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Harry Caudill, Appalachian Author, Dead at 68

November 30, 1990

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Harry M. Caudill, an author whose 1963 expose of Appalachia’s social and enviromental problems helped inspire President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, shot himself to death at age 68.

The muckraking writer, lawyer, historian and state lawmaker died Thursday. A friend said Caudill suffered from Parkinson’s disease and a World War II injury to his foot and had been depressed.

Caudill’s writings helped shape federal programs to control strip mining, improve mine safety and eradicate poverty. His ″Night Comes to the Cumberlands″ in 1963 was credited with bringing Appalachia’s problems to the nation’s attention.

″Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies. When men begin to wrest it from the earth it leaves a legacy of foul streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air,″ Caudill wrote in the book. ″It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.″

Johnson subsequently backed a wide range of social programs to develop the region. The president used the Appalachian mountains as a backdrop when he announced his War on Poverty at a tarpaper shack near Inez in 1964.

By last spring, Caudill had written 10 books, 80 newspaper essays and editorials and some 50 magazine articles.

″Harry was always the one to challenge the unchallengable,″ said Ron Eller, director of the Appalachian Studies Center at the University of Kentucky.

″He was the one to speak out and the one to confront the corporations and the wealthy. That kind of courage is what made him a champion to those in the region.″

Caudill shot himself in the head with a pistol while seated in his yard, which has a view of Pine Mountain, an imposing ridge he cherished deeply.

″He did it in typical Harry style ... to go outside and be near the mountains,″ said Edison Banks Jr., Letcher County assistant commonwealth’s attorney and a former student of Caudill’s.

His struggle with Parkinson’s and a war wound restricted his mobility in recent months, said Tom Gish, a publisher of The Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg and a boyhood friend. Gish said Caudill had been depressed.

Caudill was born in Whitesburg, served in the Army and graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1948.

He championed education reform during three terms he served in the Kentucky House, from 1954 to 1957 and from 1960 to 1962.

He turned to writing in the early 1960s and taught Appalachian history for eight years at the University of Kentucky until his retirement in 1985.

He is survived by his wife, Anne; a daughter, and two sons.

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