New book chronicles colorful history of Kentucky’s oldest church

August 5, 2014

140730Anders-TE0022Mickey Anders, the recently retired pastor of South Elkhorn Christian Church, in the 1870 old sanctuary. He recently wrote a book about the church’s history. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Church histories are usually of little interest outside the flock. But when I heard about a new book telling the story of South Elkhorn Christian Church, I thought it would be worth a look.

The church has been located on the banks of South Elkhorn Creek — now 4343 Harrodsburg Road — since 1784. But the congregation was formed in Virginia in 1767, making it arguably the oldest in Kentucky.

“This church has an incredible story that needed to be told,” said Mickey Anders, who recently retired as pastor and is the author of An Ever Flowing Stream ($18, Amazon.com). “I felt like this could be my legacy gift to the church.”

Earlier books, in 1933 and 1983, had told some of the history. But Anders thought he could do a better job with the wealth of information now available on the Internet. It helped that he had access to almost all of the church governing board’s minutes going back to 1817.

Lewis Craig started Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church near Fredericksburg, Va., in 1767. But he and other Baptist preachers soon angered officials of the Anglican Church, the government-sanctioned religion of colonial Virginia.

Craig was jailed for his preaching, and Patrick Henry is said to have interceded to free him. Craig soon led his congregation over the Appalachian Mountains to Kentucky in what became known as “The Traveling Church.”

Colonial Virginia’s persecution of Craig and other Baptists was a big reason framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 included the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedoms of speech, religion and the press.

Craig’s brother, Elijah, was also a Baptist minister who came to Kentucky. But he is more famous as an early distiller of bourbon whiskey. “We’re probably the only church with whiskey on display in our history cabinet,” Anders said, pointing to a couple of bottles of Elijah Craig bourbon amid other artifacts.

The church’s attitudes toward some social behavior have changed over time, Anders said.

South Elkhorn paid its second pastor on one occasion with 36 gallons of whiskey, and he was expected to keep an ample supply on hand for guests. A few decades later, the church dismissed members for excessive drinking. Now, Anders said, alcohol is usually “not an issue.”

Two South Elkhorn members were reprimanded for betting on horse races in 1895. A year ago, Anders preached the funeral of church member Robert Moore, a Thoroughbred trainer who broke four Kentucky Derby winners.

Lewis Craig and other early members owned slaves, who attended church with their masters. The 1819 minutes included this entry: “Lucy (Capt. Berry’s woman) charged with fornication and murdering her own infant. The church took up the matter and excluded her for the same.” Anders wonders: Was it her master’s baby?

South Elkhorn reached peak membership in 1801 during the so-called Second Great Awakening. The most famous of those revivals was at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, but on the same day, 10,000 people gathered at South Elkhorn.

Anders was especially fascinated by 19th century theological disputes, which now seem esoteric but then caused bitter divisions in congregations and even families. They led to a split in South Elkhorn’s congregation in 1822.

“Reading the minutes, it was difficult to tell what the fight was about,” Anders said. “It took me months to piece together that it was really over Calvinism and Arminianism,” two views of Christian theology.

The Elkhorn Baptist Association expelled its mother church over theological differences in 1831. South Elkhorn became an independent Church of Christ and later affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination. Over the next century, congregational disputes would involve everything from instrumental music to evolution.

After the 1830s, the area’s religious center of gravity moved to a growing Lexington. South Elkhorn spent the next 150 years as a “sleepy little country church,” Anders said. It didn’t even have complete indoor plumbing until 1961, when the men’s outhouse mysteriously burned down one Sunday morning.

South Elkhorn began growing again in the 1980s, when it was surrounded by Palomar, Firebrook and other new subdivisions. In 1985, a larger worship center was built beside the historic 1870 sanctuary.

“I think it’s a story worth telling,” Anders said. “It connects with so much of Lexington’s history, with the nation’s history, with the history of religion in the area.”

 


Photo exhibit explores friendship between Merton and Meatyard

June 14, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rabbi has had influence throughout Lexington faith community

May 18, 2014

marcklineRabbi Marc Kline on the front porch of his Lexington home. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

In a city with a Jewish population of just over 1 percent, a rabbi’s departure might not attract a lot of attention. But Marc Kline leaves a legacy far beyond his own Lexington faith community.

Kline, rabbi at Temple Adath Israel on North Ashland Avenue for the past 11 years, is moving to Tinton Falls, N.J., this summer to lead Monmouth Reform Temple.

“I never thought I would leave Lexington,” he said. “I had planned on retiring here. Man plans and God laughs.”

Kline, 53, grew up in Las Vegas, graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans and earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The “recovering lawyer” later studied at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to be a rabbi and ministered eight years in Florence, S.C., before moving here.

In Lexington, Kline’s congregation grew. His children grew up. When his wife, Cindy, died in 2008, he felt the community’s love — including the tough love of friends who urged him to get in shape. Kline met Lori Bernard and remarried in 2010.

“I have experienced so many more blessings than challenges here,” he said.

Kline will be remembered in Lexington for his tireless work to bridge gaps of religion, race and culture. He chaired the city’s Human Rights Commission, served on civic organization boards and taught pastoral care to Christian ministerial students at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Kline opened his pulpit to other religious leaders, and they opened theirs to him.

The first time Kline invited a local Muslim imam to speak at the Temple, he recalled, “there were people who didn’t show up believing that he would come strapped with bombs to his chest. All he did was simply thank the congregation for the opportunity to share the Sabbath. What an eye-opening experience!”

“When Mark Johnson (senior minister at Central Baptist Church) shows up at Temple now,” he added, “it’s not ‘The Baptist minister is here,’ it’s ‘Oh, Mark’s here again.”

Kline has become close friends with several leaders from other religions and races.

He meets weekly with a group of Protestant clergy friends to discuss the Bible from different perspectives.

“We have expanded each other’s conversation,” he said. “And we’ve been able to create a lot of conversations that our town just hasn’t had.”

Kline said they share similar concerns, from secularization to fundamentalism.

“We’ve got a fundamentalism in one part of this community that seems to want to believe that it’s the only voice,” Kline said. “I believe in faith first. I think religious denominations give us frameworks through which we can practice faith. But I refuse to accept that there are different Gods in the world. And I refuse to accept that God likes some of us more than others.”

As Kline prepares to leave Lexington, I asked him to reflect on the city: its strengths, weaknesses and challenges.

“There are two Lexingtons, at least,” he said. “One is a very conservative, very old school. The other Lexington is one of the most progressive cities in America. And the two co-exist, sometimes with more tension, sometimes with none. This community has grown a lot in 11 years, but still there’s a racial divide and a cultural divide.

“I’m finding that there are more and more people, because they are transplants here, who are not vested in the old Lexington,” he added. “At the same time, there’s some rebellion from old Lexington because they feel their city is being taken from them. It plays out at Temple. It plays out in churches. It plays out in politics, certainly.

“In all of that struggle, everyone will say, ‘I’m working for a better Lexington,’ and I believe everyone means it,” he said.

In his extensive organizational consulting work, Kline said he talks a lot about change — how change is inevitable, and choosing to embrace it or not is often the choice between organizational life and death.

“As the world continues to change, we’re not looking at a homogenous Lexington or Kentucky anymore,” he said. “You have people coming in with different religious experiences, cultural experiences, social norms. The population is diversifying, which is creating all sorts of different conversations.”

The key to a successful city, Kline said, is strong relationships.

“We have an obligation as we move forward in this global world to get to know each other, to find out what makes each other tick,” he said. “Because so many of the things that divide us are completely artificial. We don’t see that we really are all the same.”


Lexington couple watches Afghan election with personal interest

April 1, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.”


As campaign season officially begins, a call for civility

January 28, 2014

The filing deadline for Kentucky elections was Tuesday, and you know what that means: Radio and TV will soon be awash in attack ads for the Senate and Congressional races, and even some local campaigns are likely to turn ugly.

The Kentucky Council of Churches doesn’t think it should be that way. The 66-year-old organization that represents more than a dozen Catholic and Protestant denominations and fellowships has launched a year-long initiative to try to raise the level of civility in public discourse.

“The idea emerged from a sense that their congregations are often torn apart by conflicts with roots in the larger culture,” said the Rev. Marian McClure Taylor, a Presbyterian minister and the council’s executive director. “Faith can escalate the level of intensity of debate about public issues.”

Taylor, who earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University before going to seminary, thinks the intensity of partisan politics may be the biggest cause of incivility today, and it often is amplified by opinion media and social media.

“One of the strategies to win political races now is to drive wedges on a few issues that people will get intensely emotional about,” she said. “You win elections by convincing people they need to go to war against people who believe differently.”

This isn’t a new topic for the council. In 1995, its board approved a Statement of Campaign Ethics, which it hopes to bring new attention to it. The statement begins with passages from the Bible’s book of Exodus, warning against bearing false witness and spreading false reports.

Among other things, the statement rejects personal attacks, “innuendo and lies”, secrecy in campaign financing, single-issue voting, media promotion of “undue polarization” and voting for self-interest rather than public good.

The council devoted its annual meeting last October to the topic. The council is asking for nominations for awards it plans to present this October for people who are good models for civility in public dialogue.

Taylor has been preaching on the topic, and more programs are planned later this year. She also is considering whether the council should call out politicians whose campaign tactics violate the Statement of Campaign Ethics. Even if the council doesn’t find a way to hold politicians accountable, she said, voters should.

Religious leaders aren’t the only ones concerned about this issue, which has made politics nastier and governing more difficult.

Jonathan Haidt, a social scientist at the University of Virginia and author of the 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, sees incivility as a natural result of polarization. Today’s political parties are more “ideologically pure” than in the past and compromise is often seen as a betrayal of principle.

Haidt thinks part of this is the result of demographics: the generation that came together to fight a common enemy during World War II was succeeded by Baby Boomers who grew up fighting each other over the Vietnam War, civil rights and social issues.

It also is easier now for Americans to segregate themselves by where they live, who they associate with and what media they read, listen to and watch. Media choices often create “confirmation bias” rather than exposing people to divergent views, driving people to extremes rather than bringing them to consensus.

Haidt writes that one way for conservatives and liberals to better understand each other is by focusing on the way they perceive and balance six basic moral concerns: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

So how can we make public and political discourse more civil?

Haidt thinks the first step is to make political “demonization” as socially unacceptable as, say, racism or sexism. It’s also a matter of acknowledging that those we disagree with are not crazy or evil. They just disagree.

Taylor urges politicians and voters to focus on issues rather than personalities; to talk with people and discuss ideas rather than simply labeling them; and to avoid assigning motives to those with whom we disagree.

“The blind spot we have is thinking everyone else needs this,” she said. “If we can get to the point where we realize we all need this, then we’ll be getting somewhere.”


Warwick: historic Kentucky home meets a scholar’s imagination

January 18, 2014

140116Warwick0041

Clay Lancaster lived in the circa 1809 Moses Jones house at his Warwick estate. The small but elegant house was built by a successful merchant along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SALVISA — Warwick, the 205-year-old brick cottage that architectural historian Clay Lancaster restored and embellished with “folly” structures from his rich imagination, will be open Sunday afternoon for a rare public tour.

The open house is being given by the non-profit Warwick Foundation, which Lancaster created before his death in 2000 to care for the property and promote his many interests, which included historic preservation and cross-cultural understanding.

140116Warwick0053In additions to tours of his home, drawings gallery and two “folly” buildings, visitors can buy copies of some of the more than two dozen books Lancaster wrote. They include everything from scholarly tomes to illustrated children’s books on subjects ranging from early Kentucky architecture to Asian philosophy.

The event is the first of several the foundation plans this year to help more people appreciate Warwick and Lancaster’s brilliant legacy as a scholar, writer, artist and Renaissance man.

“He had so many interests,” said Paul Holbrook, the foundation’s president and a friend of Lancaster. “He was driven by his interests.”

Lancaster was born in Lexington in 1917 and grew up in the Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They sparked Lancaster’s interest in bungalow architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

He studied at the University of Kentucky before moving to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, Vassar College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was curator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

140116Warwick0083Lancaster wrote about architecture in Brooklyn and on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, where he restored an 1829 house and lived for several years. He became an influential advocate for historic preservation, both in the Northeast and in Kentucky.

The New York Times said his book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes. His meticulous scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge of and efforts to preserve Kentucky’s outstanding early architecture. His books on the subject are the authoritative reference works: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City(1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991).

When a friend, architectural historian and retired Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, notified Lancaster in 1978 that the Warwick property he had long admired was for sale, he bought it and moved back to Kentucky.

The property along the Kentucky River in Mercer County includes a brick cottage of superb craftsmanship built by Moses Jones, a pioneer entrepreneur, between 1809-1811. The house’s elaborately carved woodwork includes basket-weave patterns on the mantels that were inspired by Jones’ 9-year captivity as a child among the Chickasaw tribe in Tennessee.

Lancaster meticulously restored the Moses Jones house and added a wing for his bedroom, kitchen and library. He furnished it with Kentucky antiques, as well as art and furniture from Asia, a place he never visited but studied and wrote about in such books as The Japanese Influence in America (1983) and The Breadth and Depth of East and West (1995).

Lancaster was a vegan, a yoga enthusiast and a convert to Buddhism who, nevertheless, delighted his many friends each year with whimsical Christmas cards he illustrated.

Thanks to a windfall from the sale of farmland inherited from his father, Lancaster built two architectural “follies,” fanciful structures he had delighted in drawing since childhood. The first was Warwick Pavilion, a small, elegant Georgian tea room connected to a stockroom for books he wrote and published.

The second folly is a three-story, octagonal guest house, modeled after the 1st Century BC Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece. No more than 25 feet at its widest point, the tower is a masterpiece of compact design with three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, studio, winding staircase and elegant, elliptical parlor.

The guest house, meticulously built by Calvin Shewmaker and other local craftsmen, is now used for visiting scholars, including UK’s annual Clay Lancaster Scholar.

“It’s such an interesting collection of buildings and a lovely setting,” Holbrook said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get more people there to see it.”

If you go

Warwick Foundation open house and book sale

When: Noon — 4 p.m. Jan. 19.
Where: Warwick is on Oregon Road about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa.
More information: (859) 494-2852, Warwickfoundation.org

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MLK Day speaker, singer a voice of civil rights for four decades

January 14, 2014

821024BerniceReagon003Bernice Johnson Reagon, right foreground, speaks during a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock at 50th anniversary festivities for the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., on Oct. 24, 1982. Other members of the a cappella ensemble performing that day were Yasmeen Williams, right, and, hidden behind her, Evelyn M. Harris, Ysaye M. Barnwell and Aisha Kahlil, Yasmeen Williams. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bernice Johnson Reagon thinks back on her childhood in segregated southwest Georgia, she recalls a force more powerful than injustice: music.

“I was born in a culture where music was breath,” she said in an interview last week. “If you start to sing as soon as you start to talk, then there’s no separation between talking and singing.”

Reagon will be doing a lot of both Monday, when she is to be the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. program at Lexington Center’s Heritage Hall. And that’s a good thing.

In addition to being a much-honored scholar, historian and social activist, Reagon has provided one of the most beautiful and powerful voices of the civil rights movement for 53 years.

Reagon, 71, was born outside Albany, Ga., the third child of Beatrice and the Rev. Jessie Johnson.

“If we weren’t in school, we were in church,” she said, describing how she and her young friends sang grace at lunch and games on the playground. “Music was everywhere in the culture I was born into.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon: singer, civil rights activist. Photo by Sharon FarmerIt was only natural that music would play a central role in the Albany Movement, an anti-segregation coalition that in 1961 focused national attention on racial discrimination in her hometown.

While in high school, Reagon was secretary of the junior chapter of the NAACP. She later participated in some of the first civil rights demonstrations in Albany, which got her expelled from Albany State College and put in jail.

She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and became a member of the famous Freedom Singers, a touring quartet formed by Cordell Reagon, the man she would marry.

“I didn’t go back to complete college until after my second child was born,” said Reagon, who graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and earned a doctorate in history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“But I continued to do the work that got me put in jail,” she said. “I didn’t have to change who I was to do that.”

In 1973, while a graduate student and vocal director of DC Black Repertory Theatre, Reagon formed Sweet Honey In the Rock, a black women’s a cappella ensemble that has toured the world and has made acclaimed recordings ever since. Reagon led the group until her retirement from it in 2004.

“I came out of the civil rights movement with an understanding of and a respect for strong-harmony, unaccompanied singing,” she said. “And singing that in terms of text spoke to injustice and the importance of believing that you can change the world.”

Reagon is a history professor emerita at American University in Washington D.C. and curator emerita of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her scholarship has focused on American black music traditions.

She was the principal scholar and host of Wade in the Water, a Peabody Award-winning series produced by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio in the 1980s. She was the score composer for Africans in America, a PBS documentary film series in 1998.

Reagon has been a music consultant, composer and performer for several film products, including BelovedEyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. In 2003, she wrote the music and libretto for Robert Wilson’s production, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which has been performed around the world.

Reagon’s many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship (1989) and a Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the humanities (1995). She has a long list of solo and ensemble recordings. She has collaborated with many other musicians, including her daughter, Toshi Reagon.

Although much progress has been made since she began working in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, Reagon sees many challenges of injustice, imbalance and inequity, such as environmental justice and the very survival of the planet.

“My sense of injustice is much broader now,” she said. “I’ve found myself pulled to listen and learn, and I think that has kept me true to the young girl who was the secretary of the first junior chapter of the NAACP in Albany, Ga. I guess I’m describing a great life.”


Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

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Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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Thirty years after closing, Hazel Green Academy lives on in memory

August 13, 2013

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More than 100 people attended Hazel Green Academy’s annual reunion in the Wolfe County town of Hazel Green. They signed in by decade on an old classroom chalkboard. The boarding school for Eastern Kentucky children closed 30 years ago. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

HAZEL GREEN — As we drove into this Wolfe County town of 228 people, Bob Tutt asked me to pull the car into a hillside cemetery so he could find Henry Stovall’s grave.

Beside the headstone stood a granite monument that former students had erected to the memory of the longtime director of Hazel Green Academy.

“He had a big influence on my life,” Tutt said of the tall, tough Mississippian who instilled character and discipline in students without ever raising his voice.

“The first time you got in trouble, you had to talk to Mr. Stovall.” said Tutt, a student in the early 1940s. “I had to talk to him one time, and if there had been a crawdad hole I would have gone in it. I’ve never forgotten it, and I’m almost 85.”

At the boarding school’s old campus Saturday, we found more than 100 other former students. Many had their own stories of long-ago teachers, mentors, life lessons and life-changing experiences.

Founded in 1880 by local residents, Hazel Green Academy was one of the few comprehensive schools available to young men and women in this part of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains.

The Disciples of Christ adopted the school in 1886 and operated it as a mission, with tuition and boarding costs offset by outside donations and work scholarships for students. The academy’s motto was, “Where we find a path or make one.”

When they weren’t in the classroom building or dormitories, or studying industrial arts or home economics, Hazel Green’s boys and girls worked on the school farm, in the dairy and around campus. There were basketball and baseball teams, and folk dancing was a popular pastime.

As public schools were established in the area, the academy stopped teaching the first six grades in 1929. But under Stovall’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, course offerings and community services grew.

The school had its own water and power plants, which supplied electricity to the town into the 1930s. At various times, Hazel Green Academy also provided the community with a library and a small hospital. When World War II ended, the school’s farm donated more than six tons of food for European relief.

“It was the lifeblood of Hazel Green,” said Ralph Locker, 93, who moved to the town and opened a store after serving in the war under Gen. George S. Patton.

But the academy’s role declined as roads and public schools improved. In 1965, grades 7 and 8 were discontinued. The high school closed after the class of 1983 graduated.

Over the years, many students went on to college, especially Berea College, which was similarly designed to educate the children of mountain families of modest means. Hazel Green produced many teachers, doctors and community leaders.

The Bickers brothers — Don in South Carolina, Bob in Idaho and Jerry in Winchester — came back to the reunion because Hazel Green Academy was much more than a school to them.

“We came from a broken home in Owenton, and this became our home,” said Bob Bickers, a retired AT&T technician. “Three meals a day, a bed and friends. It turned our lives around. We all went on to make something of ourselves.”

Since the academy closed, the denomination and Hazel Green Christian Church have managed the campus, which is now used for conferences and events. The buildings had fallen into disrepair over the years, and that bothered Rita Rogers, whose husband, Roy, attended the academy.

“Even though I went to the rival high school,” she said, “I recognized what a special place this is.”

Rogers helped organize an alumni effort to restore the main classroom building. Now, each room has been “adopted” by groups of alumni, cleaned and decorated with old school memorabilia. She and others eventually hope to restore other campus buildings.

“Hazel Green Academy was just a special thing to be a part of,” said Scott Lockard, who graduated in the last class in 1983 and is now Clark County’s public health director. “It was so much more than a place to fill your mind. My spirit was filled here, too.”

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New gardener restoring Shaker tradition of sustainable agriculture

July 23, 2013

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Zach Davis, 22, picks string beans in his garden at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The garden is providing about 30 percent of the vegetables that will be used this year in Shaker Village’s restaurant. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

HARRODSBURG — When Zachary Davis was hired in November to grow vegetables at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, he took stock of what he had to work with: an antique hoe and a 200-year-old garden plot.

Actually, he had a lot more than that. Davis, 22, had a degree in sustainable agriculture and a good understanding of faith-based land stewardship. He also had bosses who saw his garden as a way to make the Shakers’ legacy relevant today.

“We want to demonstrate their principles of sustainability and how to use and care for the land, but we want to do it in a 21st-century way,” said Maynard Crossland, Shaker Village’s executive director, who was hired two years ago to bring new life and financial stability to the nonprofit property.

Most people don’t know much about the Shakers who settled in Mercer County in 1806, except that they belonged to a Christian sect that lived communally, made elegantly simple furniture and buildings, and didn’t believe in sex.

130710ShakerGarden0023The Shakers also were masters of what we now call sustainable agriculture, raising food to feed themselves and sell to neighbors, and running a large seed business before the Civil War. They were innovators and inventors, equipping their large dormitorylike homes with what were then the most modern labor-saving devices.

After decades of decline, the Shaker community disbanded in 1910. Since the 1960s, 33 Shaker buildings and 22 miles of dry stone fences on 3,000 acres have been restored and operated as a tourist attraction.

David Larson, operations vice president, has focused on improving Shaker Village’s famous restaurant. The veteran chef wanted to serve more fresh, locally grown food. So, he thought, what could be more local than a garden within sight of the dining room windows?

In recent years, the garden had largely been a living history exhibit, with a few heirloom vegetable varieties grown Shaker-style, Larson said.

“If the Shakers were here today, they wouldn’t be doing heirloom varieties,” he said. “They would be at the forefront of organic farming.”

Larson wanted to hire a skilled organic gardener, and someone who understood the Shakers’ spiritual attachment to the land and could explain it to visitors. “I called a friend at UK and he said, ‘I’ve got your man,'” Larson said. “Zach gets it.”

Davis, a Lexington native who comes from a long line of insurance salesmen, had struggled with whether to go into the Episcopal ministry or become an organic farmer. At age 12, he said he read Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, a 2002 collection of essays by Wendell Berry and others.

“I got really fired up about how broken our food system is,” Davis said. “The best way to address that, for me, was to get dirt under my fingernails.”

Davis graduated last year from the University of Kentucky’s new sustainable agriculture program. He also was a fellow at UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. He is engaged to Emma Sleeth, an Asbury University graduate, author of the book It’s Easy Being Green and daughter of Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, founders of Lexington-based Blessed Earth, a Christian educational non-profit organization.

Davis said he couldn’t imagine a better way to begin his career than by helping Shaker Village rediscover and build on its rich heritage of sustainable agriculture.

After purchasing a greenhouse for seedlings and a tilling machine, Davis and UK classmate Polly Symons cultivated just under one acre. They are raising about 50 varieties of 25 vegetables, keeping the restaurant well supplied and distributing the surplus to employees on “dividend days.” Davis gives public tours of the garden at 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

When I visited Shaker Village recently, Larson was bragging about the quality of Davis’ lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peas and beans, and eager for his eight varieties of tomatoes to ripen. The restaurant’s menu is adjusted each week, depending on what the garden is producing.

“The garden has been a resounding success this summer,” Larson said. “We had to rethink the way we did things, and we wanted a young person who had a whole new set of eyes for this place. We certainly found that in Zach.”

Larson said he has bigger ideas for the restaurant next year, including a healthy children’s menu and a kitchen composting system.

Davis is planning an expanded garden. He wants to add vegetables based on what the restaurant needs “and what I think the Shakers would be doing now if they were here,” he said. “Tourists like to see the time warp, but the Shakers were much more ingenious than that.”

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Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

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Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

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Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen


‘Religious freedom’ law more about discrimination, pressure politics

March 31, 2013

Kentucky’s new “religious freedom” law sure looks like an attempt by conservative Christians to justify discrimination against gay people and get around local “fairness” ordinances.

That is why many people were puzzled when Jim Gray, Lexington’s first openly gay mayor, was the most muted voice in the choir of opponents who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

Beshear did issue a veto, but the General Assembly overturned it by a wide margin last week.

Beshear’s veto came at the urging of dozens of organizations and individuals — liberal churches, gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who said the bill would “take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy.”

Gray, however, issued a tepid statement that stopped short of urging a veto. He has declined to elaborate publicly.

“The legislation’s stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That’s a worthy goal,” his statement said. “However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully.”

Gray took a beating in social media from some gay people and their supporters, but gay rights leaders were more circumspect. Lexington Fairness chairman Roy Harrison, in an interview Friday, avoided any criticism of Gray.

“We are really happy that he brought more discussion to the bill,” Harrison said. “Everyone has their own political calculus.”

The General Assembly’s political calculus was clear. Most opponents of the bill were lawmakers from progressive urban districts. Legislators from more conservative rural, small-town and suburban districts voted for it.

In a conservative district, there is nothing more dangerous in the next election than having an opponent claim you voted against “religious freedom.” Rural Democrats, especially, are feeling the heat.

Gray is seeking re-election to a second term as mayor next year, so he may have wanted to avoid alienating conservatives. But few people expect Gray to get serious opposition. Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty floated a trial balloon about running, but it hasn’t gotten much lift.

Gray seems to be widely popular in Lexington, even among former critics. As mayor, he has had significant accomplishments and has made few missteps.

Besides, voters knew Gray was gay when they elected him to council in 2006 with enough votes to make him vice mayor. His sexual orientation wasn’t really an issue when he unseated incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010. Since then, Gray hasn’t tried to be “the gay mayor” — just “the mayor.”

Gray’s political calculation may have been that everyone, including the governor, knew where he stood on this subject, so he had little to gain by being vocal on a statewide controversy where he had no real influence.

Gray did come out strong a year ago on a Lexington controversy, when Hands on Originals cited religious objections in refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, sparking an ongoing investigation by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

A more important political calculation may have been that Gray didn’t want to anger the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Damon, D-Nicholasville, an influential member of the Central Kentucky delegation. Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris may have unseated Damron as chair of the House Democratic caucus this year, but the way this bill sailed through the General Assembly showed Damron still has plenty of clout.

For all the huffing and puffing on both sides, nobody seems to really know what this legislation will do. The stated intent is to make it easier for Kentuckians to ignore state laws or regulations that conflict with their “sincerely held” religious beliefs unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.”

Bill supporters such as The Family Foundation, which could be more accurately called the Foundation for Families Just Like Ours, insists it is not a vehicle for discriminating against gay people. But a spokesman also has argued that the Hands on Originals case wasn’t really discrimination.

The law’s uncertainties and unintended consequences were a big reason Beshear said he vetoed it. “As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation,” he said.

Don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted on defending clearly unconstitutional attempts by some local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Harrison, the Lexington Fairness chairman, said gay rights and civil liberties groups will be watching to see if this new law is used to try to justify discrimination. If so, they will aggressively challenge it.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and opponent of the new law, mused that one unintended consequence of it could be to advance gay rights.

Unitarians support gay marriage. Could not they use this law to challenge Kentucky’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions as an infringement of their “sincerely held” religious beliefs? Might the state then be forced to show a “compelling governmental interest” for banning gay marriage?

One thing is for sure: this bad law will keep the culture warriors battling for years to come.


Teacher finally ‘graduates’ from pre-school she started 43 years ago

March 19, 2013

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Carol Neal started Little Elks Pre-School at South Elkhorn Christian Church. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As a trained educator, Carol Neal was picky when it came time to look for a pre-school program for her son and daughter. When she couldn’t find one she liked, she convinced her church to let her start one.

Now, after working with 33 fellow teachers and more than 3,000 students, Neal is retiring as director of the Little Elks Pre-School at South Elkhorn Christian Church.

“It was my calling, but I never thought I would be doing it for 43 years,” she said. “I tell people I’ve never been smart enough to get out of pre-school.”

All of those former students and teachers are invited to a reunion honoring Neal from 1-3 p.m. on April 14 at the church, 4343 Harrodsburg Road.

After months of searching for addresses, the staff has sent reunion invitations to 1,400 former students and teachers, but is still looking for more. RSVPs for the reunion are requested by April 7 to Littleelkspreschoolreunion@gmail.com.

“It has been a big part of my mother’s life for as long as I can remember, obviously,” said Neal’s son, Rick, who is a lawyer in Louisville. “My wife’s a pre-school teacher, too, and I know it’s hard work and you take a lot of it home with you.”

The school has about 30 3-year-olds in four classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and about 65 4-year-olds in six classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. About 10 current students are second-generation Little Elks — one of their parents attended pre-school there.

“I had gone there, my niece had gone there and I wanted my son to go there,” said Carolyn Sandusky Slone, whose son Grant turns 4 next month. “The education they provide is outstanding. It’s a loving and caring environment.”

Slone works with medical data, but when she was studying early-childhood education at Midway College in 1993, she did an internship at Little Elks.

“At least three of the teachers I worked with are still there,” she said. “I think that says a lot about the program.”

LittleElksNeal agreed that the pre-school’s strength has been being able to hire and retain good teachers. The current staff members, who all have education degrees, include Marsha Salmon (28 years), Kim Wemyss (26 years) and Vicki Garrett (25 years).

“Kim Skidmore, who’s taking over for me, is the newest kid on the block; she’s only been here seven years,” Neal said. “I have never advertised for a teacher in all those years. They just magically appear when I need a teacher.”

Although many of the teachers attend other churches, Neal has been an active member of South Elkhorn Christian Church, which knows a thing or two about longevity. Founded on the present site in 1783 as a Baptist congregation, it affiliated with the Disciples of Christ in 1831. The current sanctuary was built in 1870.

“A lot of people know about Little Elks and have a positive impression of our church because of it,” said the Rev. Mickey Anders, the fourth senior pastor at the church since Neal started the pre-school. “She has led it with such expertise.”

Neal plans to remain active in her church, but retirement will give her more time to spend with Bill, her husband of 47 years, her son and daughter, Missy Watts, and her five granddaughters.

Still, Neal said she will be available as a substitute teacher at Little Elks, where she has seen big changes in both children and parents over the years.

Parents are often more involved with their children, but less demanding of them. They also are more protective — sometimes too protective. Children often come to pre-school now with less discipline and a shorter attention span, but more academic knowledge and comfort with technology.

“Kids are like sponges. They’ve always been smart, but they are exposed to so much more,” she said. “They can pick up the iPhone, they can pick up the iPad. That’s the way they’re used to learning.”

Neal said one thing that hasn’t changed in 43 years is the bond that forms between a young child and his or her first teacher.

“They think you are wonderful, that you rule the world,” she said. “They’ll just be walking by and grab you and hug you on the leg. Where do you get that kind of unsolicited love other than from a 3 or 4 year old?”


Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at buildwestliberty@gmail.com or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

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As you reflect on civil rights history, imagine the future

January 19, 2013

When I was a child, many white Americans, and most of them in the South, considered Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to be radicals and trouble-makers. Some even called them “communists.”

Almost everyone now considers them heroes. Ideas about racial equality and justice that were then controversial are now common sense.

Segregationist leaders such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus are now remembered with contempt, when they are remembered at all. We pity the average people who enabled the bigots, either with their actions or their silence.

On Monday, we mark the 27th annual holiday honoring King, as well as the second inauguration of the nation’s first president of African descent. Looking back, it is amazing how much changed in so short a time. Racism still exists, to be sure, but it is no longer acceptable in mainstream society.

It makes me wonder: What controversial ideas today will seem like common sense in just a few years?

The first that comes to mind is gay rights. It is today’s most controversial civil rights issue, yet the nation has clearly turned the corner. You can tell it the same way you could tell by the early 1960s that we had turned the corner of black civil rights. The groundswell of support wasn’t just coming from the victims of discrimination, but from others who realized it was wrong and found the courage to say so.

If there has been a consistent theme of social progress during my lifetime, it is this: discrimination against any group of people because of who they are is un-American.

We saw an example of that last week when the small Perry County town of Vicco became the fourth municipality in Kentucky to ban discrimination against gays, joining Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Vicco officials said they weren’t endorsing homosexuality; they just thought discrimination was wrong.

Most opposition to gay rights comes from religious conservatives. During King’s lifetime, many white Christians found Biblical justification for segregation and discrimination, just as their great-grandfathers had for slavery. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs. What is problematic is when they try to impose them on others.

Wendell Berry, the renowned Kentucky writer and lifelong Baptist, made that point and many others to Baptist ministers meeting at Georgetown College on Jan. 11. Coverage of his talk has attracted a lot of attention. (Read more about what he had to say on my blog.)

When I think of other controversial issues that will seem like no-brainers in a few years, the reasons for our clouded judgment have more to do with economics than religion.

Kentuckians’ disregard for the environment reminds me of our willful ignorance about the health and social costs of tobacco just two or three decades ago. Only after the price-support system that made tobacco an economic mainstay of family farms was abolished did we stop trying to deny the obvious and defend the indefensible.

More than 30 local governments in Kentucky now have public smoking bans, and some legislators are pushing for a statewide version to curb soaring health-care costs. Restricting smoking in most public places is now common sense, yet it would have been unthinkable in Kentucky a generation ago.

Sit back for a moment and try to imagine conventional wisdom a few years from now. For one thing, I think, discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as unacceptable then as discrimination based on race, gender or national origin is now.

I also can imagine hearing comments like these:

Why did people back then allow the beauty and future economic viability of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains to be destroyed just so coal companies could extract the last measure of profit in return for a declining number of short-term jobs?

How could people back then have denied the scientific consensus about climate change and refused to act when the signs — melting glaciers, the increasing frequency of killer storms and droughts, year after year of record-high temperatures — were so obvious?

What were they thinking?

As we honor civil rights heroes Monday, and pity the bigots and their enablers, let us also give some thought to the future. Who will people honor then, and who will they pity?

And ask yourself: which side of history will I be on?


Wendell Berry talks gay marriage with Baptist ministers

January 18, 2013

Wendell Berry, at his home near Port Royal, Ky., December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As an elder statesman of American letters, Wendell Berry is being given some good platforms to speak his mind. He isn’t letting these opportunities go to waste.

Chosen last year by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, the Kentucky author gave a thoughtful indictment of corporate domination and the industrial economy, saying it has abused the land and people and threatens our very survival.

On Jan. 11, Berry spoke at Georgetown College to a gathering of Baptist ministers. The lifelong Baptist used the forum to sharply criticize his denomination’s opposition to the legalization of gay marriage.

Berry’s writing doesn’t lend itself well to sound bites. So here are some extended excerpts from his remarks, which created an Internet stir after Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press News reported them:

“My argument … was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples.”

“The Bible … has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality. If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”

“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals. If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

And those are only the highlights. Read APB’s full story here.

 

 

 


New Lexington Catholic High program shows students equine careers

December 3, 2012

Alex Cox holds a bag of steel wool on a string, which is drawn by the powerful magnetic force of an MRI machine used to diagnose horse injuries at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. Cox is part of the school’s Equine Academy, which tries to prepare students interested in pursuing careers in the horse industry. Photo by Tom Eblen

Alex Cox has been riding horses since he was 11 and hopes to be a jockey in a few years. But he wants to know a lot more about horses than just how to ride them.

So Cox, 14, decided to become one of the first 17 students in Lexington Catholic High School’s Equine Academy, a new four-year program designed to introduce young people to career opportunities in all aspects of the horse industry.

“I want to learn all about horses, how to keep them healthy and how the business works,” the freshman said. “It’s my favorite class by far. It’s really fun. When I grow up, I want to do something fun for a living.”

The program seemed like a natural for Lexington Catholic, said Steve Angelucci, the school’s president. Many students already were interested, because they rode or were from horse-industry families. Plus, the Lexington area offered an unparalleled opportunity for exposure to and partnership with major industry players.

The school has formed academic partnerships with the equine programs at the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, as well as relationships with more than 20 local farms, organizations and companies, including Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, Alltech, and two of the nation’s largest equine medical practices, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

“We’re trying to create well-rounded professionals to be the next generation of leaders in the equine industry,” said Sarah Coleman, the academy’s director. The Ohio native previously was executive director of Georgetown College’s Equine Scholars Program.

“There are so many jobs out there involving horses,” Coleman said. “Being raised here, I think kids forget the novelty of this area. For a horse lover, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.”

Freshman Adriana DeCarlo, 14, doesn’t come from a horse industry family, but she has always loved them and has been riding since she was 4 years old. She thinks she wants a career involving horses, perhaps either in science or the Thoroughbred industry, but the academy has already been helpful.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “It has helped me take care of my own horse.”

The program calls for students to take eight equine courses over four years, including horse anatomy and physiology, health care, nutrition and management, reproduction and farm management, and equine business and marketing. Those classes are taught by Shannon White, general manager of Fares Farm and former hospital supervisor at Rood & Riddle.

The program includes many extracurricular lectures, field trips, speakers and shadowing, and mentoring opportunities. Students participate in service projects and must do a senior project.

On a recent field trip to Hagyard, the students got a tour of the horse hospital and spoke with several young veterinarians.

“Veterinary medicine is not a career,” Dr. Ashley Craig, a field care intern, told the students. “It’s a life choice.”

Dr. William Rainbow said he became a veterinarian after growing up in the industry and participating in Darley Flying Start, a two-year Thoroughbred leadership development program that allowed him to travel all over the world.

“I never thought mucking stalls would get me that far, but it did,” Rainbow said.

Perhaps the highlight of the tour for this group was Hagyard’s super-size, high-tech medical equipment — a walk-in hypobaric chamber for high-oxygen healing therapy and the huge MRI machine, with a magnet powerful enough to cause a bag of steel wool on a string to fly across the room.

Other extracurricular activities have included visits to Keeneland, Alltech and the Red Mile, as well as basic lessons in polo, vaulting and driving.

Coleman said horse industry people have been very welcoming to the students and supportive of the Equine Academy.

“Everybody I talk to says they wish they had had that when they were in school,” she said.

 

Online auction benefits program

Lexington Catholic’s new Equine Academy is having a fundraising “non-event” — an eBay auction — later this month.

Items for sale include an acoustic guitar signed by country music stars Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton; VIP events at Three Chimneys and Jonabell farms; a backstage pass to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; and a Storm Cat halter.

The auction site will go live at 8 p.m. on Dec. 9 at: Myworld.ebay.com/lchsequine. Bidding ends at 8 p.m. Dec. 16.

 

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We can learn some lessons from the pre-election hurricane

November 4, 2012

It didn’t take long for a couple of fringe preachers to proclaim that Hurricane Sandy was God’s retribution for homosexuality and other aspects of society they don’t like.

Such freakish, attention-seeking claims have become as common as the freakish weather that inspires them. But that doesn’t mean God or the forces of nature aren’t trying to tell us something.

There are a couple of obvious lessons in this pre-election hurricane, which killed at least 40 people and caused perhaps $50 billion worth of damage in the Northeast.

The first lesson is that Americans and their leaders should stop ignoring climate change and its increasingly disastrous effects. As the new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine says in bold letters above a news photo of a flooded cityscape, “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Scientists say climate change can’t be directly blamed for any particular storm, or even hurricanes in general. But there is strong scientific evidence that man’s carbon emissions have increased the frequency and severity of destructive weather.

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and that magnified the storm surge responsible for so much of Sandy’s destruction.

Yet, climate change has barely been mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2012, which may end up being the warmest year on record. You can attribute that to willful ignorance and complacency on the part of a large segment of the population — and the encouragement of that ignorance and complacency by powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

You can find some of the most blatant examples of this in Kentucky, where the coal industry and its favored politicians have waged a “war on coal” propaganda campaign, which in reality is a campaign against clean air, clean water and public health.

Appalachian coal reserves are dwindling and cheap natural gas has eroded coal’s markets, but the industry seems determined to extract every last bit of profit from Kentucky, no matter how much damage it does.

The lack of action to address climate change underscores a failure of leadership in both government and business.

President Barack Obama rarely spoke about climate change during this campaign, because he knew it would hurt him politically. Instead, he trumpeted domestic oil drilling and “clean coal” technology, which is still more oxymoron than reality.

Challenger Mitt Romney was even worse. At the Republican National Convention, he mentioned climate change only mockingly. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

There is strong scientific consensus on climate change, but acknowledging and addressing it remains politically controversial. That is because fighting climate change would threaten economic interests invested in the status quo — and because it would require citizens and businesses to make some sacrifices. Heaven forbid that any American should be asked to sacrifice, even if the future of mankind may depend on it.

And that brings us to a second obvious lesson from Hurricane Sandy.

For at least three decades, many political leaders — especially Republicans — have won elections by offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions to increasingly difficult problems. Tell voters what they want to hear, then blame the consequences on the other guys.

Storms such as hurricanes Sandy and Katrina underscore the inadequacy of our aging national infrastructure — and the likelihood that climate change will force us to repair and rebuild it more frequently in the future.

Rather than cutting taxes, piling up debt and wasting money on unnecessary weapons systems and wars of choice, we should be investing in the physical and human infrastructure that will keep America safe, secure and economically prosperous in the future.

Natural disasters remind us that sufficient and efficient government is essential. During the GOP primary, Romney suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work could be turned back to the states, or even privatized.

Since Hurricane Sandy, though, he has ignored reporters’ questions on the subject.

If religious leaders are seeking sermon topics from this pre-election hurricane, here are a few possibilities: greed, selfishness, complacency and why leadership matters.

 


Lessons to learn from Lexington’s ‘Athens of the West’ period.

September 2, 2012

Mayor Jim Gray often talks about Lexington aspiring to be a “great American city.” But two centuries ago, that is exactly what it was. Many visitors hailed Lexington as the most vibrant and cultured city in what was then Western America.

The reality and myths surrounding Lexington’s so-called Athens of the West era are explored in a new book of essays published by the University Press of KentuckyBluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

The book is already in stores, but it will be formally launched at a signing party Sunday, Sept. 16, at 4 p.m. at the Hunt Morgan House, 253 Market Street. The event is free and open to the public.

Bluegrass Renaissance grew out of a series of lectures in 2007 organized by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities and others. Book editors James Klotter, Kentucky’s state historian, and Daniel Rowland, a UK history professor and former Gaines Center director, compiled essays by 15 historians and writers, including my older daughter, Mollie, and me.

The book begins with essays by Klotter and Stephen Aron that place Lexington in the national context of the time and discuss the city’s quick transition from frontier outpost to cultured metropolis.

Gerald Smith and the late Shearer Davis Bowman write about slavery, the “peculiar institution” that built the region’s wealth and would eventually play a big role in both economic and moral bankruptcy.

Randolph Hollingsworth writes about the role women played in early Kentucky, while Maryjean Wall looks at the origins of the signature horse industry. Mark Wetherington and Matthew Clarke profile several influential characters, while John Thelin explores the role higher education played in development and civic pride.

Nikos Pappas writes about musical culture, and Estill Curtis Pennington explains how outstanding portrait painters helped bring artistic culture to Central Kentucky and left what little visual evidence we have of that era’s key players.

Patrick Snadon writes about how Lexington’s leading citizens embraced early America’s most accomplished architect, Benjamin Latrobe. He was commissioned to design six Lexington buildings. Only one survives: Pope Villa, one of the most avant-garde pieces of architecture built during America’s Federalist period.

Mollie and I wrote about Horace Holley, a minister lured to Lexington from Boston, and his role in transforming Transylvania University into one of early America’s most highly regarded universities. Transylvania played a central role in Kentucky’s early education accomplishments and Lexington’s “Athens of the West” reputation.

The book’s dates are somewhat arbitrary: 1792 is the year Kentucky became a state, while 1852 is when Henry Clay, Lexington’s most famous citizen, died. In reality, Lexington’s heyday didn’t begin until after 1800, and its economic, if not cultural, fortunes started waning around 1815. By the end of the 1830s, Lexington had begun a long slide into mediocrity and provincialism.

Lexington’s early prosperity was the result of rich soil, slave labor and the city’s prime location as a hub for early Westward migration and trade. But the city began to struggle after the invention of steamboats allowed two-way commerce on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, which favored river cities such as Cincinnati and Louisville.

Slavery became a huge economic and social liability for Lexington beginning in the 1840s, limiting economic innovation and sparking increased social and racial strife. By clinging so long to slavery, a huge amount of Lexington’s economic capital was wiped out by the Civil War; racism and violence that followed stifled growth and new ideas.

Lexington had lost its economic edge and pioneer spirit. With a few notable exceptions, such as the creation and growth of the University of Kentucky, the city remained intellectually and economically stagnant for nearly a century.

In a short essay that ends the book, Gray makes the point that the past informs the present, and history provides valuable lessons for those who seek to shape the future.

Mollie and I certainly discovered that while researching and writing our chapter. The spectacular rise and fall of Holley at Transylvania in the 1820s reflected issues and attitudes that have shaped two centuries of Kentucky history.

Holley saw huge potential in Kentucky and its people, but was bedeviled by religious disputes, power struggles and petty politics. He finally gave up and left Kentucky, frustrated by an anti-intellectual governor who saw more political advantage in building roads than investing in education.

This book’s title is something of a misnomer: “renaissance” means “revival.” The Athens of the West era was actually Lexington’s “naissant” period. Achieving renaissance is our challenge, and we would be wise to learn lessons from the past.