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PEOPLE AND PLACES: Community icon

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PLG’s Tom Isaac retires after 53 years

By Randy Patrick

PLG TV news anchor Tom Isaac remembers being miffed when a school superintendent years ago jokingly told him what he did was “cat-in-the-tree journalism.”

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“At first, I was a little offended by that, and then I thought, ‘She’s exactly right,’” he said.

Isaac later discovered how right she was when someone from the Humane Society called the Bardstown Fire Department about … a cat in a tree.

The little creature had been up there for days, “meowing pitifully,” said Isaac. He grinned when he told how firefighters handled the problem.

“Well, they tried to knock it out with a hose,” he said, chuckling. “It hung on for dear life.”

Finally, a tree service was called to rescue the creature, and it was given its shots and a guest appearance on the Humane Society's “Spotlight” on PLG 13’s cable newscast. The cat found a home.

Chalk it up as an example of news that makes a difference.

Isaac has been doing that kind of news for 54 years, but he won’t be doing it anymore. He retired Friday. He and his longtime girlfriend, Charlene Elizabeth Jones, are moving to Smyrna, Tenn., and getting married.

“I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it,” he said. “But I’m 73 years old. I’m ready to do something else.”

Isaac began his journalism career working part-time for a radio station while he was a broadcasting and business student at Butler University in Indianapolis. After college and a six-year stint as an Army reservist, he and Scott Cederholm came to Bardstown in 1966 as partners with the local radio station, WBRT. Almost three decades later, Isaac, publisher Steve Lowery of The Kentucky Standard and Gary Burtoft, a local cable television operator, made a bid for insertion advertising on Bardstown Cable, and Isaac had the idea that if they could offer a public service, it might give them a leg up in the bidding. That’s how what later became PLG TV was born.

At first, it was just text on a blue screen. Later, it was still photos and voice-overs. But after The Kentucky Standard bought the cable television business in 1997, David Greer, editor and publisher, whom Isaac calls “the godfather of PLG 13,” had a better idea.

“He challenged us. He said that if you’re doing this, you should be able to do a newscast with the technology that’s out there now,” he recalled.

So Isaac, John Coulter and Kim Huston experimented with a TV newscast, and within a week, they had the format and processes the station uses to this day.

The program is recorded in the afternoon for the 6 p.m. news cycle, and repeated on the hour until 11 and again at 7 the next morning. In between the hourly showings, announcements, police and fire reports, obituaries and other news shows up on the screen.

Isaac would get up at 4 a.m., check the dispatch log, lottery results and other news to write the news for the feeds before going back to bed for another hour or two.

The news is always local.

“You’re doing stories about the people you run into at Kroger’s,” he said. “You get immediate feedback. You don’t wait for focus groups to tell you how you’re doing.”

Often the news was minor stuff — what an article in The Courier-Journal in 2000 referred as news about “skillet fires” and “fender benders.” But sometimes it was bigger.

The biggest stories Isaac covered during his time in Bardstown, Isaac said were the Heaven Hill distillery fire, the murder of Police Officer Jason Ellis and a visit by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

Carter was supposed to have addressed a national governors’ convention at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in 1979 but failed to show because of “that malaise business,” Isaac said.

“Jimmy Carter decided to go into the cave and look at his navel and come up with a new vision for America,” he said.

After he emerged from that soul-searching, though, the president decided to do a series of town hall meetings, and Bardstown was one of the first places he visited — within a month of when he was originally supposed to have been here.

When Carter visited, WDRB staff staked out the city and commandeered a telephone booth by putting an “out of order” sign on it so that only they could use it.

They didn’t want any national media to beat them in their backyard, he recalled, while reminiscing about that day with Cederholm.

Isaac said he always ran his media operations “as if they were a utility.”

“People feel like it’s their TV station, because their neighbors are on it, their neighbors’ kids,” he said. He’s “coming into their homes” in a way, and so there’s a sense of ownership that viewers don’t get with a big-market TV station.

“That’s a responsibility, and at the same time, it puts a nice spin on your acceptance in the community,” he said.

Huston, who has been a coworker, a friend and a protégé of Isaac for many years, said he is “the trusted voice” of Nelson County.

“When Tom reports it, you can believe it. He has an integrity level like no other,” she said. “He takes his job very seriously. It’s more than a job. It’s his life.”

He was never a disinterested observer, however. Isaac was committed to serving his adopted community. He spent hours at the public library reading microfilm files of The Kentucky Standard so he could learn all he could about the community. He twice served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, was active in the Rotary Club for 28 years, helped start the United Way of Nelson County, joined with Circuit Clerk Diane Thompson in organizing a campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence, served on a state legislative ethics commission and earned a national community service award from Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., the Standard’s parent company. But he never let his service compromise his independence, say those who know him best. When a controversy arose over the public library, he resigned as a trustee rather than give viewers a reason to question whether he could cover the story objectively.

“He loved this community, and it showed in everything he did,” said Sharon Shanks, the library director.

Jamie Sizemore, publisher of The Kentucky Standard and general manager of PLG, said many people don’t realize how much Isaac has done for the community — not only as a journalist, but also in other ways.

“Tom  has really invested a lot in the community, and he’s an icon,” she said. He has “a heart of gold,” and doesn’t hesitate to help people or good causes in need. He has been a mentor to young reporters, and never talks down to them. He has a wealth of knowledge about the community. He can be succeeded, but never replaced, she said.

“I’m not ready for this,” she said. “Even though five years ago when I got here as publisher, he told me he was going to retire soon — and here we are five years later and it’s finally happening — I’m not ready.”

“I’m going to lose a great co-worker … a great friend and a sounding board,” she said.

Attorney Bruce Reynolds also is a friend of Isaac’s. They and another friend, Jim Hagan, used to have a sort of breakfast club and would discuss current issues.

“I came to know Tom to have a wonderful, but extremely dry sense of humor,” Reynolds said. On the serious side, though, Isaac worked hard to keep citizens better informed.

“He made Bardstown a better place to live,” he said.

 

Tributes to a Bardstown leader from those who know him best

“I really enjoyed my time working with Tom while I was publisher of the Standard starting in 1998. I found him to be the total professional and a hard-working one at that. At a time in his life in which he could have easily retired, Tom instead chose to work long hours to make PLG-TV the huge success that it’s become.”

“For a time in the 1980s, Tom and I were competitors. He was at WBRT, and I worked for a time as editor of the Standard. I had great respect for his work at the radio station. I left Bardstown for other job opportunities only to return in the late 1990s, and this time Tom and I were co-workers on the same side at the Standard and PLG-TV. He was an old-fashioned, hard-working journalist, and I really liked and admired that about him.

“Few people have that grit and determination. He will be missed in Nelson County.”

– David Greer, Kentucky Press Association member services director and former editor and publisher of The Kentucky Standard.

 

“Tom to me has meant more to our local community in other ways than just on camera.  While I respect his journalistic ethics, his work with the United Way of Nelson County, on the Nelson County Library Board, the Civil War Museum Board and as an active member of the Bardstown Rotary Club has been an inspiration to me.  I considered him a mentor in many ways to include journalism. However, his unsung work is what meant the most to me, doing for others with no expectation of praise or recognition is to me the definition of a hero, and Tom meets all the criteria for that title. His impact on Nelson County will go on long after his last broadcast fades from the TV screen. I don’t say this lightly, and it only applies to a small handful of people, but Tom Isaac is truly one of my role models and a genuine community hero.”

– Kenny Fogle, United Way of Nelson County

 

“Tom Isaac is a true professional. National and international journalists could take lessons from Tom. Tom has a love of our community and expressed that love in his presentations! Having a business relationship with Tom was tough, because I had to be mindful of his responsibility as a journalist, and I consider him a friend. Separating the two was difficult.”

– Dean Watts, Nelson County Judge-Executive

 

“He’s an institution, he truly is. We’ll never replace him, and we don’t intend to replace him because he has done a tremendous job in the community, not only in the last 15 years with PLG, but even before that as the owner of the radio station here. Of course, he’s been in broadcast journalism now for 53 years. For me, Tom is a wealth of knowledge. … He’s a very compassionate person. … Am I going to miss him? Absolutely. I’m not ready for this. Even though five years ago, when I got here, he told me he was going to retire soon, and here we are five years later, and it’s finally happening, I’m not ready. We’re going to lose a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that we will not be able to replace. I’m going to lose a great coworker and a good friend and a good sounding board.”

– Jamie Sizemore, publisher of The Kentucky Standard and PLG.

RANDY PATRICK can be contracted at rpatrick@kystandard.com