Tuska seeks help in carrying on father’s legacy

September 12, 2009

Non basta una vita – Italian for “one life is not enough” – was the late John Regis Tuska’s motto to describe his artistic ambitions.

Now, his son is discovering that two lives may not be enough, either.

For the past dozen years, Seth Tuska has worked to preserve and publicize the legacy of his father, a prolific artist and University of Kentucky art professor who died in 1998 at age 67.

Seth Tuska, 51, turned the family home at the corner of Old Park and Central avenues into a museum of his father’s art. He engaged a filmmaker and curator to put together a documentary film about his father and catalog and traveling show of his work.

He sought commercial outlets for reproductions of Tuska pictures and sculptures, which depict the human form in motion. And he started a bronze foundry on Walton Avenue to support regional sculptors.

But last November, after a bronze-pouring at the foundry, Tuska said he went home with a ringing in his ears. Then, on Christmas morning, he awoke at 4 a.m. with an intense pain in his chest. Foolishly, he didn’t see a doctor for three weeks. When he did, he was taken straight in for quadruple heart bypass surgery.

But the worst was still to come.

Tuska said when he resumed normal physical activity in March, the ringing in his ears, which had never really gone away, got much worse. He now suffers from a severe case of tinnitus – a constant sound like cicadas in his head that makes it hard to sleep, read or concentrate.

Tuska said he now needs to deal with his medical crisis and entrust his father’s legacy to others. “I have to move on and figure out what’s ahead for the rest of my life,” he said.

The first public steps in that direction will come Friday. Mayor Jim Newberry is to issue a proclamation honoring John Tuska and his work, and he will accept the loan of a bronze figure, Energy Source, for display at city hall.

That evening, during Gallery Hop, the Kentucky Theatre Gallery will display 18 Tuska pieces. The theater will have two showings, at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., of  Non Basta Una Vita, a 2008 documentary about John Tuska by Arthur Rouse and Kiley Lane.

Thanks to the event’s sponsors, attendees also will be given a film poster, popcorn and a drink. Tuska said he has worked with local arts educators to distribute many of the 600 tickets to students.

Where things go from there, Tuska said, depends on community interest – both artistic, and financial.

Tuska sold the foundary to artist Amanda Matthews Fields and enlisted a group of community leaders to advise him on how to proceed with setting up a non-profit Tuska Museum and Learning Center foundation to take over the family home and his collection of his father’s art.

Tuska lives upstairs in the home, but is in the process of moving out. He wants to keep the collection of his father’s work in Lexington.

His vision is to continue the home’s first floor museum. But, more importantly, he wants to use the upstairs apartment to house visiting artists and the 2,500-square-foot lower level for educational space.

Downtown developer Phil Holoubek, a member of the advisory group, said several strategies have been discussed. “Seth will have to decide what he feels most comfortable doing,” he said.

Holoubek said the Tuska collection includes outstanding art that could not only enrich the community culturally, but promote economic development.

LexArts President Jim Clark, who for six years directed the New York Public Art Fund, agreed. “If John Tuska had done this work in New York City he would have been a very prominent sculptor,” he said.

Clark sees a lot of potential for the Tuska Museum and Learning Center, if it gets the right leadership that can attract the necessary money.

“Having a house museum is perfect for Lexington,” Clark said. “It is intimate in scale. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood. Anybody flying into Lexington for the (horse) sales, that would be a perfectly lovely discovery. Part of that is just working with what they’ve got and marketing it.”

With more regular museum hours, more advertising and an experienced curator, Clark thinks the Tuska museum could become an important cultural destination. And he thinks Seth Tuska has the right idea about using his father’s legacy to encourage arts education.

In addition to the high quality of John Tuska’s work, Clark said, what made him special was his dedication to teaching. Great artists who also are great arts educators, like Tuska and Centre College’s Stephen Rolfe Powell, are rare.

A learning center that promoted arts education – and honored arts educators with a “Tuska prize” and residency – could put Lexington on the arts map. “That would be a very big deal in this country,” Clark said.

What’s needed now is for people to step up and help Seth Tuska make it happen.

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Old Governor’s Mansion becomes guest house

September 12, 2009

FRANKFORT — Margaret Robinson Robertson lived in the Old Governor’s Mansion in the early 1840s, when son-in-law Robert Letcher was the governor. Legend has it that her ghost appears whenever evil befalls the house.

The way the place looks now, don’t expect to see her any time soon.

The 211-year-old mansion has just undergone a privately financed $1.5 million face lift so it can take on a new role as the state’s guest house and official entertainment space for the governor.

The magnificent renovation was a statewide, all-volunteer effort involving more than 300 people, including designers, decorators, contractors and donors who each adopted small parts of the mansion.

The renovation will be unveiled later this month with a series of big-ticket events, proceeds from which will benefit the Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation and Kentucky Equine Humane Center. The home will then be open for $10 public tours Sept. 19 to Oct. 3.

“We wanted the house to be a welcoming spot for people who come to Kentucky,” said David Buchta, state curator and director of the Division of Historic Properties. His office oversaw the renovation with the mansions foundation and Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission.

“It’s a great shrine to Kentucky’s history,” said Steve Collins, chairman of the commission and son of former Gov. Martha Layne Collins.

The home was first occupied in 1798, two years before the White House. For many years, it was the nation’s oldest executive residence.

The mansion housed 33 Kentucky governors until 1914, when the current governor’s mansion was built beside the “new” Capitol. From 1956 to 2002, the old mansion housed 10 lieutenant governors.

Eight U.S. presidents have visited the mansion, from James Monroe to Bill Clinton, as well as such notables as Henry Clay, Aaron Burr and William Jennings Bryan.

“There’s no other house in Kentucky that has been used like this one — that has the stories and history and reputation,” said Collins, a Shelbyville lawyer and funeral director.

The General Assembly put up money to build the governor’s mansion in 1795 after the state’s first governor, Isaac Shelby, convinced lawmakers that a rented log cabin just wouldn’t do. It was completed in 1798.

Although the mansion’s federal-style exterior was rather plain, it was called the Palace when Shelby’s successor, James Garrard, became its first occupant. It was the first home in Frankfort with carpet. A crowd gathered when the city’s first piano was delivered to its parlor.

Two men who helped build the house later lived there: Thomas Metcalfe, a stonemason who helped lay the foundation, was governor from 1828 to 1832; and Letcher, who helped lay the Flemish-bond brick, was governor from 1840 to 1844.

The house hasn’t been occupied since 2002, when then-Lt. Gov. Steve Henry moved out to make way for a renovation. Last year, the idea emerged to turn the home into a state guest house, like Blair House in Washington.

(Francis Preston Blair, by the way, was a Frankfort journalist who moved to the nation’s capital in 1830. Seven years later, he took up residence in the Pennsylvania Avenue house that now bears his name.)

First lady Jane Beshear, former first lady Phyllis George and Meg Jewett, owner of the L.V. Harkness & Co. gift shop in Lexington, led the renovation effort. They and others recruited volunteers and donors from all over.

Longwood Antique Woods of Lexington donated flooring for the downstairs powder room. The wood came from the Lexington barn of 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

Louisville artist Sandy Kimura donated nine weeks of her time to paint a mural around the main hall in the style of early 19th-century Zuber wallpaper. It incorporates Kentucky scenes, such as Daniel Boone looking across the Cumberland Gap and the gentlemen on the state seal shaking hands, for which Buchta and Collins posed in period wigs.

“I’m going to get it out and wear it to some of the events,” Collins joked.

The house now contains a treasure trove of Kentucky furniture and art. There’s a rare 1815 cherry Sheraton sideboard in the dining room, thought to be the work of a Maysville cabinetmaker. Other items include chairs from Henry Clay’s law office, and modern Appalachian furniture and crafts that furnish a third-floor bedroom.

Other furniture and art has been donated or is on loan from the state, the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum, the Filson Club, the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, the Rebecca and Jay Rayburn Collection and several individuals.

Recognizable to many Kentuckians will be four original paintings by Paul Sawyier, whose Kentucky landscapes from a century ago remain popular as prints.

“Every room has something significant,” Buchta said. “Without the generosity of a lot of people, this project wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.”

As a former resident of the mansion, Collins said he is especially appreciative of all of the people who have made it a showplace.

Collins was a student at Georgetown College when his mother was elected lieutenant governor in 1979. He lived in a third-floor bedroom and remembers the mansion as a busy place that was used for many public functions.

Collins said he encountered many people in the mansion, but not the ghost of Margaret Robinson Robertson.

“We never saw her,” he said. “But we felt very safe when we lived here.”

  • If you go

    Kentucky Mansion Celebration

    ■ First Ladies’ Luncheon, noon, Sept. 15, $110.

    ■ Brunch in the Garden with Jon Carloftis, 11 a.m. Sept. 16, $110.

    ■ Governor’s Barbecue & Unbridled Spirits, 7 p.m. Sept. 17, $210.

    ■ Preview Gala, 7 p.m. Sept. 18, $300.

    ■ Public tours, Sept. 19-Oct. 3. $10.

    For tickets and more information, go to www.kymansioncelebration.org or call (502) 226-6440.

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Get out your bike, pump up your tires …

September 9, 2009

Here are some upcoming bicycle events, sent to me by Kenzie Gleason, Lexington’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator (859-258-3605, kgleason@lfucg.com):

Town Branch Trail Benefit Concert & Bike Rally – Sept. 11 & 12

Town Branch Trail Inc has organized a benefit concert Friday, Sept. 11, at the new Busters in the Old Tar Distillery on Manchester Street.  Visit www.townbranch.org for details.  Then join Mayor Jim Newberry and other cycling friends for a 10-mile, police-escorted ride beginning downtown at 8:30 am (experienced cyclists 16 or older).  View more details and a description of the route atwww.townbranch.org

Second Annual Bike Prom – Sept. 12

Dance your bike around downtown Lexington during the Bike Prom! Gather at the Living Arts & Science Center for pre-prom appetizers and then ride to selected downtown destinations with a provided map. You’ll stamp your dance card at each location. Prizes for best dressed Prom King and Queen and other awards will be presented during the ‘prom’ at Molly Brooke’s Irish Bar. Bike valet parking available at the prom.  The event is $5 per person and all proceeds benefit the Living Arts & Science Center. The event is open to the public and for all levels of biking experience. Visit http://www.lasclex.org/upcoming_events.htm for more information.

Parks & Recreation to Host Public Meeting for Cardinal Run Park Trail – Sept. 15

Located in west Lexington, this trail will be approximately three miles long and will be constructed within Cardinal Run Park North (2101 Parkers Mill Road).  Parks & Recreation and a consulting team are in search of community feedback as they embark on trail design.  The meeting will be held on Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. at St Raphael Episcopal Church on Parkers Mill Road

Calling all Mountain Bikers: Public Meeting,  Veterans Park Mountain Bike Trail – Sept 17

Located in south Lexington, this off-road, unpaved trail will wind through and improve upon existing trails at Veterans Park.  Parks & Recreation and a consulting team will host a design workshop at the Tates Creek Branch Public Library on Thursday, Sept. 19 from 5:30 to 7pm.

Obama speech flap: Did adults learn anything?

September 8, 2009

With all of the public attention focused on President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation’s school children, I had to wonder: Did the adults learn anything?

Obama urged kids to study hard and not give up, even if they don’t like some classes or things are tough at home. He reminded students that each of them has special abilities, and it’s their responsibility to develop them.

The president acknowledged that, like many of us, he was “a little bit of a goof-off” when he was young. He told kids that success takes hard work, and nobody else will do it for them.

It was a speech that could have been delivered by any responsible leader, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

AP Photo by Stew Milne

AP Photo by Stew Milne

It was a pep talk about personal responsibility, not politics. But from the way the right-wing fringe and some Republican Party officials reacted to it beforehand, you would have thought Obama was planning to sprout horns and advocate devil worship.

There was a lot of bluster about Obama “overstepping his authority,” even though previous presidents have made similar speeches. Timid school officials offered opt-outs for students whose parents objected. Cowardly school officials skipped the speech all together.

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, last week called Obama’s plan to speak to children “very concerning and kind of creepy” and an attempt “to circumvent parents” and “gain direct access to our children.”

Robertson and some talk radio entertainers focused on an ill-chosen phrase that federal education bureaucrats used in material prepared for teachers. The phrase, suggesting teachers could have students write letters to themselves about how they can “help the president,” was reworded to how they “can achieve their … education goals.”

It seemed like a lame excuse for objecting to a presidential speech, because that’s exactly what it was.

Some GOP leaders have no interest in working with Obama and other Democrats, whether it’s rebuilding the economy, reforming health care or anything else. They just want to see Obama fail.

The talking heads of the right-wing media relentlessly bash Obama. They shamelessly distort facts, incite fear and call anyone who disagrees with them radical, socialist or even communist. It’s a profitable business model, because gullible listeners lap it up.

Obama is no radical, unless you think “middle of the road” means the right shoulder. But there are radicals out there, on both sides of the political spectrum, and this episode is a good reminder that responsible people should be wary of them.

American politics has always been messy, but it works pretty well. In robust, fact-based discussions among responsible people, ideology usually gives way to artful compromise and practical solutions. One of history’s best examples was Lexington’s own Henry Clay.

On the other hand, history’s ills can usually be traced to political or religious ideology and extremism, from Mao’s China and Hitler’s Germany to the Spanish Inquisition and modern Islamic terrorism. Those perpetrators believed they were right and their opponents were evil, and they had no reservations about saying or doing whatever it took to win.

Obama’s agenda and proposals should be carefully studied and vigorously debated. Thoughtful discussion could lead to good compromises, better ideas and ultimately solutions for the nation’s problems, some of which can be traced to past examples of ideology trumping common sense.

That has become more difficult, though, because modern communications technology amplifies the voices of irresponsible extremists, ideologues and the willfully ignorant people who follow them.

The best lesson to take away from the president’s speech to school children is that personal responsibility is a good concept for adults, too.

Internet radio show covers 2010 Equestrian Games

September 7, 2009

I was interviewed last week by Horse Radio Network, an Internet radio venture that is covering the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and other horse sports for an international online audience.

Hosts Samantha Clark and Glenn “the Geek” Hebert talked with me and Niki Heichelbech of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau about Central Kentucky and what there will be for Games visitors to see and do while they’re here.

You can listen to the show by clicking here.

First piece of Town Branch Trail opens next weekend

September 5, 2009

Lexington was born and grew up around the Town Branch of South Elkhorn Creek, but over the past century we’ve done our best to pollute it, bury it and forget about it.

Water finds its way, though, even if it sometimes needs help.

Town Branch Trail Inc. has been working for a decade to develop a greenway along the creek west of downtown. The first fruits of those labors will be on display next weekend, when the initial two-mile section of the trail is opened with a benefit concert and bicycle rally.

The Freedom Concert, with music by Cora Lee and the Townies and Fifth on the Floor, is at 8 p.m. Friday at the new Buster’s in the restored Old Tarr Distillery, which backs up to the creek on Manchester Street. Admission is $10, with all proceeds going to the trail project.

The next morning at 8:15, the public is invited to meet at Cheapside for a police-escorted 10-mile bicycle ride out and back on roads to the completed trail section off Leestown Road and Alexandria Drive. There will be a hospitality tent at Lewis Manor, a circa 1800 home beside the trail in Marehaven subdivision.

When I walked the trail last week, people were already using it.

Workers had just installed stone-cutter Richard McAlister’s beautiful sandstone benches and furlong posts made of finely crafted “Kentucky marble” limestone. And there were several new signs along the trail explaining Central Kentucky’s landscape, geology and ecology.

Van Meter Pettit, the Lexington architect who put together the trail project, sees it as more than a place to exercise; it’s a way to learn about Lexington’s history and environment. It’s also a way to rehabilitate and protect the watershed and help deal with runoff and pollution problems that have grown with the city.

“There is a compelling story to why we are the way we are that even many natives don’t understand,” he said. For example: Lexington’s downtown is long and narrow because it was built along Town Branch, which now flows beneath Vine Street.

Town Branch runs along the west side of the finished section of trail, just beyond tracks that were part of Kentucky’s first railroad line.

In one section, the trail goes around a giant, centuries-old tree, surrounded by a stand of native cane. When the first pioneers came here 250 years ago, much of the Bluegrass was covered with cane. Now, it’s hard to find.

“This is about as good a snapshot of authentic Kentucky as you can get,” Pettit said.

On the east side of the trail is Central Kentucky’s modern landscape: several new subdivisions.

Efforts to build trails in established neighborhoods often are met with “not in my backyard” opposition. But these subdivisions are new, and many homeowners are building decks and landscaping their yards to take advantage of trail access.

Indeed, subdivision developer Dennis Anderson was key to the Town Branch Trail’s success. That’s because he realized the trail would not only be an amenity for his development, but would help with drainage and be a financially attractive way to use undevelopable land.

“Without him,” Pettit said, “this trail would have been a nice idea that never would have happened.”

With this section of trail finished, Pettit is now turning his attention to another one-mile section that has funding. The remaining five miles is under feasibility study while trail organizers seek money, easements and rights of way.

So far, Town Branch Trail has received about $2 million in grants and other funding and $1 million worth of donated land, Pettit said.

Plans call for the trail to eventually be at least eight miles long, going from this first finished section to downtown. It will end along Manchester Street near Rupp Arena, where developers of the Distillery District plan to rehabilitate the stream and incorporate the trail into their multi-use project.

Eventually, Pettit would like Town Branch Trail to connect with the nine-mile Legacy Trail being built from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park, as well as other walking and bike paths.

Even further in the future, there is talk of developing a trail beside the railroad line from Lexington to Versailles and eventually Frankfort.

So come out and see this first piece of Town Branch Trail. You’ll get some exercise, learn about Lexington and see how creative people are harnessing our rich heritage to literally pave the way to a better future.

Second Sunday event grows to 100 counties

September 3, 2009

With Second Sunday a little more than a month away, 100 of Kentucky’s 120 counties have plans to participate.

Each county plans to close a street or highway for a few hours Sunday afternoon, Oct. 11, and invite residents to come out to walk, bike, run or jog — and to think about how regular exercise could make them healthier and happier.

That was the basic idea used to launch Second Sunday last year, when 70 counties were involved. This year, though, many communities have more ambitious plans.

“It’s becoming a platform for all kinds of health-related events,” said Diana Doggett, a county extension agent in Lexington who is coordinating the statewide effort.

Dogget said many counties are planning health fairs, “fastest kid in town” races and even arts events.

Lexington will close a mile-long loop downtown — Main to Mill to Short to Deweese streets — from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Related events include bike polo demonstrations, health screenings and martial arts and yoga classes. A bike valet service will be available for cyclists to check their bikes while participating in other activities.

Jessamine County plans similar events downtown, plus a 6k run between West Jessamine and East Jessamine high schools to memorialize a popular coach and student athlete who recently died, Dogget said.

Elliott County’s events include speeches by House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, a cancer survivor, and a local man who lost 140 pounds without surgery. Festivities end with a concert by bluegrass star Don Rigsby.

Allen County citizens are building a two-mile bike and walking trail on property surrounding a Civil War site, Dumont Hill. Second Sunday activities there will include canon ball bowling.

Newport plans to close Monmouth Street between Fifth and 10th streets. Taylor County will include canoeing on the Green River. Franklin, Scott, Green and Adair counties all have big festivals planned around Second Sunday events.

UK’s Cooperative Extension Service is coordinating Second Sunday plans across the state, and some counties haven’t gotten involved because of vacancies in their extension offices, Dogget said. But anyone can step up and organize local events in those counties — and she hopes people will.

But the point of Second Sunday isn’t to get people outside exercising one day each October; it is to inspire them to start a regular exercise habit.

“What we need to do is change people’s lifestyles,” said Jay McChord, a Lexington councilman who helped create Second Sunday.

McChord also wants Second Sunday to attract national attention — and money — to Kentucky’s effort to shed its ranking as one of the nation’s least-healthy states.

He hopes exposure will attract millions in grant and foundation money to build a trail system throughout Kentucky so communities large and small won’t have to close streets for their citizens to have safe places to walk, run or bike.

Dr. Rick Lofgren, a physician at the University of Kentucky Hospital, appeared with McChord, Legacy Trail organizer Steve Austin and UK Agriculture Dean Scott Smith at the Lexington Forum’s monthly meeting Thursday to talk about trails, better health and Second Sunday.

Lofgren said he practiced in academic hospitals in many parts of the country before coming to UK five years ago. He noted that Kentucky ranks high nationally in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, strokes and lung cancer — all of the health problems nobody wants.

“This is the sickest group of patients I’ve ever taken care of,” Lofgren said. “Much of what I see is preventable. It has to do with the lifestyles we have around here.”

Lofgren said regular exercise would help a lot — on Second Sunday, and every other day of the year.

One more sip with the bourbon masters

September 2, 2009

Here’s a piece of my interview with bourbon industry legends Elmer T. Lee, Jimmy Russell and Parker Beam that I didn’t have room for in today’s column:

Considering their combined 150-plus years of experience in bourbon distilling and tasting, I wanted to know how they judged one bourbon to be better than another.

They said individual taste plays a big role, so the question of whether one bourbon is better than another is often subjective. Russell said it’s like how some people prefer Coca-Cola and others like Pepsi. “If they all tasted the same, we’d just need one (distillery),” he said.

Beam said his tastes were shaped by the tastes of his father, who was Heaven Hill’s master distiller before him. “But Elmer and Jimmy are going to have a little different palate than what I’ve got,” he said.

All three agreed that one of the most important characteristics of a fine bourbon is a good “finish.”

“It just kind of lingers on the palate and gets better the longer it lays there,” Beam said. “I like that.”

“What he’s telling you,” Russell said, “is that it’s so good he wants another one.”

Bourbon’s elder statesmen are real-life characters

September 1, 2009

FRANKFORT—These guys don’t look like rock stars at first glance.

Or second glance. Or third.

Yet, they travel the world making public appearances, posing for photographs and signing autographs, usually on bottles of Kentucky’s best bourbon, some of which have their picture on the label.

This is officially Bourbon Heritage Month in Kentucky. The 18th annual Bourbon Festival is Sept. 15-20 in Bardstown. The eight-distillery Kentucky Bourbon Trail is expecting a record number of tourists.

So I figured this was a good time to sit down with three of bourbon’s elder statesmen: Elmer T. Lee, 90, former plant manager at Buffalo Trace; and master distillers Jimmy Russell, 74, who has been at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg for 55 years, and Parker Beam, 67, who is celebrating 50 years at Heaven Hill in Bardstown.

Bourbon sales have been growing steadily for 25 years, especially in international markets such as Japan, Australia and Europe. Distillery production is up 50 percent since 1999.

Much of the credit is given to Lee, who introduced Blanton’s Single Barrel in 1984, launching the premium bourbon market that has been the industry’s growth engine. Single barrel and small batch recipes have transformed bourbon’s image from a commodity into a craft product, like fine wine.

You also can’t discount the marketing genius of Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark in Loretto, who taught a conservative industry how to be folksy and hip at the same time.

More than 95 percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, creating a $3 billion industry with 3,200 direct jobs. Although some distilleries are now owned by international conglomerates, they’re almost all run and staffed by Kentuckians with old bourbon family trees.

Russell and Beam are third-generation distillers, and their sons are distillers, too. Beam’s grandfather, for whom he was named, was master distiller at the operation owned by his grandfather’s brother, Jim Beam.

I visited with Russell, Beam and Lee around a table at Stony Point, the hilltop home where Col. Albert Blanton once commanded the 110-acre distillery now called Buffalo Trace. These three friends and rivals have known each other for decades. They can, and often do, give each other a hard time—and finish each other’s sentences.

The first thing I wanted to know was how these experts drink their bourbon.

Russell sips his “neat”— or straight—from a brandy snifter so he can enjoy the aroma. In summertime, he might drink it over ice, or chill the bottle in the refrigerator. Beam also is a straight-bourbon man, although he sometimes chases it with a little water. Lee prefers his bourbon mixed with 7Up or Sprite.

Russell, whose personal brand is Russell’s Reserve, and Beam, who developed Evan Williams Single Barrel, have a drink most days, but not every day. Lee is a daily drinker, but, like the others, in moderation.

“I don’t try to drink it all every night,” Lee said. “Just one good highball.”

Does Lee, the namesake of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, give bourbon any credit for his living to be 90? “I give it a whole lot of credit,” he said. “It ain’t hurt a damn thing.”

Beam jumps in: “Booker Noe, my cousin (and former master distiller at Jim Beam in Clermont) always said, there’s too much living proof bourbon won’t hurt you. Look at all us old-timers.”

Decades of practice have taught these men what good bourbon tastes like, but they have a hard time describing it — and sometimes chuckle when others try. They talked of hearing bourbon aficionados wax poetically about hints of caramel, vanilla and spice — and even tree leaves, leather and tobacco.

“I’ve always said when you’ve got some of those kind of tastes in your bourbon, you’ve probably got problems,” Beam said with a laugh.

Lee then had to tell one on Russell. One time, at a tasting in Missouri, someone began equating a particular bourbon’s taste to exotic fruits and vegetables. Russell leaned over to another distiller and whispered: “I don’t know about y’all, but we don’t put any of that crap in our bourbon.”

These three seem to enjoy being international bourbon ambassadors almost as much as being distillers. They have a lot of funny stories, such as the time Lee called down to the front desk of a hotel in Japan to ask for a bucket of ice. The bellman delivered a bucket of rice.

Lee, Beam and Russell were born and raised within a few miles of the distilleries where they have spent their lives, and their most common travel stories involve how people sometimes react to their folksy charm.

“One time, at a tasting in California, I introduced myself and after I poured the product this guy kept kind of staring at me,” Beam said. “Then he pointed his finger and said, ‘You’re a real person! … I thought you were just some fictitious character they had come up with in marketing.”

Beam, Russell and Lee are real, all right. But they’re characters, too.

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Successful used bike sale benefits refugee program

September 1, 2009

A followup to my Friday column:

Pedal Power bike shop’s sale Saturday to benefit Shifting Gears didn’t last long. All 200 used bikes were sold well before noon.

“We were able to put money into an account to keep the program going and still write Kentucky Refugee Ministries a check for $3,000, which will provide for two households until self-sufficiency,” said Brad Flowers, who started Shifting Gears.

Shifting Gears provides restored, used bikes to newly arrived foreign refugees to give them some basic transportation. The bikes come from donations and trade-ins taken by Pedal Power.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries works with the U.S. State Department to resettle officially designated refugees who legally immigrate to Kentucky. It tries to provide them with furniture and other necessities until they can get settled and find work.

Response to Shifting Gears has been so strong that Pedal Power had many more bikes than it could restore, and it needed to clear out about 200 to free up space and raise money for spare parts.

Restoration labor is donated by Pedal Power employees and volunteers from the local cycling community. Last year, about 80 bikes were donated to refugees, with some children’s bikes going to The Nest, a social service agency on North Limestone.

The extra adult bikes were sold for $25, $50 or $75 each, and spare parts were sold for $1 each, “whether it was a wheel or a cable,” Flowers said.

“There was one guy that bought two bikes and 10 or so parts to fix up for people in his neighborhood who didn’t have bikes,” he said. “There were several international students from UK.”

A half-dozen volunteers from the bicycle group LexRides helped work the sale.

“As the number of (refugee) arrivals increases (from an average of 100 a year recently to about 200 a year currently) and as funding stays flat it is creative partnerships like this that will allow them to continue to provide basic services for these folks as they become oriented,” Flowers said.

A world view on America’s health care debate

September 1, 2009

The national debate over health care reform is clouded by ideology, distortion, old myths and misinformation, especially when it comes to the way health care works in other countries.

T.R. Reid, who for many years was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, tries to cut through some of those with solid reporting in his timely new book: “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.”

Click here to read a Washington Post op-ed piece by Reid that gives an overview.  Click here to read Business Week magazine’s review of the book. Click here to listen to an extended interview Reid did with National Public Radio.