African American Encyclopedia reveals untold Kentucky stories

August 29, 2015

Gerald Smith and his co-editors spent most of a decade working on the newly published Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. It wasn’t just research, writing and editing; they had to raise much of the project’s $400,000 budget.

In addition to courting big donors, they gave dozens of fundraising presentations in small-town libraries, churches and community centers across the state.

Those presentations often led to conversations, driving tours, stashes of newspaper clippings and walks through cemeteries with the keepers of community history.


Gerald Smith and co-editors Karen Cotton McDaniel and John A. Hardin and a staff of graduate students compiled  the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Photo by Tom Eblen

The content of the encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 551 pages, $49.95) is much richer for that process, Smith said. Many fascinating stories had never made it beyond the counties where they happened.

Amateur historians were an enormous help to Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor, and his co-editors, Karen Cotton McDaniel, a retired Kentucky State University professor and director of libraries, and John A. Hardin, a history professor at Western Kentucky University.

“I can’t tell you how many folks we met like Yvonne Giles,” Smith said, referring to the woman whose years of research have made her an authority on black history in Lexington.

“They could point out all the places, tell you the history of the buildings,” Smith said. “It takes special people like that who are working at the grassroots level.”

The editors also discovered small archives, sometimes in unlikely places.

Smith got a surprise when he spoke at the public library in Owingsville, the seat of Bath County, which Census records show now has only about 15 black residents.

“They had a nice clippings file on African-Americans; who would have ever thought?” Smith said. “That’s why we had to go to see what was out there, and to meet and visit and talk to people.”

That file included information about the Owingsville Giants, which helped prompt Sallie Powell, the encyclopedia’s associate editor, to research and write a detailed entry about Kentucky’s black baseball clubs between the late 1800s and 1960s.

Smith said the saddest part of editing the encyclopedia was recounting tragedies of racism, large and small.

There is the horrific story of Isham and Lilburne Lewis, nephews of President Thomas Jefferson, who in 1811 took an ax and in a drunken rage murdered a slave child they thought had tried to run away after breaking their mother’s pitcher.

More common were the pervasive acts of discrimination used for two centuries to keep black Kentuckians down.

For example, who knew there were black bicycle racers in Louisville in the 1890s?

The Union Bicycle Club may have been the largest club of black riders in the country during a decade when cycling became a wildly popular American pastime.

But the club’s success led William Wagner Watts, a white cyclist and Louisville attorney, to successfully lobby the League of American Wheelmen in 1894 to exclude blacks from membership. That move sparked national controversy.

What is amazing is that so many black Kentuckians found ways to succeed before the civil rights movement. “I didn’t realize there were that many African-Americans from Kentucky who went on to serve as college presidents,” Smith said.

Many had to leave Kentucky to achieve their goals; for example, George French Ecton, a runaway slave from Winchester, in the 1880s became the first black elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

“When you look at that, you think about how many African-Americans could have been governor or senator or the president of the University of Kentucky or Eastern or Western,” Smith said. “They had all the skills necessary to be successful but were denied the opportunity.”

The encyclopedia’s research files, many of which did not result in completed entries, have been turned over to University of Kentucky Special Collections so future researchers can use them.

The editors expect the encyclopedia to generate some controversy because of their decisions about what would and wouldn’t be included. For example, they had a bias toward telling new and little-known stories rather than rehashing some famous ones that have often been told in other books.

“It helps serve another purpose of the encyclopedia, and that is to generate new discussions and debates,” Smith said. “This is actually a beginning rather than an ending, because what this is going to do is churn up even more material. I’m hoping it will inspire more people to not only want to learn about Kentucky history, but to understand it and to preserve it.”

Book signing

What: Editors of the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia will sign copies, along with authors of other books produced by faculty of the University of Kentucky Department of History.

When: 5 p.m. Sept. 18

Where: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

Fifth book about Louisville’s Bingham family is the most revealing

August 22, 2015

The disintegration of the Bingham family’s Louisville media dynasty in 1986 prompted no fewer than four books about patriarch Robert Worth Bingham and the two talented but troubled generations he left in his wake.

Each book was revealing, but the basics were well-known: ambitious politico loses his wife in a tragedy and remarries America’s richest widow, who soon dies mysteriously. With his inheritance, he buys a newspaper and influence, which includes the ambassadorship to Great Britain. The Courier-Journal becomes a great newspaper until squabbling among his grandchildren prompts its sale to a chain.

150823Bingham002AThe juicy secrets revealed in previous Bingham books are nothing compared to those in this fifth one, the second written by a family member.

Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28) is a thoroughly researched, well-written and frank biography of the great-aunt her elders never wanted to discuss.

Bingham, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, will talk about and sign her book at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 East High Street.

Henrietta Bingham was intelligent, beautiful and seductive. But she was forever traumatized by witnessing her mother’s death when a commuter train hit their car, and she could never escape the emotional grip of her narcissistic father.

She also was bisexual. Her most intense relationships were with John Houseman, who later became a legendary film producer and Oscar-winning actor, and the 1930s tennis star Helen Jacobs.

Other lovers included three members of England’s famous Bloomsbury set: writer Mina Kirstein, painter Dora Carrington and sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Then there were the actresses: Hope Williams and, probably, Tallulah Bankhead. And, possibly, black musicians of both sexes in Harlem.

Henrietta spent the Jazz Age and Great Depression living high on daddy’s money. Had she been straight, she, rather than her younger brother Barry, would have inherited the family’s media empire.

Instead, she lived a life of leisure, attracting lovers then pushing them away. Her only real accomplishment was a late-in-life career as a Thoroughbred horse breeder.

Despite years of psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones, a famous protégé of Sigmund Freud, Henrietta could never escape her demons. She died in 1968 at age 68 from the effects of alcoholism and mental illness.

Emily Bingham, author of "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age life of Henrietta Bingham." Photo by Leslie Lyons

Emily Bingham. Photo by Leslie Lyons

After reading this book, I had to ask Emily Bingham: what did the family think of her unflinching book?

“My generation has just all been fascinated,” said Bingham, 50. “We had only heard these sort of negative stories. It’s as if this whole part of our family tree is alive instead of shriveled.”

Her mother, Edie Bingham, and aunts, Sallie Bingham and Eleanor Bingham Miller, the last survivors of their generation, passed along photographs and heirlooms and have been very supportive of the book, she said.

“But if my grandparents (Barry Bingham Sr. and his wife, Mary) had been living, this would have been hard to do,” she acknowledged.

“I think they were quite understanding, actually, about that part of Henrietta’s life,” she said. “They also were the ones who bore the brunt of being worried for her, and the shame that came with that. People couldn’t talk about mental health, either.”

Emily Bingham said that every day growing up at the Binghams’ Melcombe estate she saw a framed photograph of an octagonal barn at her great-aunt’s horse farm, now the Harmony Landing Country Club at Goshen.

“I just remember being told she was an accomplished horsewoman,” she said. “It would be the one thing they would say and then the conversation would end. I got the feeling that she was sort of not very interesting. And that was obviously wrong.”

In an interview with her grandmother before she died in 1995, Mary Bingham finally talked about Henrietta.

Only after Emily Bingham and her husband, Stephen Reily, named their daughter Henrietta, because they liked the old-fashioned name, did her startled father, the late Barry Bingham Jr., discuss his aunt, whom he called “a three-dollar bill.”

He told his daughter there might be a trunk of Henrietta’s stuff in the attic. There she discovered personal possessions and old clothes, including one of Jacobs’ monogrammed tennis outfits. Then she found another trunk stuffed with nearly 200 love letters to Henrietta from Houseman and Tomlin.

That trunk, stored for decades above her childhood bedroom, led her to search out archives containing the revealing letters, diaries and memoirs of her great-aunt’s friends and lovers.

But Henrietta’s own voice is largely missing from this biography; she left no diary, and fewer than a dozen letters. She seems to have destroyed most evidence of her homosexuality.

“This project was like putting together a broken mirror and knowing that you were only going to see bits of the person in the end,” the author said.

Bingham would love to know more about Henrietta’s passion for black music in the 1920s and her relationships with famous performers she knew. She wishes she could have “been on the couch with her” during psychoanalysis, especially to understand more about Henrietta’s complex relationship with her father.

And, in a life with so many passionate, complicated relationships, she said, “I would want to ask her, ‘Who did you really love?”

Bingham thinks her great-aunt’s alcoholism and mental illness were fueled in part by social pressure to keep her lesbian relationships secret. Her efforts to live a lie included a brief, failed marriage in 1954.

Henrietta’s life could have been much different had she lived today, her great-niece thinks. She could have enjoyed openly gay relationships and become more independent from her controlling father.

Bingham hopes readers come away with a desire to find out more about the gaps and silences in their own family histories.

“They don’t not matter because they haven’t been talked about,” she said. “Often, they are creating some of the reality you are living with; you just don’t know how they shaped it.”

Sculptor seeks more statues of notable Kentucky women, minorities

July 25, 2015
Sculptor Amanda Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, operate Prometheus Foundry on their farm outside Lexington. They posed in their studio with a commissioned statue of early Kentucky aviator Solomon Van Meter, the inventor of the backpack parachute, and a personal sculpture Matthews is creating.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Sculptor Amanda Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, operate Prometheus Foundry on their farm outside Lexington. They posed in their studio with a commissioned statue of early Kentucky aviator Solomon Van Meter, the inventor of the backpack parachute, and a personal sculpture Matthews is creating. Photo by Tom Eblen


A bronze statue of Catherine Spalding, a Catholic nun who led the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in creating early schools, orphanages and hospitals in Kentucky, will be unveiled Sunday outside the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville.

It is the first public statue honoring a woman in Louisville, and one of only a few in Kentucky.

In the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort, there are no statues of women or minorities. There are statues of five white men there, although officials are discussing whether to evict Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In 2010, Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Commission on Women announced a 10-year project to add two statues of women in the rotunda. The effort was to begin with a feasibility study.

But when Amanda Matthews checked on the progress of that study last year, she was disappointed. She decided to launch her own effort to show that statues of notable Kentucky women are feasible — and to start creating them.

Matthews, majority owner of Prometheus Foundry in Lexington, has formed the non-profit Artemis Initiative to sponsor creation of such statues for display in public spaces throughout the Commonwealth.

“Because of historical gender inequity, women’s history just doesn’t have the depth and breadth of men’s history,” Matthews said.

To help demonstrate feasibility, Matthews has created a model for a statue of education pioneer Nettie Depp. She was elected Barren County’s schools superintendent in 1913, seven years before women were allowed to vote.

Depp’s four years in office revolutionized that school system. She renovated schools and built new ones, created libraries, improved curricula and a tripled enrollment by aggressively enforcing truancy laws.

Sculptor Amanda Matthews' model for a statue of Nettie Depp. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sculptor Amanda Matthews’ model for a statue of Nettie Depp. Photo by Tom Eblen

She was one of 40 Kentucky women profiled in the film “Dreamers and Doers,” which Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding produced this year for the Kentucky Commission on Women. It is now showing on Kentucky Educational Television.

Matthews said she chose Depp as her example because she had access to family photographs. Depp was her great-great aunt — a relationship she shares with actor Johnny Depp.

“But the entire idea behind the sculpture of Nettie Depp has very little to do with Nettie Depp,” Matthews said. “It has everything to do with me as a sculptor and us as a foundry showing people that it’s feasible to create statues of women.”

In studios at their small farm on Russell Cave Road, Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, create their own work, cast other artists’ sculptures into finished bronzes and repair statues. They were recently in the news for restoring the bronze children on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park.

“Foundry work is a very male-dominated industry,” Matthews said. “It has not been without its challenges to be a female owner of a foundry.”

The Artemis Initiative, named for the goddess of ancient Greek mythology, has formed a board of directors and received non-profit tax status. Matthews said she soon hopes to get state approval to begin fundraising.

The organization’s goal is to fund proposals for creating public art in Kentucky that “elevates the status of women, children, minorities, nature and animals.” Matthews believes that public art creates conversations and that a broader representation in that art will lead to improvements in Kentucky society.

“So many under-represented groups of people have contributed to the rich history of Kentucky,” she said.

Kentucky has only a few public statues of notable women. Among them: Alice Lloyd, on the Knott County campus of the college named for her; riverboat pilot Mary B. Greene on the Riverwalk in Covington; Mary Draper Ingles, a pioneer woman who escaped Native American captivity, outside the Boone County Public Library in Burlington; and educator Elizabeth Rogers in a Berea park.

There are many Kentucky artists capable of producing this work. For example, there are two noted Louisville sculptors: Ed Hamilton, famous for his statues of great African Americans; and Raymond Graf, who created the Spalding and Lloyd statues.

Matthews emphasizes that she isn’t pushing for a memorial to her relative; it is just an example of what can be done.

“My involvement has only been to say that there are people in Kentucky, like myself, and there are businesses in Kentucky, like Prometheus Foundry, who can absolutely make this happen.”

From cheap seats to expensive suites, a picture-perfect Derby

May 2, 2015
Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies. Photo by Tom Eblen


A picture-perfect spring day brought a record crowd of 170,513 people to Churchill Downs for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. And what a spectacle they saw.

The most important two-minutes of the day belonged to American Pharoah, the favorite who won the $2 million mile-and-a-quarter race for 3-year-olds.

But there was so much more to see: Women in tight dresses, plunging necklines and hats that could qualify as architecture. Men wore either the finest or most garish suit they could find, often topped with a straw hat.

As always, it was a colorful sea of humanity, with everyone doing their best to have a good time. And, for many I talked to, it was their first Kentucky Derby.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun,” said Graham Yost, the Canadian screenwriter who created and is executive producer of Justified, the hit television series set in Kentucky, which just finished its six-season run in April.

Yost and his wife, Connie, were wined-and-dined in Lexington earlier in the week, but still weren’t quite prepared for their first Kentucky Derby.

“We had heard about the hats, but until you see them… ” Yost said. “Kentucky has become a huge part of our lives.”

“This is one of the best spectacles of all,” added singer Mac Davis, who was sharing the Yost’s table on Millionaire’s Row.

Far below the celebrities, in folding chairs beside an infield fence, Susan and Bob Syphax were experiencing their first Derby, too.

Seven months ago, they moved from California to Pulaski County and decided this was the year. So they dressed in their finest outfits and plucked down $60 each for general-admission tickets.

“I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I didn’t care where we sat; I just wanted to be here.”

James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo., and six of his buddies from around the country flew into Louisville this week for their first Derby — and an early bachelor party before his Aug. 1 wedding.

“We came to see the race and hopefully get me to my wedding eventually,” Roberts said. “We’re having a blast. Now we’re ready to win some money on horses.”

“It’s been on our bucket list,” said Lee Vigil, who was here from Albuquerque, N.M., with his wife, Stella. “This is our 41st anniversary, so we thought we could come celebrate it at the 141st Derby.”

Cathy Dewberry and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, spent much of their first Derby wandering the infield and photographing other women’s hats.

“What brought us here was the hats,” Simpson said from beneath a big turquoise and white one of her own.

“We love every bit of it,” Simpson added. “We will be back.”

High above the infield in the Jockey Suites complex, corporate executives used the day to entertain guests and clients in high style.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray started the day in the suite rented by his family firm, Gray Construction, but he quickly started roaming Churchill Downs with Jamie Emmons, his chief of staff.

“This is a day when you can have a chance to quickly see a lot of people who have influence in Lexington and Kentucky,” Gray said. “It’s a long day, but a beneficial one.”

Derby day was also a good payday for thousands of service workers and vendors at the track.

Darrin Hildebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, was making and selling hand-rolled cigars for $15 each about as fast as he could roll them. Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore and his son, Luke, each got done and, after long draws, pronounced them good.

“We’ll go through 1,000 by the time it’s all said and done,” Hildebrand said.

The warm, sunny weather also meant brisk business for mint julep vendor Rob Hawkins. Three hours before the Derby, he had already sold a dozen cases.

“It’s never a bad day at the Derby,” he said as he rushed back for another case. “But when you have weather like this, everybody wants a drink.”

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food. Photo by Tom Eblen

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he just made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday.  Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz's son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz’s son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen

If Congress, state won’t raise minimum wage, Lexington should

March 29, 2015

The minimum wage has a big impact on low-wage workers, many of whom must rely on public assistance to make ends meet, as well as the overall economy, which is driven largely by consumer spending.

The $7.25 federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009. Its value adjusted for inflation has lost more than 25 percent since its peak in 1968.

Congressional Republicans have refused to raise the federal minimum wage. But many states and cities have raised theirs, realizing its importance to both low-wage workers and local economies.

The Democrat-led Kentucky House recently approved a state minimum-wage increase that was rejected by the Republican-led Senate. Louisville’s Metro Council in December approved a gradual minimum-wage increase to $9 over three years, which is being challenged in court.

Urban County Council member Jennifer Mossotti has proposed gradually raising Lexington’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 2017 and tying future increases to the consumer price index. The proposal also would gradually raise the $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers, who haven’t seen an increase since 1991, to $3.09 over three years.

Council members are unlikely to consider the issue before June. But when they do, Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, has put together a good report about the low-wage Lexington workers who would be affected.

Among the highlights: An increase would directly lift wages for about 20 percent of Lexington workers, 90 percent of whom are older than 20 and 30 percent of whom are 35 and older. Fifty-seven percent are women, 54 percent work full-time and 26 percent have children at home. Read the full report at:

Businesses usually oppose minimum-wage increases — if not the very idea of a minimum wage — saying that increasing labor costs forces them to put people out of work and raise prices. Studies have generally shown those effects to be negligible, and the economic impact to be positive.

A minimum-wage increase is long overdue. If federal and state officials won’t do it, Lexington should join other cities and states that are.

Interesting tidbits buried in annual Kentucky economic report

March 22, 2015

When the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business publishes its annual Kentucky Economic Report, most people just pay attention to the front of the book, which predicts whether the state’s economy will rise or fall, and by how much.

But I think the rest of the book is more interesting. It is filled with great bits of information that not only tell us about the economy, but offer some clues about the state of Kentucky society, too.

Here are a few gleanings from the 2015 report, published last month by Christopher Bollinger, director of the college’s Center for Business and Economic Research:

CBER■ Kentucky’s landscape may be mostly rural, but its economy is all about cities. The “golden triangle” bounded by Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati contains half the state’s population, 59 percent of the jobs and 54 percent of the businesses.

■ Wages in metro counties in 2012, the most recent figures available, were 29 percent higher than in “mostly rural” counties and 20 percent higher than in “somewhat rural” counties.

■ How can rural counties improve wage rates? The report offers advice from Mark Drabenstott, director of the Center for the Study of Rural America: encourage home-grown entrepreneurs, “think and act regionally” and find a new economic niche in high-value, knowledge-based industries that leverage the region’s strengths.

■ If you feel like you haven’t had a raise in years, you are probably right. Kentucky’s average weekly wage, when adjusted for inflation, is about the same as it was in the first quarter of 2007.

■ Kentucky’s poor and lower middle-classes have gotten 4.4 percent poorer since the late 1970s, while the state’s middle class has lost 7.5 percent in inflation-adjusted household income. Upper middle-class Kentuckians have seen household income rise 7.7 percent, while the richest 10 percent have seen a rise 16.7 percent. All segments of Kentuckians did much worse than their peers nationally.

■ Kentucky’s earned income per-capita relative to the national average increased steadily from 1960 to 1977 and peaked at 80 percent. But it has fallen since 1977 and is now at 75.4 percent, ranking Kentucky 46th among the states.

■ Lexington and Louisville have seen steady employment gains since 2010 or early 2011 and have returned to or exceeded their pre-recession highs.

■ The disappearance of family farms isn’t news, but the report has some interesting statistics. Kentucky has roughly one-third the number of farms it had in 1950 and the average farm size has doubled. Kentucky lost 8,196 farms during the 2007-2012 recession, the largest decrease of any state. Most of that decline was likely farms going “idle” rather than being developed, the report said.

■ There has been a marked increase in value-added farm products such as jams, salsa, wine and jerky. The production of value-added foods, adjusted for inflation, has risen from $3.34 billion in 1993 to $5.1 billion in 2011.

■ While tobacco has declined sharply, the value of the state’s other major crops — corn, soybeans, hay and wheat — has improved considerably. The most dramatic growth has been in poultry. Broilers (chickens raised for food) are now Kentucky’s most-valuable farm commodity; chicken eggs are 10th and farm chickens are 12th.

■ What Kentucky industry sector has lost the most jobs in the past 25 years? If you guessed coal, you’re wrong. Kentucky in 2013 had 45,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it did in 1990, a 16 percent decline. The sector that gained the most jobs was educational and health services: 103,700 more people work in those areas, a 67 percent increase.

■ There were 364,000 more Kentuckians employed in 2013 than in 1990, a 25 percent increase, beating the population increase of 19 percent. About 95,400 Kentuckians work for companies that are majority foreign owned.

■ In various measures of “community strength,” Kentucky is on par or better than the national average. Crime rates are lower. Kentuckians tend to trust their neighbors more. They report higher levels of “emotional support and life satisfaction.” But they give less to charity and volunteer less than the national average.

There’s more good stuff in the 2015 Kentucky Annual Economic Report. To download a full copy, click this link.

Wendell Berry: Ky. writers have too little impact on public discourse

January 29, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After becoming the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen


As the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry lamented that many fine books the state’s authors have written about Kentucky issues have had little impact on public discussion or policy.

In most ways, Kentucky is too fragmented a state, Berry said in remarks at a ceremony Wednesday night at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he and five writers from the past were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us,” Berry said. “We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no form in which a public dialogue can take place.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness?”

Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spoke earlier at the ceremony, said afterward that Berry underestimates the impact of those books and others like them. They may not have led to solutions for Kentucky’s many problems, she said, but things would be worse without them.

Before Berry’s remarks, excerpts from the work of the five deceased authors were read. The standing-room-only crowd that filled the Carnegie Center’s first floor included many writers likely to earn spots in the Hall of Fame someday.

The other new inductees were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo journalism”; Guy Davenport (1929-2005) of Lexington, who during his lifetime won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County; Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) of Lexington, a novelist and critic who helped found The New York Review of Books; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) of Bowling Green, an author and poet.

Watch for my column Sunday with more notes and observations from the Hall of Fame ceremony.

 150128KyWriters0009State Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington took a picture of Wendell Berry with Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen at the Carnegie Center on Wednesday night after Berry became the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. In the background, writer Ed McClanahan, left, talks with Steve Wrinn, director of the University Press of Kentucky.

Lexington artist, poet has made big career with tiny paintings

January 6, 2015

141218Woolfolk0007Miriam Woolfolk holds a painting she did of Loudoun House. Photos by Tom Eblen


When the street artist MTO came to Lexington’s PRHBTN festival last fall to paint a mural on a Manchester Street warehouse, he showed how huge, bold and controversial art can be.

141218Woolfolk0034At the other end of the spectrum, Miriam Lamy Woolfolk, an award-winning Lexington painter and poet, has been showing for decades how tiny, delicate and beautiful art can be.

Woolfolk, who turns 89 on Valentine’s Day, paints intricate watercolor landscapes that take up no more than a few square inches. About 30 of them will be on display at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning beginning Jan. 16 for Gallery Hop.

She has been a regular, prize-winning exhibitor at miniature art shows around the world for decades, but this is her largest Lexington show in years. It was organized after her work was included in a Carnegie Center exhibit last year featuring images of surrounding Gratz Park.

“After that, we were fascinated by her art,” said Luisa Trujillo, the center’s art director.

Woolfolk is from Louisville, where she remembers always dabbling in art and poetry. She worked in a World War II ration office, for an oil company and for the magazine of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad before raising four children.

She moved to Lexington with her first husband in 1951. Her second husband, the late Patch Woolfolk, was a professor of animal science at the University of Kentucky.

Woolfolk’s only formal art training was in high school. But she took night classes after her interest was rekindled while working as a bookkeeper for a physician, whose office housed the Lexington Art League in its early years. (Later, she would serve as the league’s president.)

141218Woolfolk0015Woolfolk discovered a love for miniatures at her first out-of-state art show.

“I flew up to New Jersey and was absolutely stunned by all the little pieces,” she said. “I’ve always liked little stuff.”

In 1980, she won “best of show” at a prestigious art exhibit in Washington, D.C. Her pair of small watercolors were the only miniatures in that show, and the prize led to an invitation to join the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society of Washington.

That involvement led to many prizes at miniature art shows around the country and as far away as Russia and Tasmania. She also has illustrated several books for Lexington authors and organizations.

Trujillo said the Carnegie Center also was interested in Woolfolk’s art because she has always excelled in both images and words.

A poet since childhood, she is a past president of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and edited its journal, Pegasus, for 21 years. Two of her poems were included in The Kentucky Anthology: 200 years of writing in the Bluegrass State, published in 2005 by the University Press of Kentucky.

That book was edited by Wade Hall, a longtime English professor at Bellarmine Univeristy and a collector of regional quilts, more than 100 of which he donated to the University of Kentucky for display in the W.T. Young Library.

Woolfolk has always done needlework, too, and she wanted to contribute to Hall’s collection. But, because of her love of miniatures, and a good sense of humor, she gave him a potholder instead of a quilt.

141218Woolfolk0020Woolfolk said she never used a magnifying glass to paint her miniatures, just very tiny brushes, some with just a few hairs. Her scenes were drawn from photographs she made, many at spots around Central Kentucky she found while driving back roads with her husband.

Age finally dimmed Woolfolk’s eyesight, and she has given up painting. She recently entered what she said will be her last art show, in Maryland. She also completed a big, small project for the Carnegie Center.

As part of a November event celebrating J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, Woolfolk made 100 tiny paper boxes that were given to attendees. Each contained a piece of paper with a quote from the book.

Woolfolk has been making similar tiny boxes for years and giving them away to friends. Usually, though, they come with a line of her own poetry: “A secret place to hold your dreams, for dreams take little space.”

Lexington should stand firm on protections for cable customers

October 11, 2014

timewarnerAssociated Press Photo by Mark Lennahan


Bravo to Mayor Jim Gray and a unanimous Urban County Council for taking on Time Warner Cable. It’s about time somebody stood up to the giant cable television and Internet companies and their frustrating game of monopoly.

For far too long, the cable industry has abused the local franchise system across America to provide mediocre service at ever-increasing prices.

Meanwhile, cities have become pawns in the industry’s merger-and-acquisition game, which has left fewer companies owning more of the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure.

The Urban County Council last Thursday gave first reading to resolutions that would deny transfer of ownership of the local cable system as part of the industry’s latest deal, which would split Time Warner’s assets between Comcast and Charter Communications in a $45 billion stock swap. The systems in Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati would go to Charter.

Gray’s re-election campaign also is tapping into public anger at Time Warner. The campaign is urging voters to sign a petition demanding that the company “improve customer service, deliver better speeds and give us what we pay for.”

Few cities have taken as aggressive a stand as Lexington has. Not that others aren’t concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are both reviewing the deal proposed by Comcast, Time Warner and Charter, which are, respectively, the nation’s first, second and fourth-largest cable operators. Dozens of consumer advocacy groups have spoken out against it.

It’s hard to say how all of this will end. But here is how we got to this point:

Time Warner bought Insight Communications in 2012, but never negotiated a new franchise agreement with the city. It also has ignored some consumer-protection provisions of Insight’s franchise agreement, which the city has never enforced.

Since the acquisition, Time Warner has invested little in Lexington’s infrastructure while steadily raising prices. The company’s cost-cutting measures have hurt customer service, and public frustration has been rising. City officials say they have been flooded with citizens’ complaints about cable service and pricing.

Time Warner officials claim they have improved service, and their own surveys show high rankings for customer satisfaction. Yea, right. A J.D. Power & Associates’ survey last month of residential television service providers in the South ranked Time Warner dead last. (Comcast was second-to-last.)

Lexington officials say they are not seeking any new consumer protections in the franchise agreement negotiations — they just want to preserve the things Insight agreed to. Those include staffing the company’s customer service center beyond normal business hours, so customers with day jobs can actually get there.

The city also wants to preserve some way of holding the cable company financially accountable for service problems short of canceling the franchise agreement. Currently, the city can fine Time Warner $100 a day — although officials say that has never actually happened.

Time Warner has not been willing to agree to those modest terms, nor does it want to continue paying for the public-access television studio. It’s all pretty small potatoes, considering that Time Warner’s Lexington revenues probably exceed $100 million a year and the company has made little investment in its system.

If Time Warner and Lexington officials are unable to reach agreement by Oct. 23, when the council could take a final vote on the ownership transfer resolutions, it is unclear what will happen. Mostly likely, the issue would end up in federal court.

Time Warner, Comcast and Charter have deep pockets, but Lexington officials should not back down. Citizens these days need more protection from corporate abuse, not less.

More importantly, city officials need to make sure whatever agreements they reach leave the door open for more competition. With only two major Internet providers — Time Warner and Windstream — Lexington needs more broadband competition.

Cities such as Chattanooga, which are lucky enough to have municipally owned utilities, have invested public dollars in creating high-speed fiber-optic networks. Those networks are attracting entrepreneurs who are creating the high-tech jobs of the future. Unfortunately, that’s not a practical option in Lexington, whose existing utility infrastructure is privately owned.

Lexington officials must embrace creative approaches for seeking private investment in new fiber-optic networks, such as Gray’s proposed Gigabit City initiative. And they must stand firm in trying to hold accountable the revolving door of local cable and telephone monopolies.

A century later, passenger pigeon’s extinction still offers lessons

August 26, 2014


Juvenile, male and female passenger pigeons, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)


One hundred years ago next week, a bird named Martha dropped dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last known passenger pigeon, a breed that just a few decades earlier had been the most numerous bird in America.

It was the first big wakeup call about society’s potential to destroy the environment. Extinction was no longer just about Do-do birds or other rare species; it could happen to a creature once so plentiful that it was both a major food source and a pest of biblical proportions.

The Cincinnati Zoo is marking the anniversary with a series of events. (More information: The keynote speaker is Joel Greenberg, who recently published the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Boomsbury USA).

Greenberg, a naturalist, author and lawyer, also helped start Project Passenger Pigeon, a non-profit organization to raise awareness of current extinction threats and to promote environmental sustainability.

Unlike today’s rock pigeon, which was brought over from Europe, passenger pigeons were native to North America. They ranged from Canada to Mexico, and the immensity of flocks once seen in Kentucky is hard to imagine. Alexander Wilson, America’s first ornithologist, wrote of an 1805 nesting area near Shelbyville that covered almost every tree for 40 square miles.

Passenger pigeons were so notable in early Kentucky that Project Passenger Pigeon reports 44 places in the state named for them, from Pigeon Roost Creek in Boyd County to Pigeon Hollow in Edmonson County.

John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and bird painter, wrote about flocks he observed in 1813 while traveling from Henderson to Louisville. During his journey’s last 55 miles, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.”

Throughout the 19th century, many people reported similar events: sky-darkening flocks in the billions. When passenger pigeons chose to land, they could strip a field of crops or a grove of nut-bearing trees in no time.

But the docile birds had two great qualities: they were delicious and easy to kill. Long an important food source for Native Americans, a flock is said to have saved most of New Hampshire from starvation after a crop failure in 1781.

“The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river,” Audubon wrote of his 1813 sighting in Louisville. “For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons and talked of nothing but pigeons.”

So how did the pigeon population go from billions to zero in less than 50 years? Many questions remain, but scientists think one factor was widespread logging that destroyed forest habitat the huge flocks needed to reproduce.

But the biggest factor was excessive hunting. Once railroads and telegraph lines spread across the country, flocks could easily be tracked by commercial hunting crews and decimated.


Joseph H. Kemper

About this time, sportsmen hunters began adopting the conservation ethic that has made huge contributions to wildlife and habitat preservation. But it came too late for the passenger pigeon. After the 1870s, populations plummeted.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said family lore held that her grandfather, Joseph H. Kemper, a champion marksman, killed one of the last passenger pigeons near Mt. Sterling.

“It was an accident,” Kemper said. “He was hunting doves. Daddy always said (his father) was sad about it.”

The journal of the Wilson Ornithological Society in 1925 quoted a Lexington Herald report saying Kemper accidently killed passenger pigeons twice, in 1892 and 1893, while dove hunting on Slate Creek in Montgomery County. Others reported similar isolated shootings around the country as late as 1902.

The last captive passenger pigeons were at the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1910, only Martha remained. Upon her death, she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned, stuffed and put on display.

This centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is a good time to reflect on how little humans really know about nature. And to think about how society’s actions have consequences we often can’t begin to understand until it is too late.

Ale-8-One president sees a lot of opportunity to grow the brand

August 24, 2014

140818Ale8One-McGeeney-TE0024Ellen McGeeney, president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co., in Winchester. Photos by Tom Eblen  


WINCHESTER — As an 8th generation Kentuckian, Ellen McGeeney knew she was taking on something special when she became president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co. But the Louisville native, whose family is from Henderson and Owensboro, didn’t realize just how special.

Her first week on the job, a 20-something Lexington store clerk tearfully told her about his grandmother’s recent death from dementia, and how, in her last months, the only thing that made her smile was Ale-8-One. Then he hugged McGeeney.

And there was the businessman McGeeney met at a networking event a few weeks later. When she introduced herself, he dropped to one knee and kissed her ring.

“There’s a fervency about the brand in Central Kentucky,” she said of Ale-8-One, the ginger-and-citrus soft drink that has been made in Winchester since 1926. “So many people speak about it as if it’s theirs.”

140821Ale8One-TE0083The Rogers family took a big step a year ago when it hired an outsider for the No. 2 spot in the company now run by Fielding Rogers, 33, the great-great nephew of Ale-8-One inventor G.L. Wainscott.

McGeeney, 52, brought a lot to the company besides Kentucky heritage. A Brown University graduate with an MBA from Yale, she was a business consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton and other firms in New York and Boston, specializing in logistics, branding, marketing and online strategies.

Between the births of their second and third children, she and husband Christian Thalacker moved back to Louisville to be closer to her family. She helped start Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which sold fresh food from local farmers to customers around Louisville, and did strategy work for Rooibee Red Tea.

It was through the Louisville-based beverage company that she met Rogers, who was looking for someone to help him take Ale-8-One to the next level. McGeeney said the job is a perfect fit because it draws on all her skills.

“Literally, this is my dream job,” she said. “I was ready to have a real career again, and I really wanted it to be in Kentucky.”

McGeeney said another big attraction was the Rogers family’s business values. While the family wants growth, she said, it must be steady growth, without peaks and valleys, because Rogers doesn’t ever want to have to lay off any of his 100 employees. “He’s extremely cognizant of the importance of good jobs in this community,” she said.

140821Ale8One-TE0049Wainscott started in the flavored drink business in 1902. He launched RoxaKola in 1906, naming it after his wife. But when Coca-Cola started suing small cola competitors, he realized he needed a special flavor all his own.

Wainscott went to Europe after World War I and bought ginger beer recipes to experiment with. He launched his new drink at the Clark County Fair in 1926 without a name. After a customer remarked that it was “a late one” in the already crowded carbonated drink market, the name Ale-8-One stuck.

Ale-8-One has more caffeine and less carbonation than many soft drinks. Only four people know the secret recipe: Rogers, his brother, sister and father. Rogers now mixes the concentrate himself using his great-great uncle’s handwritten notes.

Ale-8-One distribution is focused on Central Kentucky, where its own delivery fleet covers 27 counties. It is one of the few bottlers in America that still uses some returnable bottles, a popular tradition the company plans to continue.

“I like to say we’re on the bleeding edge of obsolete technology,” McGeeney said. “And we’re very proud of it. We have invested a lot in making sure that that process is extremely safe and high quality.”

Through contracts with other distributors, nonreturnable bottles and cans also go to most of the eastern three-fourths of Kentucky and parts of Ohio and Indiana. McGeeney hopes to gradually expand distribution, at least to all of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

In addition to the original formula, Ale-8-One comes in caffeine-free and diet versions. While the original formula will “never, ever, ever” change, McGeeney said, she sees opportunities for additional beverages. She wouldn’t disclose specifics, but said she would love to do a seasonal beverage made with Kentucky ingredients.

“If you’re at a big company, you can throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” she said. “We can’t do that. We’re David in an industry of Goliaths. We have to do it differently.”

McGeeney said revenue growth has been up in her first year, to about 5 percent. Her goal is annual growth of 5 percent to 10 percent to keep the company financially resilient as the economy rises and falls. Ale-8-One doesn’t disclose revenues or profits, but McGeeney said the balance sheet is strong and future expansion will be self-financed.

“One of the real luxuries of being a private company, from my perspective, is the long-term view,” she said.

This spring, Ale-8-One did its first promotional packaging with a horse-racing theme. Football tailgate packaging will hit store shelves this week. Basketball packaging will follow that.

McGeeney hired a consultant to help refine Ale-8-One’s brand strategy. It revolves around the ideas of Kentucky pride, family ownership and independence. The working slogan: “The best of the Blue Grass in green glass.”

“I think there’s a proud story there,” McGeeney said. “We should be as much of a jewel of Kentucky as bourbon is. My fantasy is to get everybody in Kentucky to feel that way.”

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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:

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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Derby Day at Keeneland: all that was missing was live horses

May 3, 2014

140503Keeneland-DerbyTE0124Derby Day at Keeneland was a laid-back affair. Photos by Tom Eblen


Billy Hargis of Danville got to Keeneland early on Kentucky Derby Day to stake out a bench and start studying the program in the hope of picking a winner.

“I’ve been coming to Keeneland for a long time, since I was 16,” said Hargis, 64, adding that it is his favorite place to be on Derby Day because of the family atmosphere and smaller crowd.

“I went to Louisville once,” he said. “All I saw was a horse’s tail.”

Before long Saturday, Hargis had plenty of company. A picture-perfect day brought 19,344 people to the Lexington racetrack, which had everything a Kentucky Derby fan needed — except actual horses.

The horses were on TV screens, including the big one across the track in Keeneland’s infield. Spectators gathered in the stands and on the plaza benches below, picnicked in the paddock and tailgated in tents and RVs outside the gates at perhaps the world’s largest Kentucky Derby party outside Churchill Downs.

Jeff and Lisa Kayes have been coming to Kentucky from the Buffalo, N.Y., area each first Saturday in May for 18 years to catch the Derby action. Only four of those years were actually spent at the Derby in Louisville.

“We’ve done that; the riff-raff in the infield gets old,” Jeff Kayes said of Churchill Downs. “This is more laid-back.”

Keeneland has long allowed people to gather at the track for Derby, but it started making a bigger event of it in 1995. Now, as many as 20,000 fans come each year, wearing fancy hats and toting picnic supplies.

There was a hat contest, children’s activities and plenty of beer, mint juleps, other refreshments and souvenirs for the adults. For $5 admission, it was quite a show for both horse fans and people-watchers.

Debbie and Bill Viney of Georgetown set up a family picnic in the paddock with son, Tom, who lives in Louisville, and his daughter, Allie, 10. They were all dressed up, enjoying the sunshine and games of corn hole until it was time to eat.

“This is great,” Tom Viney said. “I’ll come to Keeneland seven days out of seven vs. going to Churchill.”

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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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Lexington, Louisville business people to seek ideas in Charlotte

April 7, 2014

College basketball rivalry aside, Lexington and Louisville are working more cooperatively than ever before. The latest example is the upcoming “leadership visit” to Charlotte by members of Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc.

More than 200 business and civic leaders from Lexington and Louisville will travel to Charlotte June 1-3 to meet with their counterparts there. It is the second time leaders from Kentucky’s two largest cities have made a joint trip; the first was to Pittsburgh in 2010.

This trip’s emphasis will be regional economic development, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

“Charlotte is a place where a lot of regional initiatives occur,” he said, explaining the choice of destination. “We think there could be some good lessons in how they operate as a region. It’s built into their culture.”

Other potential lessons in Charlotte include workforce development initiatives at Central Piedmont Community College, which has forged partnerships with area industries for technical training, much as Bluegrass Community and Technical College has done with Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. and others, Quick said.

“They fully grasp what a complete educational system you have to have” to create a growing, dynamic regional economy, Quick said.

Another thing Charlotte has that Lexington and Louisville would like to have: authority to ask voters for a local-option sales tax for specific city improvement projects. Government and business leaders in Lexington and Louisville are generally supportive of such taxing authority, but Kentucky’s rural-dominated General Assembly has consistently balked at granting that authority.

While Lexington and Louisville leaders say they have learned a lot from annual study visits to other cities, they are always quick to point out that every city is different and no city is perfect.

Charlotte, for example, has had some recent leadership problems Lexington and Louisville have been fortunate to avoid. Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested by the FBI in late March on bribery and corruption charges. Undercover agents pretending to be investors say they made almost $50,000 in payoffs to the mayor, a 47-year-old Democrat, in return for his help with the city’s permit and zoning process. An indictment is expected later this month.

Quick said Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. have worked closely together on economic initiatives for years. But cooperation between the cities has grown considerably since the 2010 trip to Pittsburgh.

Another big reason for the more cooperative atmosphere, Quick said, is the close personal and working relationship between the cities’ mayors, Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville. Both are Democrats and former chief executives of family-owned businesses.

“It’s unprecedented to have the level of trust we now have between Kentucky’s two largest cities,” Quick said.

The most notable cooperative venture is BEAM, the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. It seeks to foster growth in high-tech manufacturing in both cities and the counties along Interstate 64 between them, primarily through focused recruiting and workforce development efforts.

This marks the 75th year that Lexington chamber leaders have made this annual trip to other cities. And while some good local-improvement ideas and momentum have come from the trips, most people go because it is easily the best local networking opportunity of the year.

Where else can you spend almost three days uninterrupted with the mayor, council members and other top leaders in local government and educational institutions, as well as senior executives of local banks, businesses and nonprofit organizations?

There are still spaces available for those wanting to attend. The cost is $2,200 per person ($200 less if you share a hotel room, and another $300 less if you find your own transportation to and from Charlotte rather than taking one of the chartered jets from Lexington and Louisville.)

Four $1,000 scholarships will be given to “emerging leaders” who want to attend. The deadline for applications was to have been Monday, but it has been extended to April 18.

Scholarship candidates must be ages 21-39 and have demonstrated community involvement, including leadership positions in organizations, said Amy Carrington, Commerce Lexington’s leadership development director.

Registration and more information:


Like much of local black history, 1920s blues song a surprise

February 23, 2014

February is Black History Month, and this is the third year I have written one column a week during the month about Kentucky black history.

I’ve always found history interesting, but working on these pieces has been a special treat, because much of this information is new to both me and most Herald-Leader readers.

While I do some of the research myself, I get a lot of help from professional and amateur historians, both black and white. Like me, they have become fascinated with this rich vein of history that until recent years was rarely explored or publicized.

Special thanks this year to these sources for research, ideas and other information:

  • Yvonne Giles, an amateur historian who has become an authority on Lexington black history. Her extensive research on the Lexington Colored Fair was invaluable.
  • Maureen Peters, a Lexington architect, who pointed me to outstanding research that she and her friend, the architectural historian Rebecca McCarley, had done on brick mason and entrepreneur Henry Tandy and his son, architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
  • Thomas Tolliver, a former Herald-Leader reporter who lives in the East End and is passionate about preserving its history.
  • Former State Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville, who generously shared her own story and information about how the 1964 March on Frankfort was organized.
  • Former State Sen. Joe Graves of Lexington, another March on Frankfort organizer, who candidly discussed how the civil rights movement influenced his life and the white community.
  • The Kentucky Historical Society.

As a postscript, Kakie Urch, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications and a radio host on WRFL, sent me a 1920s blues song I had never heard of before: The Lexington Kentucky Blues, by Papa Charlie Jackson.

Click on the video below to hear Jackson singing about coming to Lexington to play at the Colored Fair, seeing the great racehorse Man O’ War, going to the races, spending time on Limestone Street and meeting J. Rice Porter, the Colored Fair’s president from 1926-28. It sounds as if he had a great time.

Like much of local black history before I started this project, the Lexington Kentucky Blues was new to me.



As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

powers2Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.


LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.

But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.

As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.

“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”

Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”

Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.

Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children and poor, elderly and disabled people.

“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said when I visited her recently.

Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.

“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”

powers1Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.

As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”

Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.

She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.

Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.

Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.

Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.

By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.

“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”

Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”

At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.

She said King had initiated their relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.

Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.

“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!'” More laughter.

Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.

“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”

50 years ago, March on Frankfort pushed Kentucky toward change

February 1, 2014

 march3The March on Frankfort crowd, estimated at 10,000, stretched from the Capitol steps down Capitol Avenue on March 5, 1964. Associated Press photos


This is the story of a black woman from Louisville and a white man from Lexington who helped bring 10,000 people to Frankfort to change Kentucky forever.

The March on Frankfort on March 5, 1964, featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jackie Robinson, who had broken major-league baseball’s color barrier; and the popular folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary.

The 10,000 people who marched to the Capitol steps that cold, wet day were demanding state legislation to keep blacks from being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations.

March organizers knew that Kentucky lawmakers needed public pressure to force them to do the right thing, which has so often been the case.

To mark the 50th anniversary of what became one of the nation’s most significant civil rights protests, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and other groups plan a re-enactment on March 5. (For more information:

The March on Frankfort was the brainchild of the late Frank Stanley Jr., editor of The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper. He recruited King, Robinson and Peter, Paul and Mary to draw national attention to the event, while a network of civil rights and religious leaders throughout Kentucky raised an army of people to march behind them.

march2Georgia Davis Powers was office manager for the march’s organizing committee, Allied Organization for Civil Rights. She came to the role with experience, having organized volunteers for Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt’s losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor in 1963.

But Powers, now 90, told me recently that she began her personal campaign against discrimination many years earlier. Because her factory-worker father was talented enough to get “a white man’s job,” she grew up in Louisville’s black middle class.

“I had a little white girlfriend who was my age, 8 years old, and we wanted to go to school together, but we couldn’t,” she said. “When you are discriminated against, it does something to your psyche and you never get over it.”

Powers’ job on the day of the march was to pick up King and Robinson at Louisville’s airport and bring them to Frankfort. Her brother, who worked at a funeral, got a limousine, and they arranged for a police escort.

“Jackie Robinson rode up front with my brother, and Dr. King got in the back seat with me because I needed to brief him on the bill, where it stood and what I thought the possibilities were,” Powers said. “That was the first time I’d met him.”

She marched a few steps behind King that day and sat beside the stage as he, Robinson and others made remarks to the rain-soaked crowd.

Breathitt wasn’t at the march, although his 15-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, was among the marchers. A reporter told Powers the governor was in his office. “Since he won’t come out,” she told other march leaders, “we’ll go see him.”

So when the benediction had been said and the crowd began dispersing, Powers led King, Robinson, Stanley and a few others inside the Capitol. She knocked on the governor’s door.

The civil rights leaders had a cordial meeting with Breathitt and posed for photographs. But Powers said he was non-committal, explaining that as a new governor he needed to build rapport with legislators.

“He said, ‘I’ll do what I can,'” she recalled. “But the bill failed.”

When the General Assembly met next, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law. Breathitt backed the law. Others instrumental in its passage included Rep. Foster Pettit, who would later become the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, and John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future governor.

A key organizer of white participation in the March on Frankfort was Joe Graves of Lexington, whose background could not have been more different than Powers’.

Graves’ great-grandfather was the younger brother of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in 19th century America. The industrialist later became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy of public library buildings in communities across the nation. Graves’ father owned Graves-Cox, a popular store where well-dressed Lexington men bought their clothes.

Like Powers, Graves said his fight against discrimination began in childhood.

When Graves was 9, illness confined him to a wheelchair. The Carnegie family owned almost all of scenic Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, and he spent time there with relatives. The family hired a black boy his age named William to be a companion.

Graves, 83, recalled in an interview last week how he and William were playing in his aunt’s yard one day at lunchtime, and he called out to her asking if William could stay for lunch. William said, “Joe, I can’t do that. I’m going home for lunch.”

“My aunt couldn’t have heard what he said,” Graves recalled. “But she said, ‘I’m sure William’s mother is expecting him home for lunch.’ I knew something was strange.”

In 1957, while working in his family’s clothing store, Graves persuaded his father to promote a black stock clerk to a sales position so he wouldn’t leave for a better-paying job. The man became the first black clerk in a major Lexington store, and he was so good at it that commissions tripled his previous salary, Graves said.

Three years after, Graves was on the first Lexington Human Rights Commission, negotiating desegregation of the city’s movie theaters. On the day of the March on Frankfort, he was co-chair of Kentuckians for Public Accommodations.

For both Powers and Graves, the March on Frankfort was the beginning of political careers with an emphasis on civil rights.

In 1967, Powers became the first black and the first sixth woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. During 21 years in office, she sponsored much legislation furthering rights for minorities, women and children.

Powers helped lead civil rights marches in several Southern cities. She became a close confidante of King and was with him in Memphis in April 1968 when he was killed. In 1989, the autobiography of King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King also were lovers.

Graves would go on to be a Lexington councilman and work for the election of the city’s first black councilman, Harry Sykes. Graves served in both the state House and Senate in the 1970s.

“As I took that march,” Graves recalled of that day 50 years ago, “I kept thinking of all the people (King) helped and was trying to help.”

Toward the end of our conversation last week, Graves’ voice choked as he told me how he has written instructions for his funeral. He has asked for a mixed-race choir to sing at the service, he said, “and one of the hymns has to be, We Shall Overcome.”



The march headliners were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and baseball great Jackie Robinson, left. Associated Press photo.


King was the featured speaker on the cold, rainy day. Herald-Leader photo.


Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, right, met with, left to right, Frank Stanley Jr., Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Photo by Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

Click here to see a gallery with these and other photos from the 1964 march.



Some Kentucky business stories to watch in 2014

January 6, 2014

Kentucky’s economy begins 2014 with a vigor not seen since the real estate bubble and Wall Street greed crashed the economy more than five years ago. Still, happy days are hardly here again.

Economist Paul Coomes issued a report for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce last month that showed uneven recovery across Kentucky, based on the growth of wages and salaries. The state as a whole starts the year about 34,000 jobs (2 percent) below 2007, the year before the collapse.

Lexington and Louisville have been slower to rebound than the state as a whole. Owensboro had the strongest job growth, thanks largely to a major hospital construction project and a downtown riverfront redevelopment project financed by a local tax increase and $40 million in federal money.

Federal spending also was responsible for Hardin, Madison and Christian counties being the state’s leaders in terms of wage and salary growth. They benefitted from nearby military bases and the destruction of chemical weapons at the Bluegrass Army Depot.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy is usually the state’s weakest, and that is especially true heading into 2014. The region has lost 6,000 coal jobs recently because of four big factors: cheaper western coal, even cheaper natural gas, dwindling coal reserves in the mountains and stricter regulations to limit the environmental damage and health effects caused by mining and burning coal.

Overall, private business around Kentucky seems to be coming back to life. Although interest rates remain extremely low, community bankers grumble that regulations intended to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and biggest banks have made it difficult for them to lend money.

David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s business community overall is poised to do better in 2014 than in recent years. But there are lingering concerns about the financial impact of health care reform.

“There’s growing optimism, but there’s not enthusiasm yet,” Adkisson said of the state’s business climate, noting that Kentucky’s central location is a plus. “That’s an advantage nobody can take away.”

Business people will be keeping a close watch on the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 7. The state budget will again be the biggest issue, with a lot of attention focused on restoring recent cuts to educational investment. But, as usual, there is likely to be little appetite among lawmakers for comprehensive tax reform to address chronic state funding shortages.

Adkisson said some beneficial tax changes are likely, and Kentucky should reap some savings from recent reforms to prisons and state employee pensions.

Here are some economic stories to watch in 2014:

■ Lexington’s huge medical services industry should see a lot of action as major construction projects progress and the Affordable Care Act expands the availability of health insurance.

University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center’s $1 billion expansion should see the completion of its 64-bed cardiovascular floor. Baptist Healthcare Lexington, formerly Central Baptist, will be going full tilt on its $230 million renovation and addition, scheduled to be finished in late 2015. Shriners Hospital is moving forward with plans for a new facility near Kentucky Children’s Hospital on the UK campus.

■ The Federation Equestre Internationale will announce this year whether the 2018 World Equestrian Games will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park. That was the site of the 2010 Games, which were successful thanks in large part to the active sponsorship of Alltech, the Nicholasville-based nutrition supplement company. Alltech also is the main sponsor of the 2014 Games, Aug. 23-Sept. 7, in Normandy, France.

With so many excellent competition facilities already in place, Lexington would seem to be in a good position to again host the Games, providing another big boost to Kentucky’s economy.

■ After five years of delays, construction is supposed to begin soon on the huge CentrePointe hotel, apartment, office and retail development in downtown Lexington. Developer Dudley Webb demolished a block of historic buildings for the project in 2008 but couldn’t get financing to build.

The first step in construction will be excavating a huge underground parking garage without breaching the century-old culvert containing Town Branch Creek. Because CentrePointe is getting some tax breaks, the city required Webb to show proof of construction financing and put up $4.4 million to restore the site in case he runs out of money. The goal is to keep CentrePasture from ending up as CentrePit or CentrePond.

■ This year will see more details about proposals for redeveloping Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the huge surface parking lots surrounding them. And then there is the visionary plan to create Town Branch Commons, a connected greenway along the path of long-buried Town Branch Creek. They are ambitious proposals that will require even more ambitious financing plans.

■ The state Transportation Cabinet is likely to decide by late this year whether to recommend construction of the I-75 connector highway between Nicholasville and Interstate 75 in Madison County. Boosters say the $400-plus million project would be good for business. But opponents call it a special-interest boondoggle, a waste of public money that would cause substantial environmental damage to a section of the scenic Kentucky River Palisades south of Lexington.

■ A lot of excitement was generated Dec. 9 when more than 1,500 people gathered in Pikeville for a public forum launching a bipartisan effort to create new economic development strategies for Eastern Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, are leading the project, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.

The coming year will show whether the effort called SOAR, or Shaping our Appalachian Region, amounts to a breakthrough or just more empty talk.

■ Another ambitious economic-development effort is the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, or BEAM. Mayors Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville launched it with the goal of attracting more advanced manufacturing jobs to the 22-county region around and between the two cities, which already includes Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. and many of its suppliers.

In late November, Gray and Fischer unveiled a BEAM strategic plan around the ideas of embracing innovation, increasing Kentucky exports and improving education and workforce development. It’s a sensible vision, but whether Kentucky leaders will find the political will to invest in making it happen remains to be seen.

Staff writers Janet Patton and Cheryl Truman contributed to this report. 

For good and bad, Matt Jones stirs passions in Big Blue Nation

December 22, 2013


University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, center, talks with Matt Jones on Oct. 4 in a parking lot behind Memorial Coliseum while Jones was doing a remote broadcast of his daily Kentucky Sports Radio show. At right is Drew Franklin, one of Jones’ staff members. Photos by Tom Eblen


Love him or hate him, it is hard to ignore Matt Jones, who has built the Kentucky Sports Radio franchise he created eight years ago into a major force in the Big Blue Nation.

As the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team prepares for Saturday’s annual game against archrival Louisville, huge numbers of UK fans will be reading, which Jones calls the “largest independent sports blog in America.”

They will come for an entertaining mix of news, commentary, rumor and humor, delivered in what the blog calls “the most ridiculous manner possible.” Jones and his staff are constantly posting comments and links to the blog on Twitter.

Each weekday morning, many of the blog’s readers also will listen to Jones’ two-hour radio call-in show, which is broadcast on 24 stations throughout Kentucky, including WLAP-AM in Lexington. The show is one of the most popular sports podcasts on iTunes.

But since basketball season never really ends in Kentucky, this won’t be much different than a typical week.

Last summer, Jones and sidekicks Ryan Lemond and Drew Franklin spent five weeks doing remote radio broadcasts all over the state. When the tour came to Lexington, hundreds showed up at Whitaker Bank Ballpark to watch them talk.

Nearly 200 fans attended their remote broadcast Oct. 4 from an asphalt basketball court behind Memorial Coliseum. That was during the annual campout of UK fans waiting to get tickets for Big Blue Madness, the official start of basketball practice.

Justin Whited of London was one of them, and he was eager to pose for a picture with Jones. “They talk about topics we like,” he said of the KSR crew. “They’re funny, too.”

Jeff Swann, who waited in line for Jones’ autograph, said he listens to the show every morning with co-workers at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Louisville. “We get a kick out of the callers,” Swann said. “And he has good guests.”

Midway through the broadcast, the best possible guest made a surprise appearance: UK Coach John Calipari joined Jones for a few minutes of banter as spectators hung on every word.

“Calipari was a huge part of our success,” Jones said in an interview, noting that the popularity of his blog and radio show soared between the time Calipari arrived in Kentucky in 2009 and three years later, when he led UK to the NCAA championship.

“Our site exploded as Cal exploded, as the Internet exploded,” he said. “Right time, right place.”

Jones also credits KSR’s success to his embrace of emerging technology, such as Twitter, and his basic approach to business: “My goal every day on the radio show and on the website is to give the consumer what they want.”

KSR’s approach also has included attacking traditional sports media. Individual journalists have been lampooned in blog posts and manipulated images. A few social media posts about them have been personal and vulgar.

But journalists say what angers them most is that KSR writers lift their reporting without credit, a violation of journalism ethics. Jones counters that much of that material comes from news conferences, which he considers fair game.

“They get mad because I’m not sitting there and I have the same stuff they do,” he said. “That’s just petty.”

Lifting photos is a bigger issue. The Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Kernel and other news organizations have repeatedly demanded that KSR’s blog stop reposting their copyright photographs without permission.

“I think Matt Jones and KSR act as though they’re traditional media when it suits them, but they turn on traditional media when it suits them,” said Creig Ewing, sports editor of the Courier-Journal in Louisville. “They play it both ways.”

Jones’ media model has become common in the big-money worlds of sports and politics, where the values of journalism have been replaced by the values of show business. Jones is more Howard Stern than Tom Hammond.

“I think we’re hated by everyone” in the media, Jones said. “But I like that. I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t bother me. So long as our fans like us, I don’t care what our competitors, or peers, or whatever think.

“I’m not a journalist,” he added. “I consider myself to be somewhat of an entertainer and a news processor. Am I objective? I think I would say I’m as objective as any UK fan that wants his team to win.”

Always a fan

UK sports has always been a passion for Matthew Harper Jones, who was born in Lexington in 1978 and lived in Cynthiana before his parents divorced. His mother, Karen Blondell, married now-retired school teacher Larry Blondell in 1985, and the family moved to Middlesboro. She is the commonwealth’s attorney in Bell County.

An only child, Jones went to basketball games with his late grandfather, including watching future UK star Richie Farmer play high school ball in Clay County. The family didn’t have tickets to Rupp Arena but went to the Southeastern Conference Tournament almost every year.

Jones graduated from Middlesboro High School and Transylvania University before earning a law degree from Duke University. He clerked for three federal courts before practicing law for five years, first with the firm Frost Brown Todd and then on his own as he was starting Kentucky Sports Radio.

In addition to sports, Jones is passionate about politics. His liberal bent led him to support Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, while Jones was clerking in Washington.

Dean’s candidacy fizzled, but his campaign’s pioneering use of emerging Internet technology fascinated Jones: “I sort of thought about all of those things and said, ‘That stuff can be done with Kentucky!'”

Jones began doing a sports podcast for the website Kentucky Sports Report, but the arrangement didn’t last long.

“They thought it was too controversial, so I started as a place to put the podcast,” he said. The podcast had few listeners, but a blog he added attracted a following. “I’ve often said it goes to show the randomness of life,” Jones said. “If (Kentucky Sports Report) had just let me put my podcast on there, I probably would have done it for a few weeks, nobody would have cared and I would have quit.

“But once they sort of said ‘You can’t do it,’ I was determined to show them that I could be successful,” he said. “A lot of things we’ve done has been my belligerence at being told ‘that’s not going to work’ and me saying, ‘Well, I’m going to show you.'”

Building a franchise

Jones co-owns the KSR website with a friend, Andrew Jefferson. It employs two full-time writers, Drew Franklin and Tyler Thompson, who works from her home in Nashville, and a part-time writer, Ally Tucker. It also uses unpaid student interns.

When people complain about the blog’s frat-boy humor, Jones notes that two of his three paid writers are women. “I’m proud of that,” he said.

The blog averages more than 150,000 unique visitors a day, with page views ranging from 180,000 up to 220,000 at the height of basketball season, Jones said. All content is free to readers, with revenues coming from advertising and merchandise sales. Jones wouldn’t disclose profits, but he said the site “is much more successful than I ever expected.”

The blog’s success led three years ago to the radio show partnership with Clear Channel Communications. Jones’ on-air partner is Lemond, who covered sports for WLEX-TV for 11 years before leaving in 2007 to sell real estate, which he continues to do. He joined KSR in 2011.

Jones and Lemond said they think the show appeals to both men and women because they not only talk about sports, but about their lives as UK fans and the culture and lifestyle that has grown up around Kentucky basketball.

“As a journalist, you’re not supposed to be a fan,” said Lemond, who does the show from a Lexington studio while Jones usually works from a studio in Louisville, where he lives. “But on this show, you can be as much of a fan as the people calling in.”

Jones said he thinks the show’s secret ingredient is his personal chemistry, on and off the air, with Lemond, 47, and Franklin, 28, who joined KSR in 2009 after graduating from UK with a marketing degree. They describe each other as close friends, almost brothers.

“He comes across as abrasive on the radio, but he has a big heart,” Lemond said of Jones. Added Franklin: “Matt’s great to work with — probably the smartest guy I know.”

Jones has expanded the KSR brand to other media gigs, which include a one-minute commentary on WKYT-TV’s late-night newscast and work as a sideline reporter for UK’s official radio broadcast team.

He and Louisville radio personality Tony Vanetti do Cats-Cards debate segments for WAVE-TV and the Voice Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Louisville.

“He’s got the invaluable trait that radio talk show hosts have to have — he gets under people’s skin. That’s gold in this industry,” Vanetti said. “He does his homework, and he’s a great debater. I love to get in the ring with him.”

Vanetti said they are good friends, but he understands why Jones rubs some fans and other media people the wrong way. “He can be harsh,” he said. “He gets personal, no question. He is playing to his audience to the Nth degree.”

Beyond UK sports, Jones has provided color at big events for the Tennis Channel and He worked the Masters golf tournament for a partnership between Izod and Maxim magazine. Jones even had a cameo appearance in actress Laura Bell Bundy’s new music video, Kentucky Dirty.

Jones blogged about college basketball for, but the deal lasted only six months. “I sucked at it, because I didn’t care about it,” he said. “They wanted me to be a reporter, and I’m not a reporter. I’m an entertainer, a commentator.”

Friends and critics alike say Jones, who is single, can be an intense, volatile personality. “I create strong opinions, pro and con, in people,” Jones said.

For a KSR blog post celebrating Jones’ 35th birthday Aug. 28, Lemond contributed a humorous list: Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Matthew Harper Jones. Three of the 10 were: “He yells at people a lot.”

Jones spent two years as host of Kentucky Sports Television on Time Warner Cable, then called Insight, but his contract wasn’t renewed in June 2012. Those who worked closely with him there declined to comment on him or the circumstances of his departure.

“I was very difficult to get along with for a period of time, and that’s my fault,” Jones said. “I wish I had some of that time back.”

“Matt’s a big personality,” said Kenny Colston, who was a political reporter at Insight when Jones was there and now edits The Oldham Era newspaper near Louisville. “You either love him or hate him.”

Many Kentucky sports journalists fall into the latter category. Several said they dislike Jones because of the way he has treated them or others. There have been a few nasty exchanges between them and Jones on Twitter and Facebook, but none wanted to speak about him for attribution in this article.

The Calipari factor

Jones said he accepts some of the blame for his poor relationships with journalists. But he also said he thinks many of them are jealous of his success — his audience, his good relationship with Calipari and the access that has provided.

“A huge part, maybe the most important part of them not liking me, is the access we have,” he said.

“Coach Cal does have his go-to guys, and that does rub people the wrong way,” Lemond said. “But everybody had equal opportunity to get to know (Calipari) and get on his good side.”

When Calipari took UK’s 2012 NCAA title team on a bus tour across Kentucky to show off their trophy, Jones was invited to ride along.

“Everybody assumes, ‘Well, Matt just does what Calipari wants,'” Jones said. “Let’s face it: 98 percent of the things Cal does I agree with. We have a similar mindset. I would ask the average person, ‘How many times has he screwed up?'”

“Remember, I ran this site when (Calipari’s predecessor) Billy Gillispie was here,” he added. “And when Billy Gillispie was here, he wouldn’t speak to me.”

Part of the tension between Jones and others in the press box stems from their radically different views about the role and ethics of news media in college sports. Jones said he appreciates good journalism, but he’s running a business.

“In no other business is it the case that not giving the consumer what they want makes sense,” Jones said of journalism. As an example, he cited the Pulitzer Prize the Herald-Leader received in 1986 for exposing cash payoffs to UK basketball players, a scandal that led to major reforms in the program.

“To the average fan, that’s the worst thing you all have ever done,” he said. “My goal is not to win the state journalism award. My goal is to make the consumer happy.”

Jones thinks journalists should focus less on controversy and more on what fans want to read and hear. KSR doesn’t ignore “negative” stories about UK sports, Jones said. Once they break, he and his staff comment on them. But they don’t go looking for them.

“I like breaking stories, but I don’t like to break the bad-news stories,” Jones said. “I let someone else do that. For my customers, breaking bad news doesn’t help me.”

“Clearly, KSR has found an audience,” said Peter Baniak, the editor of the Herald-Leader. “But there also is a strong audience for journalism that examines sports, the business of sports and other institutions from every angle.”

The biggest issue KSR has faced with other media is its use of their copyright photographs without permission or payment. KSR has received many “cease and desist” letters. Jones hasn’t been sued, but that could change.

The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, reported Nov. 6 that two tires had been slashed on senior guard Jon Hood’s Toyota Tundra and he had gotten a $25 ticket because he couldn’t move it from a university parking lot. Much of the Kernel’s online report, including two photos, was quickly copied onto KSR’s blog.

“We have made a claim to him and he’s denied it, and we’re in negotiations with him,” said Jon Fleischaker, a prominent Louisville media attorney representing the Kernel. “I am hopeful that we can do that without litigation.”

Jones declined to comment on the Kernel issue. But he said access to photos is a big part of the partnership he announced Dec. 9 with 247Sports. That company operates the website, which hires freelance photographers to shoot UK games. Since then, those photos also have been appearing on KSR’s blog.

What’s the future?

For the first time since he started KSR in 2005, Jones said he is satisfied.

Jones attributes much of the company’s success to the team he has assembled. Maintaining that team chemistry and keeping up with emerging technology will be key to holding and growing KSR’s audience, he said.

“You have to have traffic to succeed,” he said. “We’ll just have to adapt with the times. Whatever the technology is out there, (I want to) make KSR the No. 1 brand.”

Jones blogs less than he used to — “blogging is a young man’s game” — and that has him thinking about his own future.

“I’m an OK writer, but I’m not really a writer. There are a lot of people better than me,” he said. “I’m OK on television, but I’m not great on television. But I’m good at radio. When you’re doing something you love and you can feel it click, you just want to keep doing it.”

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