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Son and Editor: 'The Happiest Decision I Ever Made'

This was originally published on Sunday, December 6, 1998


BY DAVID LAWRENCE Jr., Herald Chairman

HOW THE BOY came to be man and editor . . .

Dad's word was law in that frame home in the hill country of eastern Kentucky. Mess up, and punishment was dispensed with a belt. Dad was an honest man, a God-fearing man, a hardshell Baptist whose faith deepened as he grew older. Besides God and family, Dad believed in work. He always had a job, even during the darkest years of the Depression. Tired as he frequently was, John Lewis Hampton would always accept a second shift. He wanted his bosses to know that he was always willing to work. He felt fortunate to have a job, even one deep below ground in the dangerous coal mines of Harlan County.

The man whom friends called "J.L." never got beyond the seventh grade. Like so many others, he would quit school to help support his family. He was mostly "unread and uneducated, " in his oldest son's memory, "but very, very smart." Having missed his own chance for education, J.L. promised that it wouldn't happen to any of his children.

J.L. has been gone now two decades, but his widow, Ruby, lives on not four miles away from the original Hampton home. She made it through her sophomore year of high school when she had to quit to go to work. Years later, in widowhood, she completed high school. Like her husband, she worked outside the home for decade after decade. She left her last job, as a cashier, when she turned 80 a few years back. She hasn't quit baking; she's known, far and wide, for her cakes and pies.

Young Jim, their oldest child, always could confide in her. He inherited her sense of humor and humility. From both his parents, he inherited "a very clear sense of moral conduct. There weren't a whole lot of grays in their universe."

In the Hampton home, you were expected to make something of yourself. Dad, hunter of quail and the occasional deer, no doubt at times wished for an oldest son more of an outdoors type like himself. But Jim, while eager to aim his .22 rifle at snakes, was at heart the bookish sort who stayed in his room and read. In the earlier years, it was Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson; later it would be the more-difficult classics by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Jim was also good with his hands, fashioning airplanes in those World War II days from balsa wood and tissue paper.

Young Jim was always questioning things: "Why?" "How?" "Who says?" And so forth. It did not, at the time, endear him to his don't-question-me father.

School was, to understate it, important in Jim's life. He remembers a moment from third grade: "One day Mother found me face down on the bed. I was sobbing uncontrollably. 'My life is ruined!' I told her. 'I have a B on my report card!' "

Most days were, of course, not "tragic." He won the school spelling bee two years in a row. High school graduation was at age 16. He enrolled at the University of Kentucky as a geology major for reasons obscure even back then.

College discombobulated him. "Here I was parachuted from that insular upbringing into the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a college campus, with all these ideas floating around." He will tell you: "I screwed up my first year." Except for an A in English, he made all Cs. That simply never could be acceptable in the Hampton home.

"I never wanted to let Dad and Mother down, and I had."

From then on -- it was his decision -- he would pay for college himself with a succession of on- and off-campus jobs. Even so, he was probably too young for college. After his sophomore year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent the majority of the next three years in electronic intelligence in Germany. He wrote long letters relating his experiences -- two-dozen pages or more -- to his friends back home. Several wrote to say that he was "a natural-born writer." Think about journalism, they suggested. He did. "It was the happiest decision I ever made."


Jim Hampton, oldest of four children -- all college graduates -- came back to the University of Kentucky on the GI Bill. Now he had momentum: Editor of the student newspaper when it became a daily, named Outstanding Journalism Graduate, president of the senior class in the College of Arts and Sciences. A year later, in 1960, he received a master's in journalism and communications from Stanford.

His journalism career began with the Associated Press, moved to The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, then to The National Observer, published weekly from Washington. He was that newspaper's Page One editor when The Observer folded in 1977.

That's how he came to Miami. From the beginning of 1978 until the end of this month, he has served as editor. During his tenure in charge of this newspaper's editorial and opposite-editorial pages, he has overseen some of the nation's best editorial pages, and work that has led to two Pulitzer Prizes.

He was divorced in 1982. Six years later, determined to learn Spanish, he enrolled in a Herald class taught at night by Lillian Fernandez, a Cuban-born Dade schoolteacher. They were married in 1990. Between them they have five children and seven grandchildren. Lillian retired in September, which is why Jim decided to retire just shy of 64 instead of waiting another year or so.

He'll take at least a few weeks to decompress and figure out next steps. "I've never had the luxury of doing that." He worries some about going from "70-hour weeks to 0-hour weeks." But he has no shortage of interests -- from reading (spy novels, histories, and biographies) to orchids to woodworking to restoring an antique MG.

There is much to admire about Jim Hampton. Craftsman in a demanding craft. Active and open mind. Honest. Loves his community. Can take the heat and doesn't hold grudges.

Most of all, he is a decent man.

He is clearly J.L. and Ruby's son.

Thank you, Jim. dl