‘True giant’ Hager dies at 93

Longtime journalist turned to philanthropy to improve community

larry-hager-jrLawrence W. Hager Jr., a journalist and philanthropist who created a foundation in 1990 dedicated to improving the lives of children in poverty, died Saturday.

He was 93.

“His love and belief in his community was unsurpassed,” Keith Sanders, executive director of the Lawrence and Augusta Hager Educational Foundation, said Saturday. “Owensboro never had a better friend than Larry Hager.”

A year after Hager’s retirement in 1989 as co-publisher of the then-family-owned Messenger-Inquirer, he donated $1 million to create the Lawrence and Augusta Hager Educational Foundation, named for his parents.

The private educational foundation was designed to tackle the problems of childhood poverty.

It was a concern that had troubled Hager since his own childhood.

He often spoke of a friend who came to school with his head shaved because his family could not afford a visit to the barber.

Hager recalled fights he got into on the schoolyard with boys who teased his friend because of his poverty.

‘Largest single contribution’

Then-Mayor David Adkisson called the $1 million endowment “the largest single contribution ever made to this community aside from wills and bequests.”

Hager would donate much more through the years.

“He was an unapolegetic advocate for increased public and philantrophic investment in our community’s children,” said Sanders, who had worked with Hager for 26 years. “He believed that every child should have the opportunity to be educated and become a productive citizen. He devoted his life to making it happen.”

Hager, he said, “was a true giant who came through this community.”

Others echoed those sentiments.

“He was a great man,” Mayor Ron Payne said. “He did so much for this community. Owensboro has lost one of its great, great citizens.”

He said Hager “loved Owensboro and he was actively contributing to the community right to the end. He will be missed.”

Nick Brake, superintendent of Owensboro Public Schools, said Hager’s “passion and commitment to the youngest and most vulnerable among us is unmatched in this community.”

In 1997, Hager Preschool opened next to Foust Elementary School.

Many of the first children who attended classes there now have children of their own.

Brake said the Hager Preschool will carry Hager’s memory into the future.

“He was an inspiration to me,” Brake said.

Stu Silberman, former superintendent of Daviess County Public Schools, was a long-time friend.

‘Phenomenal man’

“He was one phenomenal man,” Silberman said. “He was a role model for so many people. And he was a very, very good friend and advisor to me. I can’t think of a better person. Larry was a phenomenal supporter of education.”

Hager, who spent 41 years in Owensboro journalism before his retirement in 1989, and his brother, John, were the third — and final –generation of their family to publish the Messenger-Inquirer.

The newspaper was sold in December 1995.

S.W. Hager came to Owensboro from Frankfort in 1909 to buy the evening Inquirer.

His son, Lawrence W. Hager Sr., bought the rival morning Messenger in 1929, combining the two publications into what was Kentucky’s largest family-owned newspaper at the time of its sale.

Larry Hager once dreamed of being an engineer.

But family responsibility pushed him into a career in journalism that began soon after his 12th birthday.

Began as newspaper carrier

“My first job was as a carrier,” he recalled once in an interview. “I delivered in the area around Miller Court, Cedar and Locust streets. There were about 50 subscribers on my route. It was hard to pick up change in those (Depression) days. I carried some millionaires on my books four or five weeks.”

After three years on the newspaper route, Hager left Owensboro to attend high school at the Kentucky Military Institute.

After graduation in 1941, he enrolled at Centre College.

But Pearl Harbor was attacked at the end of his first semester.

And Hager soon joined the Army, becoming a lieutenant.

He was wounded twice during the war.

After the war ended, he completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri, graduating in 1948.

And then, Hager returned home to work at WOMI, the Owensboro radio station then owned by his family, writing radio spots and selling ads.

While he was selling radio ads, Hager discovered the story that brought him to the newspaper.

Gambling expose

“I had heard there was some gambling going on in Owensboro,” he explained years later.

A salesman with whom he worked was moonlighting for the local bookmakers, Hager said.

One day at an east end haberdashery, where they were trying to sell advertising, the owner invited the two into the back room “where they had a dice table and a big tote board,” Hager said.

He went to see Clyde Watson, managing editor of the Messenger-Inquirer, to tell him what he had seen.

Watson responded, “Sit down and write it,” Hager said. “That was my first opportunity to write for the newspaper.”

In 1960, Hager’s coverage of a plane crash near Tell City, Indiana., brought national recognition to the Messenger-Inquirer.

After his expose of gambling, Hager worked in advertising for a while and then in the newspaper’s business office.

But he wasn’t satisfied.

Hager finally decided to leave the family newspaper and become an engineer.

But Purdue University wasn’t accepting University of Missouri graduates into its engineering program that year.

So, he returned to Missouri for more journalism classes and decided to stay with the Messenger-Inquirer.

Forty years later, after a distinguished career in journalism, Hager sold his share of the newspaper to his brother, John, and retired.

When he returned to Owensboro from graduate school, Hager was named farm editor of the Messenger-Inquirer, created a farm page and doubled as the backup police reporter.

In 1952, the Messenger-Inquirer loaned Hager to the Associated Press to cover the Kentucky General Assembly as well as the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

When he came home, Hager got what he called “my big opportunities,” covering the United Mine Workers union as it sought to organize “everything from the popcorn stands up in Central City.”

Several bombings in Muhlenberg County came during those months, he said.

Newspaper records show Hager served as picture editor, news editor and managing editor before being named assistant to the editor in 1962.

“Dad was sort of throwing titles around, but I never remembered any of them,” Hager said in his characteristic self-deprecating manner.

In 1966, Hager became co-publisher and co-editor of the Messenger-Inquirer.

“We were putting out a pretty good newspaper, but we were just one step ahead of the weeklies,” he said.

In 1973, when John Hager left his law practice to work full time as editor of the Messenger-Inquirer, Larry Hager, as co-publisher, left the newsroom to oversee a major technological advancement of the newspaper.

The Messenger-Inquirer had already become one of the first newspapers in the country to regularly use color news photographs, but the process needed refining.

And the newspaper came to be recognized as a leader in computerizing both its news and library operations.

Hager was frequently called on to redesign some of the early equipment, adapting it to his newspaper’s needs.

“I always wanted to move fast,” Hager said. “I was always unhappy because we never had enough money to move as fast as I wanted. But look at all we’ve done!”

The year he retired, the Messenger-Inquirer was named one of the top small newspapers in America by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Tireless Goodfellows volunteer

For more than 80 years, Hager was a tireless volunteer at the Goodfellows Club Christmas parties for needy children, founded by his father in 1916.

“The first time I can remember going to a Goodfellows Club party was when I was about 6 or 7 years old,” he said. “They were at the old Bleich Theatre downtown then. Later, we outgrew the theater and moved to Owensboro High School – and then to the Sportscenter.”

From that day in 1929 or 1930, Hager only missed two parties — when he was in Europe during World War II.

He recalled that former Mayor Irvin Terrill used to look at someone who was down and out and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

“It’s true,” Hager said. “I hope we can at least achieve an awareness that there’s a problem out there that needs to be addressed.”

In Europe during World War II, Hager received a shrapnel wound in his shoulder near the Siegfried Line.

After a hospital stay in England, he returned to his outfit on Dec. 9, 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.

“It was so cold,” he said, “we had to hold our rifles up to tank exhausts to unfreeze them.”

He was wounded again and was evacuated on a sled.

Returning home, Hager became involved in a number of community projects including the need for a new airport and the building of the Sportscenter.

In 1992, the Owensboro Rotary Club created the Larry Hager Rotary Scholarship Award in tribute to his dedication to disadvantaged children. The scholarship recognizes youth reflecting high character and leadership.

Hager’s last public appearance came earlier this month when he was presented with the Owensboro Health Foundation’s community service award.

He had received many honors through the years including the Owensboro Noon Civitan’s Citizen of the Year, United Way of Kentucky’s Outstanding Kentucky Volunteer Award, the United Way of the Ohio Valley’s Humanitarian Award, the Daviess County Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award, the Distinguished Philanthropist Award from the National Society of Fundraising Executives and the Kentucky School Boards Association’s Friend of Education Award.

In 2014, Hager was inducted into the new Kentucky Veterans Hall of Fame.

“I feel sort of funny about it,” Hager, he said, with typical modesty. “I’m grateful and honored, but I really don’t know why I was selected.”

This article originally appeared in the November 20, 2016 edition of the Messenger-Inquirer and has been republished with permission.

Goodfellows Club of Owensboro
401 Frederica Street B203
Owensboro, Kentucky 42301