Revenue Cabinet employee a finalist for Ireland’s Rose of Tralee

July 29, 2014

roseClaire Curran, left, of Frankfort, is as one of 23 finalists in the Rose of Tralee pageant, a 55-year-old competition next month for young women of Irish ancestry. Lexington’s Irish community threw a sendoff party for her Saturday night at McCarthy’s Irish Bar. Among the well-wishers was Penny O’Brien, right. Photo by Tom Eblen

What Miss America is to this country, the Rose of Tralee is to Ireland. And for the first time in the competition’s 55-year-history, a Kentuckian is a finalist for the crown.

McCarthy’s Irish Bar was packed Saturday night as the Lexington Celtic Association threw a sendoff “hooley” for Claire Curran, complete with traditional Irish musicians and the McTeggart step dancers.

Curran, 23, spent four days in Ireland in May competing against more than 60 young women of Irish descent from Ireland and as far away as New Zealand and Dubai. She will soon head back. The 23 finalists will make appearances around Ireland and take part in festival activities for two weeks before this year’s Rose is chosen during two televised broadcasts from Tralee’s Festival Dome, Aug. 18-19.

“For us, this is huge,” said Liza Hendley Betz, a Dublin native who owns Failte, The Irish Shop. “As a kid in Ireland, watching the Rose of Tralee on television was a family tradition. Now to think that our Kentucky Rose could win it all.”

The Rose of Tralee began in 1959 as a local pageant in County Kerry, taking its name from a 19th century love ballad. It soon went national, and in 1967 opened to young women of Irish descent everywhere.

Ireland has fewer than 4.6 million people — only about 255,000 more than Kentucky. But for two centuries, Ireland’s biggest export has been people.

More than 10 percent of Kentucky residents are of Irish descent. Early Irish stone masons built many of Central Kentucky’s iconic limestone fences. The horse industry has lured hundreds of recent immigrants, who say Central Kentucky reminds them of home because of its lush green meadows and stone fences.

Betz estimates the area has at least 300 “off the boat” Irish, as she calls them. Irish comfort food for expatriates is a big draw for her imports shop. It shares an old red-and-green building on South Upper Street with McCarthy’s, where the bartenders know how to properly pour a pint of Guinness.

Betz and other Irish immigrants started a Kentucky Rose organizing committee, called a centre, in 2012. It joined a dozen other U.S. centres, as well as eight in Britain, four in Canada, two in continental Europe, seven in Australia and New Zealand and four in the Middle East. All 32 Irish counties have them.

“The first year, we had our event on St. Patrick’s Day out in the mud at CentrePointe,” Betz said. “It was almost comical, so we said we need to get serious about this.”

Curran was chosen from among eight contestants March 22 at the second annual Rose Ball at Saints Peter and Paul School. Betz said she is thrilled that a Kentucky girl made the finals this quickly.

The Rose of Tralee International Festival says it is not a beauty pageant. There is no swimsuit competition, and while contestants perform, their talent is not judged. The winner is selected based on her personality and ability to be a “confident, hardworking, intelligent role model” and goodwill ambassador.

Carole Whalen, who went to the preliminaries in Port Laoise, Ireland, thinks Curran impressed the judges with her wit and humor. During her talent performance, she dramatically unrolled a long scroll to read a funny poem she had written.

Curran said she was born in California, grew up in Frankfort and graduated from Murray State University. She works for the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet where, she said, “I’m one of those people in the division of sales and use tax who writes letters that make people’s day all over the Commonwealth.” Her hobby is acting.

“Being Irish has always been an important part of our family,” she said. “If my grandparents were still alive they would be beside themselves about this.”

Lexington’s Irish community raised several thousand dollars to help pay for Curran’s festival expenses.

“There’s so many Irish here, we try to help each other out,” said one of her sponsors, Pat Costello, an owner of the Thoroughbred firm Paramount Sales. “We grew up at home with the Rose of Tralee as a huge contest.”


Crisis of children at the border brings out worst in some adults

July 22, 2014

detainees

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

 

I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our Southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.

Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, “1 flag, language, country” and “Americans First.”

Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.

Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn’t ask for his help.

Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.

A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: “I’ll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits.”

Immigration controversies are nothing new. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants,” comedian Jon Stewart said recently.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.

Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that “swarthy” Germans “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

America’s immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.

On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?

Many of today’s protesters insist they aren’t against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly so — that America can’t take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters like those hanging banners that say “No Amnesty” are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today’s angry fringe abhors.

There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are “not our problem.” That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America’s chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive “banana republics” — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.

No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and her sister when they were young.

The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.

This a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.


Nurse’s daughter wonders: whatever happened to ‘Baby Strand’?

July 19, 2014

140720BabyStrand0001Edna Lester was a nursing student at Good Samaritan Hospital when the Lexington Herald photographed her holding “Baby Strand”, an infant abandoned in Lexington’s Strand Theater on the afternoon of Aug. 24, 1945. Lester’s daughter, Ann Riegl of Seattle, had heard about Baby Strand all of her life. She found the Herald clipping while cleaning out a drawer after her mother’s death and created a Facebook page to try to find out whatever happened.

 

Every family has a drawer of important papers and keepsakes. When Ann Riegl of Seattle was growing up, her family’s drawer included a front-page clipping from The Lexington Herald of Aug. 25, 1945. It showed her mother holding “Baby Strand.”

Edna Lester of Perryville was a nursing student at Good Samaritan Hospital when Lexington police brought in a 5-week-old baby boy. He was thin and sickly, but neatly dressed and wrapped in a blanket. Nurses nicknamed him Baby Strand.

The clipping said witnesses told police they found the child in the darkened Strand Theatre on Main Street after he started crying. They remembered having seen a young woman handling a bundle, then leaving the matinee.

“This is something she always kept,” Riegl said of her mother’s newspaper clipping. “We talked about it a few times, and she told about how the nurses doted on Baby Strand. I think she wondered about whatever happened to him.”

Edna Lester Norris died in 2008. Among the things Riegl kept from her mother’s keepsake drawer were the clipping and a print of the newspaper photograph.

“But those things don’t do much good if they’re just sitting in a drawer,” Riegl said. “So I thought I would at least put this information out there in case Baby Strand, who would be 69 years old now, might be looking for it, or his family might be.

“It would be good to know if you were in that situation that while Baby Strand was abandoned, he wasn’t discarded,” she added. “He was left fully clothed in a place where he would be found, with an extra gown tucked into his little blanket.”

I contacted Riegl after she created a Facebook page called “Baby Strand’s Story.” Wayne Johnson, a researcher at the Lexington Public Library, found more stories about the case in 1945 issues of the Herald and The Lexington Leader. At the Mercer County Public Library, I combed through Harrodsburg Herald microfilm from that year. Here is what we found:

Six days after Baby Strand was left in the theater, his mother was arrested in Mercer County. She was brought to Lexington, charged with child desertion and jailed after being granted a request to visit her child in the hospital.

The woman told police she grew up near Harrodsburg and that her parents were dead. She said she was engaged to the baby’s father, a soldier from her hometown, but he had been shipped off to fight the Japanese before they could marry.

She had left Kentucky a year earlier to work in a munitions factory in Indiana, but got sick and had to quit her job before she gave birth. The child was malnourished, she said, because he wouldn’t take formula.

Alone with an infant and little money, she got a bus ticket home. But when she arrived in Lexington, she discovered her luggage was lost. After several hours in the bus station that hot day, she took her baby to the air-conditioned Strand Theatre. Then, on an impulse, she walked out alone. Police identified her after her luggage arrived.

“I don’t know why I abandoned my baby and I wish I hadn’t done it,” she told a Lexington Herald reporter. “I haven’t been well since he was born and haven’t been able to work. I didn’t have much money and I thought if I left him somebody might find him who would give him a good home.”

She told the reporter that police had promised to find and contact the baby’s father, who didn’t know about his son’s birth. “And I hope they’ll let me have him back so I can take him home,” she said of the child.

The woman was soon released to the custody of relatives. While she awaited a court hearing, Baby Strand stayed at Good Samaritan, where he gained weight and charmed the hospital staff. When the hearing date arrived in October, the prosecutor dismissed the charges and indicated that Baby Strand would be returned to his mother.

That’s where the story seems to end. The Lexington and Danville papers had a lot of other news to report: World War II was ending and servicemen were coming home from battle. In Mercer County, many were returning from prisoner-of-war camps after having survived the infamous Bataan Death March.

A couple of things are worth noting about the press coverage of Baby Strand. Newspapers gave different last names for the mother. The Lexington papers called her Valley Collins, while the Harrodsburg Herald identified her as Valley Collier. Some of the reporting would now be considered unacceptably sexist. The mother is described as an “attractive 23-year-old blonde … unwed mother. Her hair was curled, her nails polished.” The father’s name was never reported.

Many questions remain. Did the child go back to his mother? Did the father survive the war? Did they marry? What became of Baby Strand?

When I called Riegl back to tell her what we found, she wondered if her mother might have unknowingly crossed paths with Baby Strand again. Thomas and Edna Norris moved to Harrodsburg in 1952. He was principal of Harrodsburg High School and she was a public health nurse. They left for Sedalia, Mo., in 1958.

“I hope if someone is looking, or wants to be found, this will help them,” Riegl said. “I hope Baby Strand has had a long and happy life.”

 


Book chronicles Lexington’s early ‘contemporary’ homebuilder

July 13, 2014

140709Isenhour0001This house,built on Breckenwood Drive in 1958, shows characteristics of Richard Isenhour’s contemporary homes: native Kentucky stone, lots of glass, cathedral ceilings, exposed post-and-beam construction and an effort to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.

“The kind of job I’d like would be one that’s creative and always changing, where I can see what I’m accomplishing,” he wrote Lenora Henry. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”

The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.

Richard Isenhour

Richard Isenhour

Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these “Isenhour houses” were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.

Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours’ four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father’s work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky(Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK’s new College of Medicine.

His first bold design was for his own family’s 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.

140709Isenhour0008Isenhour’s designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.

“Isenhour’s best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors,” Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book’s forward.

Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.

“I’ve loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. “I feel closed in when I’m in a regular home now where the ceilings are low.”

Larry Isenhour

Larry Isenhour

But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. “We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market,” the letter said.

Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father’s death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father’s best work to show how it evolved.

“I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans,” he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.

At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.

When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.

“She said, ‘I can’t do a contract on a house when you haven’t even seen the inside,’” he recalled. “I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That’s all the information I needed to know.”

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Scholars, curators get close look at early Kentucky art history

July 12, 2014

140709MESDA0279Robert Leath, chief curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., held a drawer from an early Kentucky chest so he and students in MESDA’s Summer Institute could see the interior construction. The chest is part of an exhibit of early Frankfort-made furniture now on display at the Governor’s Mansion. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Most people think early Kentucky was only a place of log cabins and coonskin caps. They don’t imagine that Kentuckians two centuries ago were producing great paintings, fine silverware and inlaid furniture as elegant as anything coming out of Philadelphia or New York.

Last week, 10 up-and-coming scholars and museum curators got a traveling lesson in Kentucky’s rich history of visual art and craftsmanship.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., brought its prestigious Summer Institute to Kentucky for the first time. Students, faculty and guests got an intensive five-day tour of Central Kentucky landmarks and some of the state’s most valuable public and private collections.

“These are going to be the museum and institution leaders of the near future, and they have the potential to bring a lot of attention to Kentucky,” said Mack Cox of Madison County, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky furniture, paintings and long rifles. “We’re way behind (other states) in understanding and rediscovering our decorative arts past.”

I caught up with the group Wednesday morning at the Governor’s Mansion, where Cox was giving MESDA students and faculty an animated tour of an exhibit of pieces made by Frankfort artists between 1790 and 1820. They ranged from the sophisticated cabinetmaker William Lowry to convicts at the old state penitentiary, who made simple but elegant chairs.

“What you’re seeing, Kentuckians largely don’t know about,” Cox told the group, noting that such utilitarian objects as long rifles and powder horns were sometimes turned into beautiful works of art with elaborate engraving and metalwork.

The exhibit, part of the mansion’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes pieces from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the private collections of Cox, Mel Hankla of Jamestown and Tom Meng and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.

(The exhibit is free and open to the public during mansion tour hours through Aug. 26. For more information about the mansion and centennial events, such as a cocktail reception July 25, go to: governorsmansion.ky.gov.)

As Cox described each piece and the research that went into figuring out who made it and when, the students took photos and used little flashlights to examine details.

140709MESDA0137From Frankfort, the group traveled to Lexington for a tour of African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, which has been restored in recent years. Its 5,000 graves include those of black Civil War soldiers and famous jockeys and trainers.

The group visited the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hunt-Morgan House and Pope Villa, two of Lexington’s most significant early 1800s mansions, and then went to Madison County to see White Hall, home of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay.

Other stops during the week included the William Whitley House in Stanford; the Old Capitol and Liberty Hall in Frankfort; Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County; the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville; Hopewell Museum and Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County and the Filson Historical Society and Locus Grove mansion in Louisville.

Before their trip, the students spent two weeks attending classes. When they return to North Carolina, they must finish Kentucky-related research projects and papers. Graduate-level course credit is awarded through the University of Virginia.

In his talk to the group, Cox pointed out stylistic traits of several significant Kentucky portrait painters of the early 1800s, including William Edward West. Because some of their paintings have been misattributed over the years to Matthew Jouett, the state’s best-known early portraitist, many Kentuckians don’t know how much talent was working here at the time, he said.

Catherine Carlisle, an art history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes her summer project will shed new light on one of those little-known Kentucky artists, Alexander Bradford.

“I’m thrilled to be able to see so many examples of the beautiful, beautiful portraits that were coming out of Kentucky, and so early,” she said.

While some of the students had never been to Kentucky, and knew little about its artistic heritage, it was a homecoming for Grant Quertermous, the assistant curator at James Madison’s Montpelier estate near Orange, Va. He is from Paducah.

“I really wanted to do this one,” he said. “It has been great to give everyone exposure to Kentucky.”

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Yes, I wrote this column while sitting on my porch

July 8, 2014

When I traveled the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution years ago, I noticed a lot of statues of Confederate soldiers on courthouse lawns. I always thought Willis H. Carrier would have been a better choice to memorialize.

After all, the inventor of air conditioning helped make the region comfortable and prosperous, turning the Sleepy South into the Sun Belt. But Carrier’s invention had a drawback, too. Southerners started building houses without porches.

I have lived most of my life in houses built since 1950. One had a patio. Another had a breezeway between the house and garage. Another had a “decorative” front porch too narrow to be of any use.

A couple of my houses had decks. The large deck I built on the back of my 1950s Atlanta home was especially nice. But decks are inferior to porches. There is no roof, and deck railings are rarely as elegant as porch columns and balusters.

porchMy current house was built in 1907. It has a long, wide front porch and a large screened-in back porch, both equipped with ceiling fans. For most of three seasons each year, they are my favorite places to sit and relax. And on cool, low-humidity weekends like this past one, they can be little corners of heaven.

Front porches and back porches are very different places.

My front porch is a public extension of the living room. There is a spring-cushioned swing and two antique rocking chairs I bought cheap from people who thought, as my wife did when I brought them home, that they were worn out.

Both came with caned bottoms and seats that had seen better days. One was re-caned for me by a friend who is an excellent craftsman, in addition to being a retired physician and Air Force general. The other chair may be beyond hope, as the wooden frame looks as bad as the splintered seat and back. It is reserved for skinny visitors.

Old porch rockers have a design feature that makes them superior to those now sold at places such as Home Depot and Cracker Barrel: the back rails are steam-bent just above the seat. As President John F. Kennedy famously discovered, this bend tilts the back to the optimum angle for comfort, whether you are trying to run the world or simply watch it go by.

Front porches are all about watching the world. They are places for getting to know those who live around you, as well as for keeping the neighborhood safe and secure by providing what the urban analyst Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”.

I have a tradition with a fellow journalist who lives at the end of my street. About once a week, around 6 p.m., one or the other of us will hear the familiar “ding” of an iPhone text message. “Beer on porch?”

On either my porch or his, we discuss life and solve the world’s problems. An award-winning poet recently moved in around the corner, and I have invited him to join us. That should elevate the conversation a notch or two.

Rather than a living room, my back porch is more like an outdoor den, shielded from neighbors and screened from mosquitoes. Becky and I each have a pillowed wicker chair, and there is a dining table barely big enough for two. It is where we go to escape the world rather than to engage or watch it.

We read the newspaper on the back porch most mornings and have dinner there many evenings. It is a great place to relax, if we can ignore the fact that the back yard needs weeding, pruning or watering. Chores should never be visible from a porch.

My porches are cozy places to watch a rain shower, if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. They are ideal for listening to birds and tree frogs — and enjoying the aroma of roasting peanuts from the nearby Jif peanut butter factory.

During this past winter-from-hell, I got a surprise one morning when I looked out at the back porch. The wind had been so strong overnight that an inch of fine snow had been sifted through the screens, covering wicker chairs and all.

So, after I shoveled my sidewalk and front steps, I shoveled my screened-in porch, thinking how funny that would seem come July.


Knoxville had a plan for revitalizing its historic downtown

July 7, 2014

knox1Knoxville’s Market Square, which dates to the 1850s, has been restored as a restaurant and entertainment district with plenty of nearby parking. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I hadn’t spent any time in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1988, when I moved away after living there for seven years. I went back recently, and I was impressed with downtown’s transformation.

Knoxville was never a place I associated with good urban design. Planning and zoning always seemed haphazard, at best. Suburbia sprawled out for decades, mostly westward along traffic-choked Kingston Pike.

Like Lexington, two major Interstate highways converge in Knoxville. But instead of going around the city, as was thankfully done in Lexington, I-40 and I-75 went through the middle of Knoxville.

The infamous “Malfunction Junction” was improved while I was living there in the early 1980s, but it still left Knoxville cut up by expressways, on-ramps, off-ramps, bridges and a maze of one-way streets. It was a confusing place to drive, and a difficult place to walk or bike.

Many of those problems remain, but downtown is a different story.

knox2Long a conservative city with divisive politics, Knoxville leaders finally came together to organize the 1982 World’s Fair, which rehabilitated a former downtown railroad yard. That began a transformation that has made Knoxville’s city center the kind of happening place downtown Lexington aspires to be.

I spent a week in Knoxville recently, biking with friends in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and dining each night at restaurants along Market Square and Gay Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

When I worked in downtown Knoxville as The Associated Press correspondent, some of its old buildings were vacant and many were in need of repair. When office workers went home each evening, the city center became a ghost town.

“You and I can remember when tumbleweed blew down the streets in the evenings,” joked Alan Carmichael, an old friend who owns a downtown public relations firm, Moxley Carmichael, with his wife, Cynthia Moxley. “Now people pour in from the ‘burbs” for restaurants, bars, outdoor concerts and frequent festivals.

One big factor in downtown Knoxville’s revitalization has been historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings, such as the old JFG Coffee plant and Sterchi furniture company, which are now loft apartments.

It began with the World’s Fair, which restored the old L&N Railroad depot. But the big efforts came in the past decade with restoration of the Tennessee and Bijou theaters on Gay Street and the shops along Market Square, which date to the 1850s.

“We have very few old buildings downtown that haven’t been restored,” said Rick Emmett, the city’s downtown coordinator. “Now we’re spreading that to some of the historic commercial areas beyond downtown.”

Downtown’s restored charm and activity has attracted the chain retailers Mast General Store and Urban Outfitters. Regal Riviera, a new eight-screen movie theater complex, was tastefully integrated into Gay Street.

What made most of that possible was city government’s investment in infrastructure, combined with creative city partnerships with business to finance development.

Perhaps the biggest city investment has been in parking garages a block or two from major pedestrian areas. Parking is free on weekends and after 6 p.m. on weeknights.

The city owns and operates six of 12 major downtown garages. Another garage is under construction. The city donated the land and private interests are building the garage. As part of the deal, evening and weekend parking will be free to the public in perpetuity, Emmett said.

Knoxville’s downtown parking is marketed well, with maps, a smartphone app and a website, Parkdowntownknoxville.com.

“Knoxville has a compact, walkable downtown, but most people have to drive to get there,” Carmichael said. The garages have “made a huge difference in terms of bringing people downtown.”

Another key has been the Central Business Improvement District, funded by an extra tax on downtown property owners. It was controversial when created in 1993 — just as attempts to create one in Lexington have been controversial — but it has been a big success, said Carmichael and Emmett, who both serve on the board.

The tax generates more than $500,000 a year for infrastructure, beautification and grants and loans to help downtown businesses restore historic building façades. Some money also is used to sponsor frequent festivals and events that bring people downtown.

“What that has allowed us to do is fill in the gaps,” Emmett said of the improvement district. “I think it has been huge.”

knox3City-owned parking garages on side streets near popular pedestrian areas has made it easy for visitors and suburbanites to come downtown to dine and shop. 

 


Carnegie Center asks: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

July 5, 2014

WendellBerryThe Carnegie Center is asking for nominations of Kentucky’s greatest living writer for its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. My nomination is Wendell Berry, shown here at his Henry County home in December 2012.  Whom would you choose?  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has a new message as it seeks public nominations for its third class of inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: We’re not just for dead folks anymore.

In January, the center plans to add four more Kentucky writers who are no longer living to the 13 already in the Hall of Fame, plus its first living writer. So here is the question: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

“We are ready to show that great Kentucky writing is being created now,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “It just doesn’t exist in the past.”

halloffamelogoThe criteria for all nominations is that a writer, living or dead, must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a significant connection to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

Since he became director in 2011, Chethik has expanded the Carnegie Center’s mission of promoting literacy education, reading and writing to celebrating Kentucky’s literary heritage. One way has been by creating the Hall of Fame.

“People like lists,” he said. “They like awards.”

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are vetted by the Carnegie Center staff and inductees are chosen by a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

The first 13 inductees have reflected a diverse group of great writers spanning two centuries: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

“People have a lot of passion about who gets named to the Hall of Fame,” Chethik said. “We’ve even had some protests.”

For example, fans of two popular novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., have lobbied for their inclusion. So have fans of the late “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

They and others will be considered in the future, Chethik said, along with perhaps one living writer each year.

“I think we’ve got five-to-10 who are truly great writers working right now who are nationally known,” he said. “You can start making a list, but as soon as you start … well, I’ll leave it to you and others to make the list.”

I can think of several Kentucky writers who have produced impressive bodies of work over several decades, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Nikky Finney, Gurney Norman and Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks.

Kim Edwards of Lexington has won many awards for her short stories and best-selling novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louisville native Sue Grafton has attracted a national following with her detective novels.

There are many fine up-and-coming Kentucky writers, such as Frank X. Walker, Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reece, Crystal Wilkinson, Maurice Manning and Bianca Spriggs.

You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.

Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.

Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia.

That’s my nomination for Kentucky’s greatest living writer. What’s yours? Email your suggestion, plus your reasoning and any supporting material, before July 15 to Chethik at: neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

“We figure that when you’re arguing about who the best writers are, you’re in the right conversation,” Chethik said. “We want to spark conversations that will get more people to read more.”


Parents want to restore, not replace, Jacobson Park playground

July 1, 2014

JacobsonThe Jacobson Park playground was built in 1993.  Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

When Rachel Carpenter heard that the huge “creative” playgrounds that more than 2,000 community volunteers built at Jacobson and Shillito parks in 1992 and 1993 are to be torn down and replaced, she was alarmed. So were many of her friends.

The mothers say their toddlers can play for hours on these sprawling wooden structures, with their castle turrets, bridges, slides, chutes and myriad nooks to “hide” in and explore.

But they worry that the replacements will be like most new playgrounds they see: designed to be so safety-conscious and risk-averse that they don’t inspire creativity and are simply not much fun for kids.

Carpenter said she and her husband, Charles, took their 2-year-old daughter, Corabell, to the new metal-and-plastic playground at Masterson Station Park once. “We’re not impressed,” she said. “It’s flashy. But after 25 minutes, she was bored and left to play in the tall grass nearby.”

The recently passed city budget includes up to $300,000 to replace the Jacobson Park playground this year, and Lexington Parks & Recreation hopes to get funding next year to replace the smaller one at Shillito Park.

Carpenter has created a “Save Jacobson Park Playground!” Facebook page and launched an online petition that has attracted more than 300 signatures and the attention of several Urban County Council members.

“I think they underestimate how much people like the park the way it is,” said Carpenter, who would rather see taxpayer money used to refurbish and maintain the existing playgrounds. She cited the example of a similar creative playground in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, that was built in 1993 and restored last year.

Brad Chambers, the city’s new Parks & Recreation director, said he wasn’t aware of any serious injuries or lawsuits involving the playgrounds. But he said there are safety concerns because the wooden structures have deteriorated with age.

Chambers said the playgrounds do not meet some current safety codes and accessibility rules, and they have become a maintenance challenge because of the wood splintering, warping and rotting.

“It’s like any wood that has been outdoors for 20-plus years,” he said. “Our concern is obviously going to be safety.”

But Chambers said officials have made no decisions about the design or materials for the new Jacobson Park playground. He said the department plans to schedule several public meetings later this summer to hear from citizens about what kind of new playground they want and to present options.

The Jacobson and Shillito park playgrounds were the largest of four built in the early 1990s. Two others, at the Dunbar Community Center and Picadome Elementary School, were torn down in 2008. At that time, city officials said it was more time-consuming to maintain the unique wooden playgrounds than factory-made play equipment.

Funding for the four creative playgrounds was provided by the city, businesses and foundations, and most of the labor came from citizen volunteers. Jacobson Park’s playground was the largest, costing $87,000 and involving 2,500 volunteers. The projects were led by the citizens group Friends of the Parks, then chaired by Sandy Shafer, who later was elected to the Urban County Council.

“I knew there would be this day,” Shafer said. “These playgrounds have a life of 20 or 25 years, because they’re built with treated lumber just like your deck.”

Shafer said the playgrounds have served the community well. But just as valuable, she said, was the community spirit created by the volunteers who built them. She said many volunteers have told her over the years that they took special pride in bringing children, grandchildren and out-of-town visitors to the playgrounds because they helped build them.

“I wish we could do more community-build projects,” she said. “They have a value, like the old-fashioned barn-raisings, because you work with and get to know people you might otherwise not come in contact with.”

Shafer said she was shopping at a home-improvement store Monday when a woman who lives in the old Dunbar-Russell School area of North Lexington recognized her and spoke.

“You’re Sandy Shafer, aren’t you?” she said the woman asked, adding, “You helped build my community by putting a playground over there.”


RIP Howard Baker, the kind of politician we need more of today

June 30, 2014

Baker-Eblen

While I was on vacation in Knoxville last week, riding bicycles with a group of friends, I heard the news that former Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr., 88, had died at his East Tennessee home. He was one of the classiest politicians I ever got to know as a journalist.

I interviewed Baker many times as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the years I lived in Tennessee, 1980-1988.

Baker also was the subject of one of my favorite portraits, shown above. I had gone to the Knoxville Zoo to write a short AP story about Baker donating a baby elephant. After the press conference, I stayed until after the other reporters had left. Baker’s hobby was photography, and it didn’t take him long to retrieve his Leica M from an aide and start taking pictures of his symbolic gift.

Baker was a Republican, through and through. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both of his wives had Republican pedigrees. Joy Dirksen was the daughter of the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen. Three years after she died of cancer in 1993, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor who was the GOP presidential nominee in 1936.

But Baker was nothing like the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress now, who would try to stop the sun from rising if they thought it would cast President Barack Obama in a favorable light. In fact, Baker’s rise to fame and respect began during the Watergate hearings when he famously framed the central question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The answers to that question would drive Republican Richard Nixon from office.

As a reporter, I always found Baker to be honest, straightforward, friendly and more interested in what was good for the country than just what was good for his party. We could use more like him in Washington today.


Photo exhibit explores friendship between Merton and Meatyard

June 14, 2014

140615Merton-Meatyard0001Thomas Merton, left, in his monk’s robe, poses in his garden at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County with Guy Davenport, a writer who taught at the University of Kentucky.  Photos courtesy of Christopher Meatyard.

 

They would seem an unlikely pair, the Catholic monk and the optician. But through their shared interests in photography and Zen philosophy, these two creative spirits of mid-20th century Kentucky became close friends and collaborators.

Thomas Merton was a trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, and much more. He was a best-selling author of more than 70 books, a poet, an artist and a proponent of interfaith understanding who would gain international fame.

Eugene_Meatyard_Neg1967_Print1990_17_Spotted_CMYK_FLAT_150dpiRalph Eugene Meatyard earned his living making eyeglasses in Lexington. But he would later earn fame in the art world for his original, haunting photographs that often depicted masked or blurry models. His much-collected images are still published in books and shown at the nation’s most prestigious art museums.

The all-too-brief friendship between Merton and Meatyard is the subject of a photography exhibit that opens Wednesday at Institute 193, the tiny, non-profit gallery at 193 North Limestone.

The opening reception for the exhibit, Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton, is 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, during Gallery Hop. The free show runs through July 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

This exhibit includes 17 of the 29 Meatyard photographs that were shown in Louisville in May 2013 during the visit of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who also was a friend of Merton.

The exhibit was originally organized by the Institute for Contemplative Practice and the Center for Interfaith Relations. Fons Vitae, a Louisville-based publisher of academic works about spirituality, produced an accompanying book, Meatyard/Merton, Merton/Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton ($20.)

The Institute 193 show is partially sponsored by Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, which has a Thomas Merton study group. The group plans to meet in the gallery while the show is up.

140615Merton-Meatyard0006“I think it creates a lot of opportunities for us to engage a different audience,” said Phillip March Jones, the founder of Institute 193. “And it probably does the same for them.”

Jonathan Williams, the late poet and publisher, introduced Meatyard and Merton in 1967. They immediately hit it off and visited together several times with other artistic friends, including Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s elder statesman of literature, and the late Guy Davenport, a writer and University of Kentucky professor who in 1990 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

“Jonathan Williams, Guy Davenport and Gene Meatyard were here yesterday,” Merton wrote in his journal on June 18, 1967. “The one who made the greatest impression on me was Gene Meatyard, the photographer — does marvelous arresting visionary things, most haunting and suggestive, mythical photography I ever saw. I felt that here was someone really going somewhere.”

Some photos taken during their visits are classic Meatyard: dark and sometimes blurry images that include props and old buildings. Merton appears to be an eager subject, posing symbolically in various costumes, from work clothes to his Cistercian monk’s robe. In one set of pictures, he goofs around with a thyrsus, a decorated stick that was an ancient symbol of pleasure.

But some of the photos are just snapshots of friends enjoying each other’s company, much like we would take today with our smartphones and post to Facebook. Merton sips beer at a picnic, or poses outdoors with the late poet Denise Levertov and Berry, who holds a coffee cup. Merton also is photographed using his own camera.

In addition to writing and photography, Merton expressed himself with drawings and hand-inked prints he called calligraphies. Meatyard exhibited them in the lobby of his Lexington optical shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, and bought some to help finance Merton’s trip to Asia in 1968.

While on that trip, in Bangkok, Thailand, Merton was accidently electrocuted by a fan while stepping out of his bath. He was 53. Within four years, Meatyard also would be dead, a victim of cancer eight days before his 47th birthday.

“A lot of people don’t realize that they had this relationship, which unfortunately lasted slightly less than two years,” Jones said. “For me these are really portraits of friendship and of a time and a place that no longer exists in the same way.”

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Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.


A sedimental journey back 450 million years beneath CentrePointe

June 7, 2014

140531CentrePit-TE0024 Looking up to Main Street from the bottom of the CentrePointe pit. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When most of us think about the CentrePointe block’s history, we focus on its role as a center of Lexington commerce for two centuries.

But over the past 12 weeks, as more than 60,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock have been blasted, dug and hauled off the block to make way for CentrePointe’s huge underground parking garage, some people have expressed a deeper curiosity.

So I called Frank Ettensohn, a University of Kentucky geology professor, and asked him to take developer Dudley Webb and me on a sedimental journey. We walked around the bottom of CentrePit as the geologist described a much older history.

“Each of these layers is like a page in a book,” said Ettensohn, a specialist in the sedimentary rock layers of the Inner Bluegrass region known as the Lexington Limestone. “If you know how to read the pages you can see all sorts of things going on here.”

140531CentrePit-TE0002After digging out about 10 feet of dirt and clay, Hunt Construction’s excavation crews hit solid rock, which they dislodged with nearly 50 blasts, said project manager Tim Linde. By mid-June, they will finish removing all of that material to a depth of nearly 40 feet. As many as 475 dump trucks a day took dirt to R.J. Corman’s railroad yard, while truckloads of rock went to C&R Asphalt for recycling.

With a rock hammer in hand, Ettensohn walked us around the bottom perimeter of the pit and explained how the layers of limestone above us were formed during what geologists call the Late Ordovician period. That was about 450 million years ago, give or take a few million years.

Central Kentucky was then part of a continent called Laurentia, which now forms the core of North America. The East and West Coasts weren’t there yet, and neither was much of the Southeast. Florida was still part of Africa.

“This area was a very shallow sea, maybe 60 feet deep, much like what we see in the Bahamas today,” Ettensohn said. It was a sub-tropical region, because Central Kentucky was about 20 degrees south of the Equator, instead of 38 degrees north of it, as it is today.

“These plates move all over, and they’re moving now as we stand here,” he said. “But it’s a very, very slow process.”

The Lexington Limestone is between 200 feet and 320 feet thick. It is made up of 11 different types, each named for a place where there is a notable example.

Ettensohn said CentrePointe has two types. Excavation exposed the top of a Grier layer, which may extend another 200 feet below the ground. It is named for the Grier’s Creek area of Woodford County. Above the Grier is a thin Brannon layer, named for the area around Brannon Road near the Jessamine-Fayette county line.

The layers are different, he said, because a mountain-building event on the east side of the continent sent sea water and sediment rushing this way, eventually forming the Brannon.

Along the pit’s wall below Limestone Street, Ettensohn pointed out a brown stripe of bentonite — a thin layer of volcanic ash from a prehistoric eruption. He also saw evidence of ancient earthquakes. “We know there were at least three major earthquake events that gave rise to the deformation in the Brannon,” he said.

Fine-grained limestone indicates eras of deep water, he said, while coarse-grained limestone was formed in shallow water. Ettensohn pointed to areas of coarse rock that would have been giant dunes migrating with water flows along the sea bottom.

Hurricane-like storms helped form many of the limestone layers, he said. Thin layers of muddy shale between them are evidence of calmer periods of geological history.

Limestone is made mostly of calcium carbonate, the remains of small creatures that lived at the bottom of these shallow seas. “They died and their shells were reworked by storms,” he said.

The most common creatures whose fossil fragments are still visible in the limestone were crinoids and bryozoans, which looked more like small, twiggy bushes than animals, and brachiopods, which resemble clams.

Ettensohn picked up a small rock and pointed to tiny sparkling specks, the pulverized remains of ancient star fish and sea urchins. Then he found a fossil fragment of a trilobite, a long-extinct animal that looked something like a crab.

“They’re not particularly good,” he said of the fossils, “because they’ve been shattered to heck and back.”

But these billions upon billions of crushed sea creatures left a sturdy foundation for Lexington, whose existence will be no more than a blip in geological history.

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Calumet book author to speak at Carnegie Center about writing

June 3, 2014

When Ann Hagedorn was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, her father would bring her to Lexington each spring break and they would visit horse farms. The most memorable one was Calumet.

“Calumet was always what he told us was the example of excellence,” she recalled, from the farm’s freshly painted white fences to its spotlessly clean barns.

So in 1991, when she was a Wall Street Journal reporter covering major corporate bankruptcies, she was both heartbroken and curious when she read that Calumet had filed for bankruptcy.

Hagedorn came to Lexington to read through the court file, figuring there was a good front-page story to be written. She soon realized this story of greed would also make a good book. Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Calumet Farm Inc. was published in 1994.

HagedornHagedorn will return to Lexington on Friday to be the keynote speaker at the third annual Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Other speakers include Frank X. Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and beekeeping mystery writer Abigail Keam.

The conference is designed to help people through the challenging process of writing a book and getting it published. For more information, and to register to attend, go to: Carnegiecenterlex.org.

“What we’re trying to do is create a sense of community among writers,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “While writing is a solitary endeavor, writers need a lot of help and support.”

Hagedorn, who has known Chethik since they were both reporters at the San Jose Mercury News in California, said she never planned to leave daily journalism for book writing; it was a natural evolution.

After Wild Ride was published, she returned to the Wall Street Journal and soon became fascinated with the subject of her second book, Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping, published in 1998.

“As much as I missed the newsroom, I decided this is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I started believing in the importance of narrative non-fiction books and kept finding topics.”

Her next three books were on diverse topics, but they shared a theme: periods of American history, from the 1830s to the present, when democracy has been under severe stress.

Hagedorn’s third book, published in 2003, was Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. It told about men and women in southern Ohio who risked their lives for years to end slavery. The American Library Association named it one of the 25 most notable books of the year.

Next, she wrote Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. Through narratives of key individuals, it told the story of the tumultuous year after World War I ended that gave birth to modern civil liberties. The 2007 book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

On Sept. 2, Simon & Shuster will publish Hagedorn’s fifth book, The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. She said the book explores the recent rise of the private military and security industry, how these companies operate and why Americans should be concerned.

“I try to find stories or topics that I feel are important and need to be told through the narrative, non-fiction genre to make them more accessible,” she said.

Hagedorn said her talk Friday will focus on the lives of writers: “Who we are, what we do and how we can do it the very best we can. The larger theme is that we’re all in this together in terms of our quest, and in terms of the learning process.”

She also will lead a session on story structure, which she finds both the most challenging and rewarding part of writing.

Hagedorn said many people want to write, but success requires practice, hard work and a desire to keep learning. Even successful writers struggle, she said, recalling an interview she once had with the late Norman Mailer.

“He said he could not believe that every single time he did a book he felt challenged and scared and he learned a lot of new things about writing,” she said. “That’s the wonderful part. That’s the scary part. That’s what discourages people and makes them stop sometimes. It’s really what should drive you. Always around the corner there’s something new to learn. It shouldn’t defeat you, it should empower you.”


Logan’s of Lexington celebrates 50 years of family business success

May 26, 2014

Logans

Betty Logan and her sons Steve, left, and Elliot are marking Logan’s of Lexington’s 50th year. Logan’s was founded as a variety store in Midway by Betty’s husband, the late Harlan Logan, in 1964.Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Harlan and Betty Logan grew up in Lewis County, married at 18 and decided to go into business for themselves. Their first venture was a nine-stool diner in downtown in Nicholasville, and the work was exhausting.

Still, they managed to save $10,000 in five years. “We worked so many hours we didn’t have time to spend it,” she said.

The couple used their earnings to buy a variety store in Midway in 1964. There, they had the opposite problem: few customers. “We were very fortunate to hang in there,” she said.

In desperation, Harlan finally decided to refocus the store on fine clothing. It turned out to be a smart move. Logan’s of Lexington menswear is celebrating its 50th year in business and, the family says, doing better than ever.

Harlan Logan died in December at age 74, but most of his family remains involved in the business to some degree. Sons Steve, 46, and Elliot, 43, run the place with help from Betty and her three sisters, Judy, Pearl and Molly.

Elliot’s father-in-law, Wally Schmidt, works in the stock room. Elliot’s wife, Carol, and Steve’s wife, Misty, come in to help when needed.

“We have a very close family,” Elliot said.

Salesman Darrell McCarty has been with Logan’s for 22 years, and Jamie Burch has worked at the store for 14 years.

After Harlan decided to focus on high-end clothing in 1966, he traveled to New York City to get ideas for the store.

“He was always very progressive,” Elliot said. “He had a sixth sense about when a line was going to be hot or when something was going to be in fashion.”

The Midway store started attracting a regional clientele. “We had a lot of midnight sales,” Betty recalled. “We would have the whole town of Midway packed with cars.”

A Versailles warehouse store was added, then franchised stores in Georgetown and Nicholasville. Those closed in the late 1980s, and operations were moved and consolidated in Lexington’s Tates Creek Center in 1992.

“This has been our best location,” said Betty, but its small size prompted the family to drop women’s clothes and focus on menswear.

The store’s most memorable day came in January 2003. Just before Christmas, an elderly woman had come in looking for a shoehorn. Harlan gave her one, free of charge, adding that if her husband ever needed clothing she should bring him in. She did just that a few weeks later. By the time the couple finished shopping about 2:30 a.m., the cash register total was $35,600.

Small clothing stores have struggled in recent years. Men dress up less often for both work and pleasure, and independent retailers have been squeezed by big retail chains.

Lexington’s oldest menswear store, Graves, Cox & Co., began a going-out-of-business sale last week as owner Leonard Cox prepares to retire. His grandfather co-founded the business in 1888. Cox said two Georgia investors plan to open a men’s store in the same location, 325 West Main Street.

The Logan brothers said their business has stayed strong by diversifying and keeping up with trends. “We had a record year last year,” Elliot said. “This year has been even better.”

Although suits, sport coats and accessories are still the foundation of the business, high-end sportswear and “dress casual” clothing has become a growth area.

Steve has worked on marketing to University of Kentucky and Transylvania University students by using social media, attending fraternity events and recruiting a dozen students as campus representatives each semester.

“I’ve told those guys on campus, we were your dad’s store for a long time, but we’ve got a lot of things for you now if you come and take a look,” he said.

The store carries Southern Tide, a popular youth-oriented line of preppy clothing. Twice annual trunk shows pack the store with college men. “It’s great to see the next generation walking through your door,” Steve said.

Looking toward the future, Betty hopes some or all of her four granddaughters will be interested in keeping the business in the family. Steve has three daughters — Tori, Abby and Kailyn — and Elliot has one daughter, Taylor.

“Our days as a men’s store may be numbered,” Elliot said. “The future of Logan’s is probably a ladies’ shop.”


NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press

 

Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

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Once Kentucky’s biggest cash crop, it’s high time hemp returned

May 19, 2014

hempknightPhotographer Thomas A. Knight took this photo of hemp stacks in the early 1900s. 

 

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer last week sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, seeking the release of 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds for planting in Kentucky test plots this spring.

Kentucky is one of 10 states seeking to once again legalize the production of industrial hemp, which has been banned since World War II because of resemblance to its botanical cousin, marijuana.

Hemp has only a fraction of the chemical THC that makes marijuana narcotic, so it has virtually no drug value. But states seeking to re-establish America’s industrial hemp industry have met stiff resistance from the DEA.

Hemp was Central Kentucky’s biggest cash crop during most of the 19th century, because the plant’s oil, seeds and fibers were very useful for such things as rope, fabric and even paper. But after prohibitionists began outlawing marijuana in the 1930s, hemp fell victim to guilt by association.

Could hemp become a big Kentucky industry again? Probably not. Should it be allowed to make a comeback as part of agriculture diversification? Absolutely. Banning hemp has never made much sense. And since nearly half the states have acted to decriminalize or allow limited marijuana use, it makes even less sense.

 


War on Poverty vets see lessons for today’s Appalachia reformers

May 13, 2014

BEREA — The War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary has reignited debate about its effect on places such as Eastern Kentucky, where President Lyndon B. Johnson famously came to launch the “war” from a Martin County laborer’s front porch.

Like the real wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to declare the War on Poverty a costly failure. America still has plenty of poor people. Eastern Kentucky continues to lag the nation in education, health care and job prospects beyond a boom-and-bust coal industry where little of the wealth ever trickles down.

Declaring failure is easy, but it isn’t accurate. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study that estimated without the government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012.

140409WarOnPovVets0026A

Bob Shaffer of Berea holds a photo of himself with a mule presented to the Republican Governors Conference in Lexington in May 1969 by Wanita Bain, Knox County, Secretary of the Kentucky Poor People’ s Coalition, which he organized and advised. Photos by Tom Eblen

Eastern Kentucky is significantly better off than it was a half-century ago, thanks largely to government-funded infrastructure and assistance. But the question remains: Why wasn’t the War on Poverty more successful?

I recently posed the question to two aging veterans of that war. Their observations offer food for thought as Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers ramp up their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, the latest in a long series of efforts to “fix” Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

Robert Shaffer, 84, is retired in Berea. In 1963, he accompanied his father to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was inspired to public service by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

The next year, after the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, Shaffer began working with poor people in new community action agencies in his native New Jersey. He was recruited to Washington, but wanted to work on the front lines instead. After reading Harry Caudill’s book,Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he told federal officials, “I’ll take the job if you’ll send me to Kentucky.”

Hollis West, 83, is retired in Lexington. A coal miner’s son from southern Illinois, he served in the Air Force and went to college on the G.I. Bill. He worked in community action and job-training agencies in Michigan, New York and West Virginia before coming to Knox County in 1965.

Although the War on Poverty is often portrayed as welfare, Shaffer said, “It wasn’t welfare. It was using social services for economic development and ownership.”

West and Shaffer worked with community groups to start small, worker-owned companies, mostly in furniture, crafts and garment-making and train workers to do those jobs. They said they created hundreds of jobs, although many were later lost as U.S. manufacturing jobs moved overseas.

Their biggest accomplishment was creating Job Start Corp. in 1968. It evolved into Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which has created more than 18,000 jobs and is recognized as one of the most enduring legacies of the War on Poverty.

“I think we made a significant change in parts of Eastern Kentucky,” West said. “I brought the toughness, and Bob brought the brains.”

Toughness was important. West said he often traveled with an armed bodyguard. A key principle of War on Poverty programs was that poor people should have a voice in decisions that affected them. Local politicians and power brokers saw that as a threat.

Hollis West

Hollis West

“These people weren’t used to other people having money to work with that they didn’t control,” Shaffer said. “It was a pretty hostile environment.”

Shaffer said Gov. Louie B. Nunn stymied War on Poverty efforts and tried to get West fired. Officials resisted giving poor people a voice on the Area Development District boards that allocated federal money. Then, as now, many of those boards were controlled by good ol’ boy networks.

Shaffer and West think the War on Poverty would have had a bigger impact had Richard Nixon, a Republican, not been elected president in 1968 and scuttled his Democratic predecessor’s programs. But the ideas behind the War on Poverty still have value today, they said.

“You’re never going to change the culture of Appalachia until you have a legitimate organization of the poor and their allies,” Shaffer said. “The majority of the people in the mountains are just as capable as anyone else if they have the same education and economic opportunities as anyone else.”

What are the lessons of the War on Poverty? Not that poverty can’t be overcome, or that government efforts won’t work. It is that change will never come from people with a vested interest in the status quo.


Baby Health Service celebrates 100 years of caring for kids

May 12, 2014

140407BabyHealth0038Alivia Cooper, 3, coughed so Dr. Tom Young, a pediatrician who has volunteered at Baby Health Service for 30 years, could listen to her chest with his stethoscope. The child’s mother brought her in because of respiratory problems. Photos by Tom Eblen. Old photos courtesy of Baby Health Service.

 

Baby Health Service has spent a century caring for some of Central Kentucky’s most vulnerable residents — and outgrowing its name.

A group of Lexington women started the Baby Milk Supply Association in 1914 to provide free milk to infants and toddlers of poor families, regardless of race. But Margaret Lynch, the first chief nurse, was soon making thousands of home visits and overseeing a free weekly clinic with volunteer doctors in an old downtown house.

The clinic was seeing 1,600 children a year by 1928 and 5,800 a year by 1957. The charity’s mission had grown so far beyond “milk supply” that the name was changed to Baby Health Service in 1959.

140407BabyHealth0006That name only begins to cover the scope of the organization that will celebrate its 100th anniversary May 31 with a fundraising dinner at Keeneland.

“The staying power of Baby Health speaks volumes, that we have been around for 100 years providing a service that is unique in our community,” said Kathleen Eastland, who chairs the organization’s board. “We can’t find another service quite like this in the United States.”

While America’s social safety net for low-income families has expanded over the years, most recently with the Affordable Care Act, there are still many children and teens who fall between the cracks. They include many refugees and immigrants.

Baby Health Service tries to fill those health care gaps. Last year, the organization served about 2,100 young people, from infants through age 17. Patients’ families must be low-income and not covered by private or government health insurance.

140407BabyHealth0002“You have a lot of people in between,” said Dr. Tom Young, a 30-year volunteer pediatrician at Baby Health who is now the organization’s chief executive. “We’re kind of a safety valve.”

Working on a shoestring budget, the mostly volunteer organization provides an impressive array of health services from basement space in an old office building beside Saint Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road.

A small paid nursing staff and eight regular volunteer doctors have a clinic each weekday morning to treat sick children and do well-child exams. Several physician specialists donate their services when needed. Through various arrangements, the clinic also can provide free X-rays, lab tests and medications.

Baby Health’s 59 board members — all of whom are women —volunteer at least 12 two-hour shifts each year to do all of the clerical work and patient scheduling.

“It’s not written in the bylaws ‘no men,’ but in my years on the board it’s been all women,” said Eastland, whose mother was on the board before her. “I think it would be interesting to see if any men would break the barrier.”

Baby Health’s offices have a stash of clothing for children and adults and a book giveaway and lending program. The book program was started by a board member’s daughter and has been supported by the University of Kentucky law school.

Donations following the death of a board member allowed Baby Health in January to restart a monthly dental clinic with help from volunteer dentists and dental hygiene students at Blue Grass Community and Technical College.

Through a partnership with Save-a-Lot Food Stores, patients’ families can get $10 monthly vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables. Baby Health nurses and volunteers do a lot of health education with families, including a fitness program for children and teens identified as in need of physical activity.

Baby Health soon hopes to start a telephone triage service, staffed by on-call nurses, to advise patients after-hours so they don’t just go to a hospital emergency rooms.

Thanks to all of the donated time and services, Baby Health’s annual budget is only $191,000, Eastland said. The organization gets no federal funding, and this year didn’t receive city support as it has in the past. Most of its funds come from grants and donations solicited by board members.

Although Young has been with Baby Health for 30 years, the senior volunteer physician is Dr. William Underwood, who has been a regular since 1966. Young said he introduced several of the other regular volunteers to Baby Health when they were residents working under him.

“Anybody who starts here usually continues here,” Young said. “That’s why we go into pediatrics, to take care of kids. And the families here really appreciate what we do for them.”

IF YOU GO

What: Baby Health Service’s 100th anniversary celebration

When: 6 p.m., May 31

Where: Keeneland

Cost: $125

More information: Babyhealthlexington.org, (859) 278-1781

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Kentucky Derby’s little sister has her own style

May 3, 2014

140502KyOaks0020A giant, new video screen at Churchill Downs emphasizes the feeling that the 140th Kentucky Oaks on Friday is like one big reality television show.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

LOUISVILLE — Whenever friends from out-of-state complain about how Kentucky Derby tickets are expensive and hard to get, I tell them about the Kentucky Oaks.

Both races have been run for 140 years, but until a few years ago, the Friday event for 3-year-old fillies was a secret Kentuckians kept to themselves.

The Oaks is no longer a secret. The crowd of 113,071 that saw the favorite, Untapable, win by 4½ lengths Friday, was the third-largest ever. But the Oaks is still a less costly, less crowded and less crazy day at the races.

Neither Oaks nor Derby may be the same again, though, thanks to Churchill Downs’ newest addition. The Big Board is a 90-foot-wide video screen that rises 170 feet above the backside and is visible throughout the track. When the sound is cranked up on its 750 speakers, the multimedia experience can almost rival the human and equine circus that surrounds it.

Several months ago, my younger daughter called wanting advice about getting Derby tickets. Shannon lives in New York now but was coming home to meet up with Lisa Currie, her pen-pal of 20 years, who was flying in from Australia.

Lisa wanted to go to the Derby, but was easily persuaded that the Oaks might be more fun. It is the same with Australia’s famous Melbourne Cup, she said. She and other locals prefer to go on one of the preliminary race days.

Walking around Friday, I found a lot of people who have discovered the Oaks’ charm.

“I like the Oaks better, although we’ll be here tomorrow, too,” said Denise Needham of Long Island, N.Y., who was here for her fourth Oaks-Derby weekend. “It’s just as much fun, but less crowded. And it’s for a good cause.”

She was referring to Churchill Downs’ partnership with the Susan G. Komen organization, which has made Oaks Day an annual celebration of breast cancer survival and awareness.

Before the big race, there is a parade down the track of breast cancer survivors chosen from all over the country. Almost all of them wore pink. But, anymore, almost everyone wears pink to the Oaks.

“I get to wear pink and not get judged,” Rickey Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, said with a laugh. He was wearing a pink shirt, pants and feather boa, and his Iowa friends were similarly attired.

“Today is all flash,” Spanish said. “Tomorrow, I’ll just wear a regular old suit to Derby.”

All of that pink has helped make the Oaks as good a people-watching event as Derby Day.

“The horses are OK, but the people are more interesting,” said Kitty McKune of Louisville, who stood people-watching as her husband, Mike, filmed the paddock crowd with a small video camera.

“Derby weekend brings out the best in everybody,” said Mike McKune, who shocked his wife by buying and learning how to tie a bow tie to go with this suit.

Frequently overcast skies and temperatures that barely broke into the 60s caused many men to lose their suit coats to women who draped them over their fancy dresses. Gusty winds had many women keeping at least one hand on their big hats.

“It was supposed to be warm!” said Katie Daniel of Louisville, who walked through the paddock wearing Daniel Nusbaum’s suit coat.

The weather definitely put a dent in beer sales, said Andre Williams, who said he has been hawking cold ones at Churchill Downs on Derby weekends for more than 10 years.

“They keep saying it’s too cold to drink cold beer,” Williams said, noting that his fellow vendors selling champagne and vodka “Lily” cocktails seemed to be doing better. “But it will pick up some the later the day goes.”

Judging by all of the crushed beer cans I walked over after the big race, he was right. By Saturday morning, though, they will all be gone so an even bigger, crazier crowd can leave many more beer cans. Derby Day is supposed to be much warmer.

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