Reflecting on a year with Kentucky’s interesting people, places

When people ask about my job, I say that writing three newspaper columns a week is a lot like being a restaurant chef: you want everything to be good, but it must be done on time.

A good columnist is part reporter, part editorial writer and part storyteller. Thanks to a constant stream of reader feedback, I know when I’m hitting the mark.

As I looked back over my 140 or so columns in 2012, some patterns emerged. For one thing, I wrote a lot about old houses. That was partly because I renovated and moved into an old house in a great urban neighborhood this year.

Readers could relate to my columns about that experience, especially my guilt at needing to get rid of a half-century of National Geographic magazines. Thanks to readers, those magazines are now being put to use by two schools and an artist.

While researching my “new” home, I was put in touch with a woman who grew up there between 1924 and 1943. She told me about the house, including her childhood “secret hiding place” behind the wall of an upstairs bedroom.

I wrote about Kentucky homes and buildings much older, grander and more interesting than mine: Helm Place; Spindletop Hall; Floral Hall; Lafayette Academy; the Ripy mansion in Lawrenceburg; Ward Hall in Georgetown; Bethlehem Farm near Paris; and, most interesting of all, mysterious Elmwood mansion in Richmond.

I also wrote about new architecture and development: the never-ending saga of CentrePointe; redevelopment plans for parking lots around Rupp Arena; ideas for turning long-buried Town Branch Creek into a linear downtown park; and Parkside, Holly Wiedemann’s impressive affordable housing development.

I indulged my passion for local history whenever it seemed relevant to current events.

I told the story behind George Yeaman, a once-obscure Owensboro congressman made famous in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln. I talked with archaeologist Nancy O’Malley about her dig at Fort Boonesborough.

I learned about native cane to satisfy my curiosity as to why so many Central Kentucky places are named for a plant that has all but disappeared. I marked Black History Month in February with a series of columns, ranging from Lexington’s central role in the slave trade to the pioneering practice of Dr. Mary Britton.

Being a columnist is a great excuse to get to know and write about some of Kentucky’s most interesting people.

Writer Wendell Berry gave me a preview of his Jefferson Lecture. Katerina Stoykova-Klemer told me about her journey from Bulgaria to Lexington, and from engineering to poetry and publishing. Jacqueline Roberts recalled her years singing with balladeer John Jacob Niles. And fourth- and fifth-generation horse doctors Ed and Luke Fallon discussed how equine medicine has changed.

Along the way, I told the stories of three World War II veterans, businessman Stuart Utgaard’s spectacular rise, fall and rebound and Glenn Acree, the chief judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals who moonlights as a rock ‘n’ roll musician.

Some Business Monday columns profiled local institutions such as Chevy Chase Hardware, Michler’s Florist and Quillin Leather & Tack. Others looked at new, innovative startups such as CivicRush, Float Money and Bullhorn marketing.

Columnists are supposed to express opinions about current events and hot-button issues. So, like it or not, you heard what I think about big-money politics, gun control, climate change, corporate welfare, gay rights, health care reform and the “war on coal.”

Thanks to the Internet, local columnists can be read more widely than ever before. Luisa Sancen, a Mexican-born scientist living in Canada, sent me an email in January. She had been reading my column online for weeks to learn about Lexington because her engineer-husband had been offered a job here.

She asked me to tell her why they should move to Lexington. My response became a column, published in January. I told her that Lexington could be a beautiful and friendly place to live, a city big enough to be interesting but small enough that a committed individual could make a difference.

As 2012 comes to a close, I am happy to report that they did move to Lexington. They and their young daughter now live a few blocks from me. I finally met them earlier this month, and Sancen gave me perhaps the best reader comment I received all year: “So far, everything you said about Lexington is true!”

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