Richmond author’s final book chronicles World War I fighter pilots

May 30, 2015

RICHMOND — The new book First to Flychronicles the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young Americans who flew primitive fighter planes for France before America entered the First World War.

They were a fearless and colorful bunch who lived as if there were no tomorrow. For many of them, there wouldn’t be. Their dogfights with German aviators were often suicide missions.

Charles Bracelen Flood, the best-selling author and historian who moved to his wife’s Madison County farm in 1975, chose these men as the subject of his 15th book. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25.)

Cover of the book "First to Fly" by Charles Bracelen Flood.  Photo provided

But as Flood was completing the manuscript last year, he discovered he shared their brief life expectancy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer June 15 and died two months later at age 84.

“He went out like he would have wanted to,” said his widow, Katherine. “Writing right to the end.”

Flood’s final book is a page-turner, written in a spare, vivid style like that of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. He told friends about meeting Hemingway in a Paris bar in the 1950s and being surprised to hear the famous author had read his first novel, Love is a Bridge, a best-seller published to critical acclaim when Flood was a 23-year-old Harvard graduate.

After six novels, Flood wrote a controversial book about his year as an embedded reporter with American troops in Vietnam and covered several Olympics for The Associated Press. He then began a series of non-fiction history books about Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman and the American Revolution.

The New York native’s last book grew out of reading a few memoirs by Escadrille veterans. Flood began the project in 2011, searching out other pilots’ diaries and letters. He and his daughter, Lucy, went to France in 2013 for more research.

“He would tell us about them, and you could just see his eyes light up,” said Lucy Flood, a freelance writer and editor in California. “They had such amazing stories.”

First to Fly weaves together short biographies of these men and their experiences flying flimsy, open-cockpit airplanes made of wood and canvas, with engines and machine guns that were anything but reliable.

The 38 members of the Lafayette Escadrille came from a dozen states. Their average age was 24. They were race car drivers, athletes, gamblers, soldiers of fortune and idealistic Ivy League university graduates from wealthy families. Several transferred to the unit after fighting in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion. They were looking for adventure, and they found it.

An undated photo of Charles Bracelen Flood (1929-2014), author of "First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I." Photo provided

Charles Bracelen Flood

Aviation was such a novelty that fighter pilots were celebrities. When they weren’t flying, they were drinking or enjoying the company of legions of female admirers, whose silk stockings they wore under their leather helmets for good luck. They acquired two lion cubs, named Whiskey and Soda, as mascots and wrestled with them as if they were big dogs.

Eleven Escadrille pilots would not survive the war. Others suffered numerous wounds and injuries. Post-traumatic stress led some to later die of suicide, alcohol and drugs. But others went on to become successful businessmen and military officers in the next war. Four wounded fliers married their French nurses. Three others married movie stars.

An additional 231 American pilots served in French aviation units between 1914 and 1917, when the United States entered the war. Many of them sought transfers to the Escadrille, including the first black American fighter pilot.

Eugene Bullard was born in Georgia, left home with $1.50 in his pocket and joined the Foreign Legion on his 19th birthday. He was a machine gunner in the trenches until he was wounded. After recovery, he applied for pilot training and flew 20 combat missions.

Bullard stayed in Paris after the war, managed a nightclub and fought with the French underground during World War II. In 1954, the winner of 15 medals was asked to help two French veterans rekindle the eternal flame at the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Bullard died in 1961 in New York.

Flood had planned to write his memoirs after finishing First to Fly. So, on the day of his fatal diagnosis, he began working with his daughter to make audio recordings about his adventurous life as a writer, teacher and mentor.

Lucy Flood has almost finished transcribing those five hours of interviews, which she and her mother plan to turn into the memoir Flood ran out of time to write.

“He just had an unbelievable enthusiasm for life,” Katherine Flood said. “He loved people, could talk to anyone and was interested in everything.”

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.”

Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014


Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen


MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don’t aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.

But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.

One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center’s control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world’s biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.

“This is a different kind of call center,” Kimel said.

Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead’s already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.

He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn’t it be done in Kentucky?

“We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students,” he said. “But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC set up a lab in California’s Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.

They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.

KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.

Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.

When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space’s zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space’s hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft,” Malphrus said. “There’s an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don’t even know what all the applications are yet.”

Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.

Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.

“We’re clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft,” Kimel said. “Our specialty is building small machines quickly.”

Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.

Morehead’s space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master’s degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space’s work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.

Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it’s not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky’s largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.

Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.

“This is not just about education; we’re growing a new industry here,” Kimel said. “If we don’t commercialize this technology, these students won’t stay here, because there won’t be opportunities for them.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn’t,” he added. “But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be.”

Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn’t the only answer for the region’s economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.

“Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people’s ideas,” Kimel said. “What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that’s where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else.”

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

July 22, 2014


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.

Lexington brothers, classmate win international design contest

April 14, 2014

MTCA rendering of the design for a mobile rural health care clinic for Southeast Asia. The design won Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition. Below, designers Patrick Morgan, left, Simon Morgan, center, and Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams. Photos provided


The email from London looked genuine, but it arrived before dawn on April 1.

“Everybody we told thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Patrick Morgan, a young architect from Lexington. “I don’t think Jha D believed me. She just wanted to go back to sleep when I called her at 6:30 in the morning.”

The email was from Building Trust International, a London-based charity that works to improve life in developing countries with good shelter design. It told Morgan that he, his brother, Simon, and his architecture school classmate, Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams, had won the organization’s fifth international design competition, to create a mobile health clinic for use in Southeast Asia.

Their design was chosen from among more than 200 entries by student and professional architects. The best student entry won a small cash prize. “Our prize is that it actually gets built and used,” Simon said.

There were nine professional runners-up in the competition, from India, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Ireland and Malaysia.

“It’s still a shock that we won,” Patrick said.

Patrick, 26, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and works for Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia. Simon, 24, has a master’s in public health from Columbia University and works for a firm in Washington, D.C., analyzing health policy.

The brothers have been interested in design and construction since they were boys, helping their parents, John Morgan and Linda Carroll, restore historic houses in downtown Lexington.

“That was quite a bit of it,” Patrick said with a laugh. “Having a wheelbarrow in my hands at 6 months old.”

For their Eagle Scout service projects, they built a patio and landscaping at St. Paul Catholic Church.

As an architect with the Lexington firm Thought Space, Patrick designed the interior of an early 1800s cottage his parents restored on East Third Street. It is beside the offices of their company, Morgan Worldwide, a consulting firm that specializes in reducing the environmental impact of mining.

MTCteamPatrick said he saw Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition advertised on an architecture blog and suggested developing an entry with his brother and Williams, who works for the architecture and planning firm Sasaki Associates in Boston.

“This sounded perfect for what Simon and I wanted to do together,” he said. “We had always been thinking about trying to work together on projects that would combine our skill sets.”

The idea is that health care services and education can be more effectively delivered in rural areas by bringing small clinics to people rather than asking them to travel to clinics for medical treatment, vaccinations and hygiene education.

“We had been talking about doing something like this for two years,” Simon said. “I studied in South Africa as an undergraduate, and I thought something like this was a much better way to deliver care.”

Patrick said several things about their design seemed to impress the judges. It is easily portable, folding out from a standard tractor-trailer bed. It uses a lot of color, which makes the clinic look welcoming and provides visual clues for usage in a region where dozens of languages are spoken. The design also allows outdoor deck space to be customized for each location.

“The idea is they would fold down from the trailer, but then the community could come in to use their knowledge to build the sun shading and the railings,” Patrick said. “So the local community would feel involved with it.”

Patrick and Simon said they hope to stay connected to the project as it is built and put to use in Cambodia in a pilot project late this year.

“We definitely want to get to Cambodia and stay as involved as possible,” Patrick said. “We’ll get to test the ideas we had in the design and see how they work in the real world, and then be able to tweak it for future models. The idea is that this won’t just be one clinic, but over time they will build more and more of them.”

The Morgan brothers hope to do many more projects together, combining aspects of public health and innovative design.

“It’s just really nice that the first time Simon and I worked together, doing something we plan on doing for a long time, that we were able to win,” Patrick said. “It shows that our ideas meld together nicely.”


Lexington couple watches Afghan election with personal interest

April 1, 2014

afghanJudie and Bill Schiffbauer of Lexington pose in 2009 in front of the ruins of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where they lived in the 1970s. The couple have spent 14 years living and working in Afghanistan since 1966. Photo provided.


When Afghanistan needed rebuilding in 2002 after the U.S. invasion overthrew the Taliban, Bill and Judie Schiffbauer were eager to return to the country where they lived in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now they worry that their 14 years of work there could be undone if war-weary Americans walk away from that complex and confounding corner of the world.

Bill Schiffbauer’s biggest fear is a bloodbath as sectarian extremists and ambitious neighbors fight for control. “If we leave, the worst case is ethnic cleansing,” he said. “What are we willing to stand by and watch from a moral point of view?”

A lot could depend on Afghanistan’s presidential election Saturday, which has been preceded by high levels of violence. Insurgents have targeted foreign civilians, including journalists and Christian missionaries, in an apparent attempt to discredit the election, according to the New York Times.

U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan this year, and so far there is no agreement for a continued American military training and support presence. But that could depend on which of the 11 presidential candidates replaces Hamid Karzai.

“The stabilizing force is education, agriculture and health care,” Schiffbauer said. “I think that’s the long-term solution. The short-term problem is a lack of security and all the people who want to interfere there.”

Afghanistan has been an embattled crossroads of the Muslim world for centuries.

Eight invasions and sectarian strife over the past two and half centuries has left many of the 30 million people living in that unforgiving landscape poor and uneducated.

The Schiffbauers first went to Afghanistan in 1966 to teach high school English in Baghlan as Peace Corps volunteers. Like most Americans, then and now, they knew little about the country when they were assigned there. “Every atlas you go to, it’s in the crack on the map,” he said.

After two years, Schiffbauer was offered a Peace Corps staff job in Kandahar, supervising 60 volunteers scattered across two-thirds of Afghanistan’s rugged geography. Over the next three years, he traveled more than 200,000 miles within the country.

The Schiffbauers returned home to Pennsylvania for graduate school in 1970, but they were back in Afghanistan within three years. They lived two years in Kabul, the capital, where Bill worked with non-governmental organizations.

The couple moved to Lexington in 1983. Judie taught English at the University of Kentucky and he was a salesman in the coal industry. While they were here, Afghanistan suffered hard times: Russia’s invasion and nine-year occupation and power struggles among extremist Muslim factions.

When the Schiffbauers returned to Afghanistan in May 2002, Bill became an operations director with U.S. organizations helping the country’s health ministry get back in business with international aid. Working with Afghan crews, he rebuilt many buildings damaged in the war.

“The country was torn apart,” he said. “It was one of the world’s poorest countries when we went there in 1966, and it’s still one of the poorest countries after 30 years of war.”

Judie Schiffbauer became one of the first faculty members at the American University of Afghanistan, which recently suspended classes during the presidential campaign and encouraged faculty members to travel abroad.

The Schiffbauers have been back in Lexington since 2009, where their home is filled with beautiful carpets and furniture from Afghanistan. They read the news and worry about what will happen to the little-understood country they love.

“The Muslim world is a strange place, and Afghanistan is ever stranger,” Bill said. “The fight with the Russians brought all kinds of not nice folks into Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Still, he said, “There are a lot of smart Afghans dedicated to their country. There’s something about the average Afghan. Aside from Australians, I can’t think of anyone who has a collective personality more like us.”

American politicians are always willing to spend billions on war, but they begrudge every dollar that goes to diplomacy and foreign aid — even though that often would save lives and treasure in the long run.

The United States now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Bill Schiffbauer thinks some kind of continued military presence is essential for keeping the country from descending into a chaos we would pay for in the future.

He noted that America still has 40,000 troops in Germany and 50,000 in Japan. “How long have those wars been over?” he asked.


Lexington family and friends do good during ‘volunteer vacations’

March 18, 2014

130319Heitz-India0006Mike Heitz, left, and his wife, Janette, second from left, pose at Mother Clarac Matriculation School in Kumbakonam, India, where they worked with friends last month. Others, from left, are Sister Gladys; Sister Rosaria, the school’s founder, and Dan Lee from Singapore, a member of their volunteer group, which they call Fix-it Friends. Photo provided


Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington love to travel, and they keep finding new ways to combine it with two of their other passions: bicycling and volunteer service.

The Heitzes organize bike trips to Europe with friends, and they have bicycled on their own in such far-flung places as Laos and Egypt. In 2006, Mike and their son, Cory, biked 7,435 miles down the length of Africa. The next year, Janette and their daughter, Jordan, biked 4,500 miles from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal.

A couple of weeks ago, the Heitzes returned from a different kind of trip. They, their daughter and more than a dozen friends from across this country, England and Singapore met in Kumbakonam, India. The group spent a week building basketball and tennis courts, painting a block wall and improving a computer lab at the Mother Clarac Matriculation School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Mary.

This was the 13th such trip the Heitzes have taken in as many years.

“I don’t like to call it a mission trip,” Janette said. “I call it a volunteer vacation, because it’s not religion-based. We are just a group of people who have a little extra money and a little extra time and we like to travel. So each year we pick a third-world country and we all meet there.”

Mike started the tradition by participating in a Habitat for Humanity home-building trip to Ghana in 1999. He liked it so much, Janette joined him the next year.

“He thought he would ease me in,” she said, so they did a Habitat build in New Zealand. “I loved it. So the next year we jumped in the deep end and went to Mongolia.”

After that, the couple did annual Habitat builds in South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then they decided to find their own projects along with friends they had met through Habitat and bicycling. Their group, which calls itself Fix-It Friends, includes a variety of faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker and atheists.

The first Fix-It Friends trip was to Egypt. Then they went to Laos and Argentina, where they also worked with the Sisters of Charity. That led them to their recent trip to southwest India.

“We think education is the key to a better life,” Mike said. So, in addition to basic facility improvements, the group likes to provide computers to schools and orphanages where they work that have electricity. In addition to fixing old computers at Mother Clarac School and setting up a wifi network, the friends are buying 20 rugged $100 tablet computers for the school.

The Heitzes said they enjoy interacting with local people where they work. One day in India, while making the hour-long walk back to their hotel from the school, they came upon a wedding in progress.

“They saw us as some sign of good luck,” Janette said. “Here we were in our work clothes, I had paint splattered all over me, and they invited us in and took photos with us.”

The Heitzes arrived early to see some of India’s sights, including Gandhi’s tomb and the Taj Mahal. Then, after their week of volunteer work, they biked 30-40 kilometers a day for six days in the Kerela state of southeast India.

“It is the flattest part of India, and beautiful,” Janette said, but riding was tricky because “traffic laws are regarded as only a suggestion.”

The couple met at West Virginia University, where he was the basketball team’s first 7-footer (1968-72). Heitz’s younger brother, Tom, played for Kentucky (1979-84).

Mike is an investment banker who specializes in taking companies public. When the IPO market slowed five years ago, he also started a company that buys environmentally distressed industrial properties, restores and re-sells them. Their children work in his companies. Jordan Hurd and her mother also write a popular lifestyle blog, The Two Seasons (

Next year, the Fix-It Friends plan to meet in Colombia.

“To me, the important part of this is that we’re promoting goodwill,” Janette said. “People in these places don’t always have the most positive attitude about Americans. But my hope is that in the future when they think of Americans they will think of us and they will think of love. It’s like my little answer to world peace.”

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Greek immigrant hopes food truck is path to successful restaurant

May 6, 2013


At Thursday Night Live, Dave Floyd watches Ilias Pappas of the Athenian Grill food truck prepare his gyros sandwich. Pappas started his business as a food truck last September and plans to transition to a small Greek restaurant in Chevy Chase this summer.  Photos by Tom Eblen


Since food trucks and stands started popping up in Lexington a few years ago, they have become popular with customers but created tension with bricks-and-mortar restaurants.

Some restaurant owners have fought efforts to make food trucks more accessible, saying their low overhead makes them unfair competition. So far, the city has only permitted them to operate on private property or at special events.

Council member Shevawn Akers chairs a food truck ordinance work group, which has streamlined the permitting process. Last week, the group came up with a proposal that council should approve. It would allow a pilot project to let food trucks operate in designated downtown parking areas.

What will be interesting to see is how many food truck operators go on to start restaurants.

Ilias Pappas, owner of the Athenian Grill food stand, is well on his way.

Pappas, 33, was born in Lamia, Greece, and emigrated to this country to attend college at Lexington Community College, the University of Kentucky and Florida International University. After working in technology in Miami for a year or two, he returned to his first love: food. He worked in several Miami restaurants.

Pappas is now renovating a former bakery on South Ashland Avenue to be his Greek restaurant and market.

Pappas is now renovating a former bakery on South Ashland Avenue to be his Greek restaurant and market.

Pappas had grown up living over a bakery and eating traditional Greek food prepared by this mother and grandmother. While attending college in Lexington, he had helped his aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou, a welder and a chef. They also were caterers and became popular fixtures at community events over the years, serving barbecued lamb and Greek gyros.

Then tragedy struck: George Ouraniou, 71, died in a car wreck in September 2011. Pappas returned to Lexington to help his aunt. Then he moved back for good a few months later.

“I never imagined I would end up living here,” Pappas said of Lexington. “But I realized this was the place I wanted to stay.”

Pappas said his uncle had always dreamed of opening a Greek restaurant, but never did. Pappas had the same dream, and figured a food truck would be an affordable way to start.

Last September, he created Athenian Grill, a food stand serving four types of gyros, Greek salad, spinach pie, Cypriot meatballs, hummus and baklava. With help from several friends, it became a popular fixture outside Country Boys Brewing and West Sixth Brewery and at Thursday Night Live on Cheapside.

“I didn’t have a business plan; I learned on the job,” Pappas said. “The (brewery) owners have been very good to me. The exposure I got as a food trucker provided opportunities for exposure and allowed me to introduce myself to people.”

That has led to catering and event opportunities. But Pappas wants to do much more than he can do now cooking on the street and preparing things in advance in commercial kitchen space he rents in Nicholasville.

“The food truck doesn’t allow me to give people a good exposure to a traditional family-style Greek dining experience,” he said. “It’s very limited what you can do out on the street.”

So Pappas has rented the former Belle’s Bakery building in Chevy Chase — an old two-car garage set back off South Ashland Avenue between Euclid and High streets— and has begun renovations. He hopes to open the restaurant in July.

In addition to a few inside and outside tables, the non-mobile Athenian Grill will have lunch delivery and a Greek market upstairs, which can be booked for small private dinners. In addition to traditional Greek food, Pappas plans to offer some of the flavors he grew to like while working in Miami.

“Ninety percent of the menu will be things you cannot find in Lexington at the moment,” he said.

Pappas is financing the venture with his own savings, plus loans from family and friends. He also has launched a campaign on, as much to attract community involvement as financing.

“Because of my food truck, people have given me the chance to take the next step,” Pappas said. “My uncle worked very hard in the food business. I want to dedicate my restaurant to him.”

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:

Take my old National Geographics, please

March 20, 2012

Moving from one house to another comes with many challenges and anxieties, but one I had not expected was the Yellow Wall.

This was the wall of bookcases in my basement. They were filled with several hundred National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s.

Every American knows it is a sin to throw away a National Geographic. If you are a journalist who comes from a family of librarians, it is a mortal sin.

But here’s the thing: I do not have a good place to put them in my new house. I rarely go back and read them. And, back at the dawn of the digital age, I bought a set of CD-ROMs containing every issue of National Geographic from 1888 to 1995, plus a two-volume index. This digital archive is no bigger than a bread box.

I have no good reason for keeping almost six decades worth of National Geographic magazines in all of their heavy-coated paper, perfect bound bulk. So why do I hesitate to pitch them? It’s complicated.

Like many boys, I first became aware of National Geographic in elementary school. A friend discovered that the magazine contained photographs of women wearing much less clothing than we were accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t pornography; it was anthropology.

But I didn’t fully appreciate National Geographic until a friend of my father gave me a box of them. He was moving and, well, just couldn’t pitch them. During the many hours I spent thumbing through those magazines, looking for anthropology, I found so much more.

Before cable TV and the Internet, National Geographic literally opened the world to a young mind. Each magazine was filled with fascinating reports about history, science and culture. As an adult, I have traveled to many exotic places that I first saw in the pages of National Geographic.

One well-thumbed issue was August 1965. It included a tribute to Sir Winston Churchill and coverage of his elaborate funeral. There also was some cutting-edge technology: a thin, plastic phonograph record I could tear out of the magazine and put on my record player to hear excerpts of Churchill’s speeches. I wore it out.

That issue also contained a classic example of National Geographic photojournalism: William Albert Allard’s picture essay about Pennsylvania’s “Amish Folk.” It is one reason I have always been awed by the power of documentary photography.

National Geographic has always set a standard for journalistic excellence, despite some now-laughable culture and class bias. The magazine has suffered from cost-cutting in recent years, as most publications have, but it continues to do work that no other magazine does.

National Geographic has a longer shelf life than most magazines; many of its stories are timeless. Still, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, even the best print journalism becomes clutter.

Back issues of the magazine have little value as collectibles, probably because nobody ever throws them away. Wherever you find a flea market, downscale antique shop, used bookstore or charity book sale, you will find stacks of National Geographics.

Some people leave their old copies in barber shops and doctors’ offices. Others give them to schools so children too young to know any better can cut them up for classroom projects. The rest of us just keep accumulating them, despite our best intentions. We cancel our subscription, then buy a box of old copies at a neighbor’s estate sale.

One of these days, I fully expect to see this newspaper headline: “Couple killed in bedroom ceiling collapse; police blame National Geographics in attic.”

In the weeks before we moved, I agonized over the Yellow Wall. Becky would ask for a logical reason why we should keep so many old magazines. I had none.

Faced with a decision, I ducked it. I filled six big boxes with enough National Geographics to make my muscular movers groan. They stacked those boxes upstairs, where they have sat for a month and a half.

But now is the time to act. I will save the Churchill issue and a few others, but the rest of my National Geographics must go. Here is my plan: I will give them away to the reader who emails me by April 1 with the best reason why he or she wants them.

The recipient just can’t blame me the next time he or she moves.


Bicycle lanes: if you build it, they will come

March 14, 2012

After many years of being a so-called grownup, I returned to riding bicycles for fun and exercise in 1995. Since moving closer to downtown Lexington a few weeks ago, I also have been riding a bike to the office, to interviews and to run errands when I can. It’s an especially easy choice on a beautiful early-spring day like this.

Lexington isn’t a bad city for bicycling, but it could be much better. I think back to what I saw last April when I went on a bicycle trip around Holland with Lexington friends Mike and Janette Heitz.

Here is a good, short video about bicycle transportation in the Netherlands. What’s interesting is not so much how bicycle-friendly that country is now, but how bicycle-unfriendly it was less than four decades ago. Why the change? The Dutch in the 1970s decided that they were tired of automobile traffic congestion, high gasoline prices and huge numbers of traffic fatalities. Do those problems sound familiar?

Some members of Congress, flush with campaign contributions from oil companies, have been trying to take bicycle infrastructure out of highway investment in the name of deficit reduction. That’s a very bad idea, since, among many other benefits, more bicycle infrastructure can reduce the need for more-costly automobile infrastructure in many places.

This country is, geographically, very different from the Netherlands. Among other things, it’s bigger, hillier and more spread out. Bicycles cannot be as big a solution to transportation problems in this country as they are there, but they could be much bigger than they are now in many American towns and cities. As this video shows, if you build it, they will come.

From the Netherlands to America from Bikes Belong on Vimeo.

Poet’s passion became a publishing business

February 27, 2012

At a five-year anniversary meeting of Poezia, a poetry-writing group she helped start, on Feb. 9 at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer is greeted friends, including group co-founder Colin Watkins, right. Photos by Tom Eblen

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer already was a classic American success story.

Born in Bulgaria, she immigrated to the United States at age 24 with her young son and married her American pen pal, Daniel Klemer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, then a master’s in business administration. She became a software engineer for IBM, then a project manager for Lexmark International.

Increasingly, though, she felt something was missing in her life.

Then, on Dec. 20, 2006, while driving down a Lexington street, she realized what it was. A poem popped into her head. She pulled into a Kroger parking lot and wrote it down.

Stoykova-Klemer, 40, had begun writing poetry at age 8. She was published in Bulgaria, to some notice. But in her rush to build a new life in a new country, she had stopped writing. The poem that popped into her head was her first in 11 years and the first she had written in English.

“I suddenly had this feeling of joy and thought, ‘I can’t let go of this!’ ” she said. “The most important voices in our lives are often quiet ones.”

A year later, Stoykova- Klemer quit her job at Lexmark, where her husband works as an engineer.

“Before I started writing again, my job was the most important thing I did; then it was just something I did,” she said. “I realized that I didn’t want to spend so much time doing something I am not passionate about.”

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer talks with poet Jude Lally. Accents Publishing has published two of Lally's books, including his new collection, "I'm Fine, but Thanks for Asking."

Since her passion for poetry reignited, Stoykova-Klemer has been a ball of fire. She started a poetry group, earned a master’s in fine arts from Louisville’s Spalding University; taught classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning; and created Accents, a radio show about arts and culture that she hosts on WRFL-FM at 2 p.m. each Friday. She writes poetry and encourages dozens of other writers.

In 2010, she combined her business, technical and artistic skills to start Accents Publishing, which has produced 21 poetry books by 20 authors. Eight authors are Kentuckians, including well-known poets Richard Taylor and Frederick Smock.

“I think she is one of the most creative people in this town,” said Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center. “She has a combination of business sense and creative juice, and she is such a compassionate person.

“Her poetry is fantastic. Plus, she’s trying to find a way to make literature and poetry marketable, to help other creative people make a living. She’s exactly what Lexington needs.”

Chethik watched Feb. 9 as more than 50 people came to the Carnegie Center to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Poezia. That is the writing group Stoykova-Klemer started with Colin Watkins, a poet and songwriter she met at a New Year’s Eve party 11 days after her epiphany in the Kroger parking lot.

The writing group meets at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Common Grounds coffeehouse. New members are always welcome. Poezia got its name when a member asked Stoykova-Klemer the Bulgarian word for poetry.

At the anniversary celebration, Stoykova-Klemer announced she was stepping down as a leader of the group, in part to focus more time on Accents Publishing.

The company’s most popular and profitable books are small “chapbooks.” Making them is a family affair: Stoykova-Klemer prints and cuts them, and her husband binds them. Her son, Simeon Kondev, a student at Rhode Island School of Design, creates cover art.

Stoykova-Klemer handles distribution to stores from Kentucky to New York and New Hampshire. “They all know me at the post office,” she said.

Chapbooks sell for $5. “What we found out is that people rarely buy just one,” she said. Profits from chapbooks help support larger, professionally printed paperbacks that sell for $10 to $15.

“Our idea of affordable books seems to be working,” she said. “They say poetry books don’t sell, but our books sell. We keep selling more and more of them.”

Accents Publishing sponsors an annual contest to find new authors. “We have had hundreds of people submit work,” she said. The company covers all publication costs and pays authors by giving them 10 percent of the press run. Accents broke even its first year, and she expects a profit this year.

Stoykova-Klemer wants to keep growing the company — adding prose books and widening distribution — as long as it doesn’t crowd out her writing time.

“I say the most important thing I can do for Accents Publishing is to keep writing,” she said. “That keeps me centered for everything else.”

Keeping up with Katerina Stoykova-Klemer

Personal Web site:

Company site:

‘Accents’ radio show: 2-3 p.m. Fridays, WRFL-88.1 FM, or

Poezia writing group: 7 p.m. Thursdays, Common Grounds coffeehouse, 343 E. High St. Online at A prose writing group meets at 7 p.m. Tuesdays.

Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning:

A selection of books published by Accents Publishing of Lexington. Poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer started the publishing company to make inexpensive poetry books available to a wider audience.



Long-distance reader asks: Why move to Lexington?

January 22, 2012

A scientist — originally from Mexico City, now living in Ottawa, Canada — sent me an email last Monday. She had been reading my columns online because her husband was offered a job in Lexington.

She planned to visit for the first time this weekend, but she wanted my answers to these questions: Why should she move to Lexington? What makes life beautiful in Lexington?

Her questions made me stop and think. She is the kind of worldly, educated person that Lexington leaders want to attract to build the city’s economy. The answers to questions like hers will determine Lexington’s future, because people now have more choices about where to live and work.

This is how I replied to her:

I admit to a bias for Lexington because I was born and raised here. But I also have some outside perspective. I went away to college and didn’t return for 22 years. Before moving back, I lived in Bowling Green, Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta. I liked all of those places, especially Atlanta, except for its horrible traffic. But I miss Atlanta less than I ever expected.

Lexington feels like home to me because it is home. But I know people from all over the world who moved here and say they will never leave. When asked why, they usually talk about friendly people and a pleasant environment.

This is a comfortable place to live. Downtown has mostly retained a human scale, and the surrounding countryside is spectacular: green pastures filled with horses, stone and plank fences and scattered patches of limestone-etched wilderness.

Housing is more affordable here than in most larger cities. Lexington is blessed with a variety of lovely neighborhoods and country homes. The biggest improvement I have seen since moving back in 1998 is the renaissance of urban neighborhoods.

Lexington people are genuinely friendly, and they have become more welcoming as the city has grown more diverse. This has always been a great place to raise a family, but it also is becoming a more interesting city for young professionals.

The economy is stable, thanks to a variety of industries, a large medical sector and a wealth of schools. The University of Kentucky and Transylvania University bring many interesting people here, and they energize the city.

Lexington’s political leadership has been generally capable, and sometimes even inspired. Having a non-partisan mayor and Urban County Council makes a big difference, because it frees city government from the petty party politics that have made a mess of state and national government.

Lexington has a rich history, both positive and negative. Lexingtonians were slow to realize that tradition doesn’t have to be limiting; it can be leveraged to create an attractive brand and a foundation for innovation. But most of us realize it now.

I worried that I would miss Atlanta’s cultural attractions, but I haven’t much. The Lexington arts scene is getting richer and more accessible all the time. Poet Nikky Finney just won the National Book Award, and she is just one of many great writers in town. The visual arts have exploded over the past decade. The high level of musical talent is astonishing.

I have noticed a shift in Lexington attitudes and culture over the past four or five years. Many others have noticed it, too. Nobody can explain it, but the city seems more entrepreneurial, more willing to take risks and more open to new ideas.

A new generation of leaders is emerging, and they are finding creative ways to get things done. Maybe technology and social media are helping to connect and empower them.

Lexingtonians love to get together and have fun. The quirky “Thriller” parade down Main Street each Halloween has become almost as popular as the city’s huge Independence Day celebration. Other big gatherings include Picnic with the Pops, the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event, the Roots & Heritage Festival and the Festival Latino. Keeneland Race Course is the place to be each April and October.

One of my favorite local celebrations is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. I had just left it when I got your email. Like any city, Lexington has its share of problems, divisions, conflicts and tensions. But I think it is significant that a couple of thousand citizens — including most city officials and community leaders — show up every year, often in terrible weather, to make a symbolic, mile-long march through downtown to celebrate brotherhood.

As I photographed this year’s march, Andrés Cruz was doing the same thing. He publishes La Voz de Kentucky, a weekly bilingual newspaper that covers Central Kentucky’s growing Latino community.

Cruz and I have talked many times about the struggles and frustrations he and other immigrants have faced. But the Costa Rican native now considers this home, and he has played a significant role in making Lexington a better place to live.

Cruz is an example of what I see all over Lexington — and what I think is one of the best things about this place.

Lexington has many advantages of a larger city, but it is still small enough that a committed individual can make a big difference.

Local food guru Jim Embry a model of activism; UK’s John Stempel on the state of the world

January 18, 2012

As the Unity Breakfast began Monday morning in Heritage Hall, Jim Embry was working the room.

Lean, fit and hard to miss in his colorful clothing and gray dreadlocks, Embry was quickly moving from table to table, handling out leaflets to promote his annual Bluegrass Local Food Summit, March 22 to 24 at Crestwood Christian Church.

Breakfast was followed by inspirational speakers and award presentations. But when Embry’s name was called as one of two Unity Award winners — along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass — he was gone. A son accepted the award for him.

“I have to leave by 8:15 to catch a 9 o’clock flight,” Embry had told me as he rushed from table to table, handing out leaflets to the breakfast’s 1,400 attendees. “I’m speaking this afternoon at Yale.”

It was classic Jim Embry. Who has time to rest on laurels when there is a world out there in need of improvement?

Embry, 62, was the featured speaker Monday afternoon in New Haven, Conn., at a master’s tea, sponsored by Yale University’s Pierson College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Jim Embry, left, talks with Richard Knittel of Versailles in October, as they both joined Occupy Wall Street protesters on Main Street in Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Embry now spends most of his time promoting sustainable living and locally grown food. But the Richmond native has been an activist since age 10, when his mother was president of the Covington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He grew up attending civil rights events.

As state youth chairman of the NAACP, he helped organize the 1964 March on Frankfort, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Embry went on to become president of the University of Kentucky’s Black Student Union. While he was in college, a summer job in New York City sparked his interest in health and food justice. In 1971, he helped found Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op.

After a four-year stint in Detroit as director of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Embry returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded the Sustainable Commun ities Network ( He has helped develop more than 30 community gardens and taught school garden workshops for more than 300 teachers.

Embry’s other passions range from the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice to the Interfaith Alliance and Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden. Later this year, he plans to publish his autobiography, Black and Green, and a book of photographs, Through the Lens of a Sacred Earth Activist.

“I come from a long lineage of activists, so I don’t know any better,” he said.

Outlook for 2012

John D. Stempel, retired director of UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, doesn’t so much try to improve the world as understand it.

He spent 24 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, including a four-year stint in the U.S. embassy in Iran before the 1979 revolution.

Stempel gave his annual State of the World speech to the Lexington Rotary Club earlier this month, saying he expects this year to be even more turbulent than last year. Among his concerns:

■ The likelihood that European debt and American politics will hamper economic recovery.

■ The possibility of cyber attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure. “Our illusion of invincibility serves us poorly,” he said.

■ The potential for an Iranian nuclear crisis, increasing instability in Pakistan and tensions between India and Pakistan.

■ Iraq’s future. “The violent sectarianism the U.S. takeover and occupation provoked has already begun to transform Iraq from a nastily ruled balancer of Iran into a traumatized society under extensive Iranian influence. Not a good trade-off.”

Stempel said he worries about a “crisis of global governance that impedes common-sense solutions to common challenges like climate change, energy and food costs and availability, plus the imbalance between expanding human needs and the limited capacity of the world’s ecosystem to satisfy them.”

The U.S. presidential election is unlikely to help, he said.

“An administration that has delivered on only a precious few of the major promises it made to achieve election in 2008 seeks re-election against an opposition that seems more intent on repealing the 20th century than addressing the real and pressing challenges of the 21st,” Stempel said. “No one expects a serious discussion of the challenges now facing either the United States or the world.”

UK lecturer gets closeup view of Egypt election

January 11, 2012

As University of Kentucky diplomacy students follow Egypt’s attempt to transition from dictatorship to democracy, they can get some behind-the-scenes perspective from one of their teachers.

Stacy Closson, below, a visiting lecturer at UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, spent eight days in Egypt last month as an official observer during recently completed parliamentary elections.

An academic with years of international field experience, Closson found the experience fascinating, inspiring and, at one point, frightening. She left with a better understanding of the Middle East’s new political complexities — and why her fellow Americans should pay attention.

“Even after 30-plus years of dictatorship under (Hosni) Mubarak, people don’t lose their taste for freedom,” Closson said. “They seem very excited about the future prospects for their country.”

Closson is a Truman National Security fellow who worked six years for the U.S. Defense Department. She was among 33 observers from the National Democratic Institute who watched the second of three rounds of parliamentary voting Dec. 14 and 15.

Other observers were there from two more U.S.-based organizations, the International Republican Institute and the Carter Center. (Despite their names, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute are non-partisan.)

Closson and another American woman — a congressional staffer — went to 25 polling stations in the Beni Suef region with an interpreter. Voting seemed to be orderly, with each polling station run by a “judge.” Each political party also had poll observers.

Because election turnout was low during Mubarak’s reign, voting was a new experience for many Egyptians.

“There was this initial excitement and pride that they could vote and know their vote could count,” she said, adding that the main issues for most voters were freedom, dignity and jobs.

New liberal parties were much less organized than the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to end up with a majority of seats in parliament, Closson said. But one surprise was the strength of a more conservative Islamic party, Salafi al-Nour. It seemed highly organized, with plenty of cars, computers, cellphones and operating funds, reportedly from Islamic interests in neighboring gulf states.

When the polls closed, Closson and other observers followed election officials as they transported ballot boxes through busy city streets to a central counting center. There, they found perhaps 200 rowdy Salafi partisans creating a chaotic scene.

Only a few international observers were able to get inside the center to witness the counting. Closson wasn’t among them.

“I still regret it,” she said. “I think we would have gotten pushed and shoved, but we would have gotten in. But when the two-star general said he couldn’t guarantee our safety, we decided not to push it.”

The third and final round of parliamentary voting was last week, and results could be announced this week. “There are a lot of mathematical shell games in how they’re going to allocate seats,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a political decision as much as a mathematical decision.”

Egypt has scheduled a presidential election for June. But without a constitution, it remains unclear how the president and parliament will function and relate to powerful military officials.

Egypt is likely to end up with a government dominated by Islamists, but the faction that comes out on top will have a big influence not only on foreign relations but on internal economic recovery.

Tourism is one of Egypt’s biggest industries, and last year’s revolution has all but brought it to a halt.

“The hotels were empty except for us,” Closson said. “You have more people in downtown Lexington than at the Giza pyramids. Even the camels where bored.”

If Islamists carry through with threats to ban alcohol sales to foreigners and require tourists to dress conservatively, Egyptian tourism might not recover.

Once all the voting is done, Closson said, “The question now is how they’re going to govern.”

Why should Americans care? Egypt’s transition could affect oil prices, Closson said. It also could have a big effect on Israel’s security and what happens in other unstable Arab countries, especially Libya, Yemen and Syria. But she is hopeful.

“Egyptians are pretty steadfast people,” Closson said. “They see this as the first step of a long process of getting more freedom.”

Idea Festival: Geo-politics will only get more messy

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — The number of nations in the world has doubled in the past 60 years, and that trend will continue as post-colonial countries in the developing world break apart along ethnic, political and economic lines.

That was the prediction of Parag Khanna, a geo-strategist and author who spoke Thursday during the second day of the Idea Festival.

The trend helps explain the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that began earlier this year, and, he said, the inevitability of a Palestinian state.

“This is a tide of history that simply can’t be stopped,” he said.

Khanna criticized United States opposition to Palestinians’ request for recognition by the United Nations, saying it will leave America on the wrong side of history.

Recent revolutions in the Middle East will likely spread to other parts of the developing world. He predicted that 80 or 90 more new countries will likely emerge in the next decade or so as post-colonial monarchies and dictatorships break up and are reshaped by technology-enabled citizens and economic interests.

“It’s going to be one of those hold-your-hat decades we’re looking at, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing,” he said.

Many current national boundaries were arbitrarily set within the past century, anyway, while ethnic and cultural associations often go back thousands of years.

In the future, Khanna said, non-governmental organizations, foundations and multinational corporations will often be better suited to solving global problems than governments and traditional diplomacy. Companies are becoming more influential than many governments, he said, noting that Wal-mart’s supply chain produces more greenhouse gasses than Ireland does.

There are few truly global problems — one, he said, is climate change, and it has been poorly dealt with through global approaches.

“You don’t fight climate change by flying to conferences and signing documents,” he said. Instead, the answer is coordinating efforts by companies and non-profits to create new technologies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

“The way we think of running the world is being turned on its head,” Khanna said. “The best global governance is local governance.”

Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the best-sellers How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (2011) and The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (2008).


Lexington Muslims talk about life since 9/11

September 10, 2011

Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Nadia Rasheed met a co-worker at the Veterans Administration hospital in Lexington for the first time. The woman asked the anesthesiologist if she was Muslim.

“I said yes, and then she said, ‘Are you going to kill me?'” Rasheed recalled, still shocked by the question. “I said, ‘No, why would you say that? And she said, ‘That’s all I see on television.'”

Mohammed Nasser has a different memory of that terrible day a decade ago. The retired IBM engineer, a Muslim from East Africa, was so upset that he went for a walk in his Jessamine County subdivision.

“People kept coming up and asking if there was anything they could do for us,” he recalled. A few days later, Christ Church Cathedral reached out to him. “They were so nice,” he said. “They said you can even come and stay in the church if you have any problems.”

I talked last week with several Lexington Muslims, both immigrants and native-born Americans, about what their lives have been like since the 9/11 attacks by terrorists claiming to act on behalf of Islam.

Non-Muslims are generally friendly toward them, they said, but they get more questions — and stares — and they wonder about subtle discrimination. More than anything, though, they worry about misinformation and hatred being promoted by right-wing extremists and the media outlets that give them a voice.

“For everybody, the world has gotten a lot smaller,” said Shahied Rashid, an Ohio native and religious leader, or imam, at Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah, a Muslim congregation on Russell Cave Road.

Generally, Rashid said, Lexington has been “very welcoming” to Muslims. “Not only as an American, but that’s the only thing I have heard from the immigrant community who have relocated to Lexington,” he said.

Mehmet Saracoglu, a Muslim from Turkey and a graduate student in mining engineering at the University of Kentucky, agrees. He came to Lexington in 2004, and two years later helped start UK’s Interfaith Dialogue Organization, which recently has broadened its mission and changed its name to the Intercultural Dialogue Organization. The organization’s work has been embraced throughout the community, he said.

“I honestly feel pretty comfortable here,” said Fatimah Shalash, 25, who was born and raised in Lexington and wears hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf. “You’ll get the curious looks and sometimes the not-so-kind looks. But, overall, I’ve felt pretty safe and treated well.”

Shalash, who recently finished a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, said many non-Muslims are curious about her faith and why she wears hijab.

“It has bridged a lot of conversations, and that has been a positive experience,” she said. “The way I act in general is hopefully going to show another side of Islam; someone who’s educated and friendly. It’s not what you see in the media.”

Rasheed, the anesthesiologist, was born and raised in New York, went to medical school in Iraq and has lived in Lexington for 20 years. She does not wear hijab, but she has noticed more stares in restaurants when she dines with friends who do.

Many Muslim friends have told her stories of rude comments made to them and perceived, if not overt, discrimination.

“Nine-eleven was not caused by Islam, but people want to say it was,” Rasheed said. “There are some bad Muslims, yes. But there are some bad Christians and Jews, too. None of the religions say you can kill and attack.”

Rasheed said she speaks to many community groups about Islam. “I have noticed that there is a lot of misinformation, misconception, mistrust,” she said. “But when I am one-on-one I am able to answer them and it clears things up.”

While many Americans blame Islam for the terrorist attacks, many Muslims blame Islamophobia for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“Muslim Americans and Arab Americans are patriotic, we love this country, but we have freedom of speech like everyone else,” she said. “We might see things differently because we know how people in other countries are suffering.”

Jenny Sutton-Amr, who also speaks about Islam to community groups, said she hasn’t experienced any bad treatment or discrimination, but is alarmed by increasing misinformation and organized anti-Muslim activities.

“People for the most part are respectful, but they come with a lot of loaded questions,” she said. “I can usually presume where they get their information.”

A recent public opinion poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about Islam and expressed more anti-Muslim sentiment than those who got their news elsewhere.

And a report issued last month by the Center for American Progress identified seven right-wing foundations that are spending millions of dollars fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment across the country. Some of them are behind legislation introduced in 29 states that would ban Muslim sharia law — even though nobody has ever tried to impose it.

“We have a slander campaign that’s being spoon-fed to a large population of this country, and they are lapping it up,” Sutton-Amr said. “I’m hoping that reason will prevail and the vast majority of Americans will see through this.”

Mother struggles to get daughter out of Africa

August 30, 2011

In many ways, Valentine Awa is lucky. She and five of her eight children now live in Kentucky, where they can work, go to school and live in peace after years of terror in their native Congo and poverty in refugee camps in the Central African Republic.

But Awa says she can’t be happy until her youngest child — an 7-year-old girl who is frequently ill — joins the family in Lexington.

Occasionally, Awa said, she is able to speak briefly by phone with the child she hasn’t seen in years, and her two grown daughters, who are caring for her as best they can amid the poverty that grips that part of Africa.

“They say she cries, Mommy! Mommy!” said Awa, a native French speaker who struggles with English. Awa said she sends them money each month from her modest earnings to help with living expenses.

Awa, 50, is getting help from Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the office of U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., and from a French professor and her students at Transylvania University, where Awa works as a housekeeper.

Awa’s case is more complicated than most. But, sadly, it is not an unusual circumstance among the more than 400 Congolese refugees who have been resettled in Central Kentucky.

“There are multiple examples of people who are trying to get their children here,” said Barbara Kleine, who heads the Kentucky Refugee Ministries office in Lexington. “It’s a painful process.”

Many cases involve families separated by fighting or in refugee camps, Kleine said. Others stem from complicated family relationships, inconsistent answers given in immigration interviews, lack of documentation and government bureaucracy on two continents.

Awa’s saga began in early 2000, when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was torn by civil war, she said through an interpreter, recent Transylvania graduate Julianne Norman, who has taken up her cause.

Awa’s husband was a retired soldier, and the military wanted to press him back into service. After he repeatedly refused, he was beaten. Ten days later, he died from his injuries. Awa and her children fled across the border into the Central African Republic, wandering four days through the forests to avoid capture. They finally reached a refugee camp, where there was little food or work.

After a year, they returned to the Congo. The military men returned, telling Awa that her sons would be conscripted because of her husband’s refusal to rejoin the army. Again, the family fled the Congo. And again, there was little food or work in the refugee camp.

This time, though, Awa said an elderly man promised to feed and protect her family in exchange for sex. That resulted in her youngest daughter, Amélie, who remained behind with him when Awa and her other daughters were granted refugee status and allowed to emigrate to United States.

Amélie couldn’t get refugee status because she was born in the Central African Republic, Awa said. Since the old man died in February, Awa has been trying to regain her daughter. But that could take years, said Lydia Curtz, who is working on her case for Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

It is a difficult case because Awa didn’t initially declare her daughter, perhaps because of the circumstances of her birth. Several years have now passed, there is little documentation, and Awa made errors in her applications, Curtz said.

If the child is finally given permission to emigrate, Kentucky Refugee Ministries will pay to bring her here. But Awa must repay the loan, as she is doing for passage for herself and her children.

Awa’s case has inspired Simonetta Cochis, a French professor at Transylvania, to see how her students might work with Kentucky Refugee Ministries to help Lexington’s French-speaking Congolese refugees with longer-term settlement issues. That could include translation services, tutoring for children and even fund-raising for special circumstances, she said.

“They are coming from a different world into our world, which can be very complicated,” Cochis said. “People feel so tremendously overwhelmed by what is going on in Africa. When you hear stories like Valentine’s, how can you not want to help?”

Lexington, Louisville partnership makes sense

August 15, 2011
Mayors Greg Fischer, left, of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Mayors Greg Fischer, left, of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington announce the project in Louisville last Thursday. Photo by Mark Cornelison

LOUISVILLE — The Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement was announced Thursday with all the fanfare that two cities’ business leaders could muster.

A furry University of Louisville cardinal mascot escorted Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to the stage of a Galt House ballroom as a furry University of Kentucky wildcat did the same for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. More than 1,000 people from both cities applauded, and a marching band played the Superman movie fanfare, symbolizing the goal of creating a super-region for advanced manufacturing.

The hype might have been goofy, but the ideas behind the effort and the process for achieving it could be an economic game- changer, not only for Louisville and Lexington, but for the entire state.

Brookings, the public- policy think tank, chose Lexington-Louisville as one of seven regions where it will work with business, government and educational leaders to develop a plan for regional economic development. The idea is to focus on business sectors that already are strong and have potential to become major players in international trade.

Brookings thinks regions, rather than individual cities, are the economic powerhouses of the future, especially as the world becomes more urbanized. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, up from 30 percent in 1950 and 2 percent in 1800. By 2030, it could be 60 percent.

Kentucky mirrors the trend. More than 55 percent of Kentuckians live in urban areas, which account for 72 percent of the gross state product of $50.5 billion a year. More than 2 million of Kentucky’s 4.3 million people live in the 27 counties that make up the Louisville- Lexington region, which includes Elizabethtown. Metro Louisville accounts for 31 percent of gross state product; metro Lexington, 14.2 percent.

Fischer got the ball rolling with Brookings. A review of 11 previous economic studies quickly identified advanced manufacturing as an area for focus. Manufacturing employs 65,000 people, or 11 percent of the work force, in metro Louisville, and 30,000, or 8 percent of the work force, in metro Lexington.

The biggest manufacturing niche is the auto industry, with the Toyota assembly plant in Georgetown, two Ford assembly plants in Louisville and suppliers across the state.

Manufacturing jobs were key to creating the American middle class a century ago, and it is no coincidence that the middle class has declined as manufacturing has moved overseas. But some of that high-end manufacturing is moving back to the United States, and Kentucky has the potential to attract it, Fischer said.

“This is a can-do region with enormous assets,” said Amy Liu of Brookings. “We think there’s a real opportunity to succeed here.”

So what could make this different from so many well-intentioned but marginally successful economic development efforts in Kentucky? Several things.

Brookings brings a level of expertise to which Kentucky has rarely had access. The institution is donating its services, valued at about $750,000. Kentuckians are providing about $250,000 in support services and expertise, which will be paid for with private donations.

Fischer and Gray — two new mayors with similar entrepreneurial backgrounds and political outlooks — are powering the initiative. Sports entrepreneur Jim Host will chair the effort. Host is one of Kentucky’s most capable leaders — a drill sergeant with a strong record of getting things done in both cities. His most recent accomplishment: building the KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville.

Host will lead a 15- to 20-member committee the mayors will appoint soon. And if the mayors are smart, two of those appointments will be the presidents of UK and U of L, which will be vital to this effort’s success.

The committee will develop a specific business plan to be announced by the end of 2012. The key to execution will be forming partnerships among government, industry and education groups. The public may offer suggestions at

Beyond the goal, though, this cooperative effort could be a big deal for Kentucky. That is because Louisville and Lexington — cities only 70 miles apart but long separated by cultural differences and sports rivalries — will be working more closely than ever before.

The effort also will focus statewide attention on the economic importance of the Louisville and Lexington metro areas. After all, 40 cents of every tax dollar generated in Louisville goes to the rest of the state, as does 23 cents of every Lexington tax dollar, Host noted. When the cities succeed, the whole state benefits.

“The leverage potential this has, we don’t even know,” Gray said. For example, he noted, Jefferson County school board members invited Fayette County school board members to the announcement luncheon. What might a closer working relationship there lead to?

“Greg and I naturally see alliances as a big deal,” he added. “And in this case, one-plus-one could add up to three, four or five. That’s what all of this really represents.”

Bobbie Ann Mason’s new novel returns to WWII France

June 30, 2011

The year is 1944, and Marshall Stone is flying a B-17 back to England after a bombing run over Germany. Suddenly, everything goes wrong.

The “flying fortress” is separated from its unit. A German fighter attacks. Marshall must crash-land in a Belgian field. He and other surviving crew members are rescued and sheltered by a series of families in La Résistance Francaise, smuggled through France and across the Pyrenees mountains to Spain and safety.

It is a dangerous and memorable adventure. But once World War II ends, Marshall never looks back. He marries his sweetheart, they have two children and he becomes absorbed in his career as an airline pilot.

Then, it’s 1980. Marshall is 60, and federal regulations say he must retire. His wife has died, his children are grown and he can no longer fly airliners. Marshall realizes that the only way he can go forward is to look back.

Marshall returns to Europe, determined to find the people who saved his life, especially Annette, the young girl in a blue beret who bravely guided him through the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris. Marshall finds her, and in the process, he discovers more than he bargained for about his saviors and himself.

That is the story that Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason tells in her intimate and haunting new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, $26).

Most of Mason’s acclaimed novels and short stories have drawn on her Western Kentucky heritage. This book takes place in a landscape very different, but almost as personal. The story was inspired by the wartime experiences of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, and her own travels through Europe after his death to get to know the aging survivors of La Résistance who risked their lives to save his.

“I’m very proud of it, I must say,” Mason, 70, said when we met for lunch last week after her French class at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. “I knew I was jumping in over my head.”

Rawlings, who before his death in 2004 was a Trans World Airlines captain, had talked about his World War II adventures and had written a memoir. Mason started thinking about that in 2006, when she resumed the French studies she had given up after college. “I thought there was a good premise (for a novel) in what would happen if he went back,” she said.

Rawlings had gone back in 1993; he visited his crash site and some of the people who had helped him. That included a young girl he remembered as having worn a blue beret or scarf so disguised GIs could follow her through Paris at a discreet distance. Rawlings left his reunion at that, but it provided Mason a launching point for her novel.

Mason eventually made five trips to Paris. She became friends with the girl, now a lively woman of 81, and she learned harrowing details of the woman’s own wartime experiences. “She was my model for Annette,” Mason said, “but I made up so much stuff.”

Mason traveled to Belgium and found people who had witnessed her father-in-law’s crash-landing. She met a man near Paris who, at age 15, had photographed Rawlings disguised as a Frenchman so the photo could be used for a fake ID card.

“They really helped open up the period for me in a way that books couldn’t. They made it real,” she said.

“The people welcomed me like family because I was the daughter-in-law of this bomber co-pilot and they were so grateful to the American bombers,” she said. “I was astonished by their hospitality. I didn’t know French that well, and some people didn’t speak English, but we carried on.”

The novel required intense historical research. Mason’s husband, Roger Rawlings, is an aviation buff like his father, so he helped teach her about airplanes. Mason read everything she could about World War II. She patterned characters after the Europeans she met and others they told her about.

Mason’s stories are famous for their authentic voices, steeped in the cadences of small-town Western Kentucky. Creating authentic dialog for French characters was a challenge. “In my head I could hear the voices of the people I met, and I was trying to get that sound,” she said.

Another thing about this novel was different for Mason.

“Usually when I finish a project, I just box up all the research and turn my back and it’s done; I’m through,” she said. “This subject is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will keep on reading about it. The war was the biggest story of the 20th century.”

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A peek into Bobbie Ann Mason’s writing technique

June 23, 2011

I have a column in Sunday’s Herald-Leader about Bobbie Ann Mason‘s fascinating new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret. It is a story about World War II and self-discovery, based on the experiences of her late father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, who was a B-17 pilot shot down by the Germans and rescued by civilians in the French Resistance.

As we had lunch last Tuesday at Stella’s Deli on Jefferson Street, after her regular French class at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Mason told me something about her writing technique.

“Writing is so complicated,” she said. “What I tend to do is just to go over and over it. I read it again and again, and each time I change a few things. I have trouble with radical revisions. I think in reading it over and over like that you get too close to it. I just write it and polish it until I can’t think of a single other thing to do to it. I write it until it sounds right.”

Mason, a native of Graves County who now lives in Anderson County, is the author many books, including: In Country, Shiloh and Other Stories, Clear Springs and Feather Crowns. She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, two Southern Book Awards and other prizes, including the O. Henry and the Pushcart.