A tribute to Robert A. Fay Part 1

-A A +A
By The Staff

We often speak of unsung heroes whose acts of kindness or courage, strokes of genius or divine luck, words of inspiration or encouragement; leave their mark on an individual or even a community. In an era when respect for people of the media is at an unprecedented and unfortunate low, there is one former publisher/editor whose good works even now, over 35 years after his retirement from journalism and departure from Shelby County, benefit our community.

I recently learned that Robert A. Fay, this forgotten champion of the underdog and his adopted home county of Shelby, died in 2008.

I gained permission of his widow, Jill, and checked with his son, Ben, to be sure he and his siblings would like for me to tell in The Sentinel-News some of the things I recalled their father doing for our community. When I explained some of Fay's initiatives I thought Shelby Countians should know about, the family was surprised by what this special man in their lives had done but about which he had never boasted.

Few people today know what an impact was made by Robert A. Fay, former publisher/editor of The Shelby News, until its merger with The Shelby Sentinel in 1972. Fewer yet know how many peoples' lives were touched and forever made better by this quiet man with a wonderful laugh and heart. Fay and his then wife, the late Sally Roach Fay Nicol, often worked as a team on community initiatives. Causes that he started, she helped complete as editor of The Sentinel-News, even after their divorce.

A wrong to right, or at least make others feel guilty until they righted it, was a knack and a passion Fay had that no Shelbyville editor since has been able to duplicate even if they had the courage to try. 

The Sentinel-News can't spare the space to let us list all of Fay's efforts to make his adopted hometown better. But Rosella Davis, former "society editor" for The Shelby News, remembers the day in the 1960s when she told Fay about the deplorable state of the town's historic fountain.

Without any fanfare, Fay encouraged and supported the efforts of what became known as The Shelbyville Fountain Committee to save and preserve the landmark by giving more than just news space to the cause.

But the cause that had some subscribers canceling their subscriptions and preachers using their pulpit to denounce the newspaper, broke in The Shelby News the week I started to work for Fay; August 1970.

I had just walked in his office to report to work, and he handed me the stories and editorial that were investigated and written by Tom Riner, Bill Holstein and edited by Fay.

"What do you think?" he asked.

The three writers who had all been standing and watching me read each word (many of which made me blush and very uncomfortable) leaned forward to catch my answer, "So that's why guys at the University of Kentucky always asked me the dates of the Shelby County Fair."

"Now you know," Holstein said laughing. "They weren't coming to see, a John Deere win the tractor pull."

Fay cleared his throat, looked me right in the eye and said, "Should we run these stories?"

I knew my answer wouldn't make any difference. He was committed to awaken the community; to see the irony that under the shadow of two church steeples, skimpily clad women were parading on a public stage to entice people - primarily men - to pay to go under a carnival tent to see even more of those women.

The other lewd acts that transpired in those smoke-filled tents I still can't talk about nearly 39 years later, but Fay printed every detail of them.

The stories ran, and the outrage was instant - surprisingly not against those who had condoned the carnival's girlie show over the years, but the newspaper that publicized its existence.

Although sales of that edition were in record numbers, The Shelby News never regained some of its life-long subscribers. We were accused of being too graphic. Forget that it was factual.

As church members cancelled their subscriptions because their family paper would print such filth, Fay met with civic leaders saying rather than tar and feather the messenger, perhaps they should stop inviting an unscrupulous carnival company to Shelby County.

It was a small victory for Fay when The Fair Board assured The Shelby News that there would be no future sideshows with dancing girls in Shelby County. Though Fay knew he couldn't have done it differently, the struggle for right came at a price.

It wasn't just subscribers the newspaper lost. There were a few advertisers who let us know they'd never be back. It wasn't the first time Fay had lost advertisers for his investigative reporting and it wouldn't be the last.

Fay soon picked-up another cause, this one was gigantic. He took on just about everyone: State government, regional business leaders, the local chamber and every newspaper, radio and television station in the state were fighting him when he went against the plan to build the Louisville International Jetport in Shelby County.

It was some of the best investigative work I've ever seen when The Shelby News scooped the world and announced that the folks at Standiford had hired architects to build an international jetport in Shelby County. After the story broke, the folks with the air board did some fast footwork and had the possible site include a much broader region: maybe it was coming to Henry, Oldham, edge of Jefferson, or even Shelby County.

Where, we at The Shelby News knew, they wanted to put the jetport was Shelby County; specifically Finchville.

The story that developed over several years would make a great book. The Fays were threatened more than once. We were the lone voice telling the serious "cons" of a jetport being plopped down in our beautiful county; it was a passionate cry to awaken the community to what they were about to lose and to arouse them to action.

And it worked.

In the months that followed and long after Fay had left Shelby County, people rallied. They created organizations like Save Our Land and under the leadership of brilliant people like Quintin Biagi Sr. and Wendell Berry stopped the jetport.

Later, actual land fraud was exposed as part of the jetport conspiracy.

Fay's unflinching devotion to right, and unpopular causes cost The Shelby News the loss of more advertisers. That and other factors no longer relevant culminated in forcing the Fays to sell their weekly newspaper to their competitor, Newspapers Inc.

After Fay finished law school, he became a public defender in western KY where he continued as a champion for the underdog including work to create an advocacy department for prisoners in the KY State Penitentiary, Eddyville, KY.

THURSDAY: Fay's legacy in Shelby continues.

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