained, happened one winter day (in 1970) while making his daily run to the post office. He saw an envelope on the sidewalk with a letter; unsealed, no stamp, no addresses. Wanting to return it to its rightful owner, he thought a quick look inside would give him a business address of the sender.

What he found was a heartfelt letter of a mother to her sister. He couldn’t stop reading it. Fay didn’t personally know the writer, but he knew vividly her story and her daughter’s unique circumstances. Not wanting to embarrass the writer and not knowing the address of the intended recipient, he quietly destroyed the letter. He also resolved to come to the mother’s rescue by offering her daughter a career in the newspaper business.

And what a career Duanne had… 27 years from receptionist to editor.

Although he no longer a part of the papers in 1998, no one was happier than Bob Fay when he learned his rookie reporter, Puckett, joined his friend and former father-in-law,  Roach, as an inductee in the Journalism Hall of Fame.

I think some of us should go to work and see if the name of at least one more Shelby County editor, Robert A. Fay, could be added to the list of honored journalists.

Bonnie Burks Gray, former associate editor/advertising manager The Shelby News & The Sentinel-News; retired Vice President/Advertising Director Landmark Community Newspapers Inc.