New Hindman Settlement School director hopes to build on legacy

January 13, 2013

Brent Hutchinson is the new director of the 110-year-old Hindman Settlement School. Symbolizing the school’s past and present are the circa 1913 log cabin, right, that houses the school’s offices, and the Knott County Opportunity Center, left, on the school’s campus at the forks of Troublesome Creek. Photo by Tom Eblen


HINDMAN — Brent Hutchinson knew he had big shoes to fill. And if he had any doubt, more than 100 people have told him so since he arrived in October to become director of Hindman Settlement School.

Hutchinson succeeded Mike Mullins, 63, who died unexpectedly last February. During 34 years as director, Mullins transformed the 110-year-old school to keep its mission relevant to changing needs.

The institution now provides arts programming and dyslexia services to schools in Knott and some surrounding counties. It also runs two acclaimed summer programs: the Appalachian Writers Workshop and Appalachian Family Folk Week.

Mullins left things in good shape, financially and otherwise. How does Hutchinson plan to build on that success? He isn’t sure yet, but he plans to do a lot of listening to the scores of people throughout the region who will help him figure it out.

“We have a lot of flexibility,” Hutchinson said of the school. “I want to figure out what people here really need more than asserting areas of interest to me.”

Hutchinson, 38, has the benefit of coming in as both an outsider and an insider.

His mother was born in Germany, but she moved here when her mother married an American soldier from Knott County. Displaced by the Carr Creek Lake project in the 1970s, the family moved to Whitesburg. He was raised in Louisa, graduating as valedictorian of Lawrence County High School in 1992.

“I grew up driving past the settlement school and never dreamed I would end up here at this point in my life,” said Hutchinson, whose twin brother, Brian, is athletic director at Morehead State University.

Hutchinson and his wife, Gwen, who is from Floyd County, graduated from Morehead State. They moved to Lexington in 1997. She earned a master’s in social work at the University of Kentucky and led an Alzheimer’s day care program. He earned a master’s in family studies at UK and worked in ministry and counseling.

They left in 2001 for Nashville, where she did social work and he was in ministry, most recently at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin. They have two sons: Adam, 9, and Miles, 5.

“I think it’s difficult for a lot of people who leave Eastern Kentucky to get it out of their blood,” said Hutchinson, who is finishing a doctorate in leadership studies from Dallas Baptist University in Texas. “We always thought we would come back. We didn’t expect it to be this soon.”

Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 along the banks of Troublesome Creek by two progressive women from Central Kentucky. Its original mission was to provide basic education and health services to people in this then-remote corner of the mountains, but its role has changed as the area has developed.

“Being a part of social change is something that’s always been important to me,” Hutchinson said. “I knew Hindman Settlement School was a place that did that.”

Glenn Leveridge, a Lexington banker and chairman of the school’s board, said Hutchinson stood out among 34 candidates as being well-suited to both carry out the school’s missions and figure out new ones in the future.

“Every spoke of the wheel was tight,” he said of Hutchinson’s background and qualifications. “But the thing that really sent me over the moon was when he called toward the end of the process and asked, ‘Am I going to be able to dream?'”

Hutchinson eventually wants the school to broaden its scope throughout Eastern Kentucky by partnering with other organizations to enhance education, arts and heritage programs. Rather than just try to help solve problems, he wants the school to be a positive force in shaping Appalachian culture.

More immediately, Hutchinson is looking forward this summer to Appalachian Family Folk Week and the Appalachian Writers Workshop. The workshop has become famous because of the participation of such literary icons as Harriette Arnow and James Still, who worked at the school for many years.

Kentucky-born author Barbara Kingsolver will be the featured lecturer at this year’s workshop. And, despite her recently announced move from UK to South Carolina to be closer to aging parents, award-winning poet Nikky Finney will be back at Hindman, Hutchinson said. This will be the third year she has led a special workshop for young Kentucky writers.

“I was told by people that there’s some magic that happens on the banks of Troublesome Creek,” Hutchinson said. “The more I’m here, the more I realize that people really do believe that.”


Appalachian writers find family, home at Hindman

July 30, 2009

HINDMAN — This is the season for family reunions in Appalachia, when people come home to celebrate kinship, community and the mountain culture that shaped their lives.

There’s a big reunion in Knott County this week. Many of the 100 people there have been attending for years, if not decades. Few are related by blood, but they’re family just the same, bound together by Appalachia’s storytelling tradition and the magic of words.

Ask participants at the 32nd Appalachian Writers Workshop what it’s like, and they use the word “family” a lot. They come for inspiration and advice on the craft from some of the best writers these mountains have produced.

The workshop was started by two Knott County writers, novelist and folklorist James Still, and poet Albert Stewart. Others associated with the annual gathering have included poet Jim Wayne Miller and novelists Wilma Dykeman and Harriette Arnow, author of the 1954 classic The Dollmaker.

“It’s a central part of my year that I never want to miss,” said novelist Silas House, who was a participant from 1996 to 2001 and has been on staff ever since.

Participants apply and submit writing samples in May. There are always more applicants than spaces; the 102-year-old Hindman Settlement School’s cabins can hold only so many people.

Each morning, participants gather in small groups according to interest: poetry, novels, short stories, nonfiction, memoir and children’s literature.

When I visited the workshop Tuesday, poet and writer George Ella Lyon was in one room talking about the challenges of publishing books for children. In another room, novelist Karen McElmurray discussed using memoir to explore universal themes. In another, novelists Ann Pancake and Laura Benedict explained storytelling techniques.

Afternoons are for group readings and individual coaching from the staff of published writers. Everyone eats together, then washes dishes. There’s writing time throughout the day, and bull sessions late into the night.

“It’s an intense week,” said journalist Jason Howard, who is here for a fifth year. “There’s a great sense of family, and a lot of spiritual detective work going on.”

Mike Mullins helped start the workshop in 1978, soon after he became director of the historic settlement school that now provides literacy and cultural enrichment programs. He marvels at the workshop’s success.

“I think there’s always a crying need for all of us to express ourselves, to tell our story, or a story we’ve made up,” said Mullins.

A few of this year’s participants are college students, but most are much older — academics and blue-collar workers, business people, housewives and retirees. Some are beginners; others have published several books.

Mountain life has always been a popular subject in Appalachian literature. But many now write about the mountains themselves and what has been happening to them over the past half-century. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been leveled by mountaintop-removal coal mining or scarred by strip-miners.

“What we do to the land, we do to the people,” said Don Askins of Clintwood, Va., whose poetry focuses on the coal industry’s environmental destruction.

House and Howard, who both come from coal-mining families, recently wrote the book Something’s Rising about opposition to mountaintop-removal within the region. Howard also edited a collection of essays, poems and songs called We All Live Downstream.

Many writers here are women who have raised families or had careers. “They come with this full lifetime of experience and a passion to write about it,” McElmurray said.

Benedict first came to the workshop 20 years ago. “I had only been writing for a year or so and I was looking for a cheap vacation,” she said. What she found was a calling – and a husband, Pinckney Benedict, who was on the workshop staff. “We didn’t start dating until after the conference, but I gather we scandalized a few people,” she said with a smile.

The Benedicts were back this week as staff members. He is a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Southern Illinois and at writing workshops across the country. She recently published her second novel.

“There’s a sense of community, a spirit of cooperation here,” she said. “They read a lot, and they all take their work very seriously.”

But unlike some other workshops, Benedict and McElmurray said, the writers here don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s no “staff table” at meals, no caste system based on publishing success.

But Benedict has discovered one advantage to being on staff: “I don’t have to do dishes.”

Click on each photo to enlarge.

Appalachian author Verna Mae Slone dies at 94

January 5, 2009

At a point in life when most people slow down, Verna Mae Slone found her voice.

She was a quilter, a dollmaker and the mother of five sons. But after Slone found her voice, she also became the author of six books, the best known of which was her first, What My Heart Wants to Tell.

In simple language, Slone wrote about life and the importance of family, community and the fast-disappearing culture of her beloved Eastern Kentucky mountains.

On Monday, her voice fell silent. She was 94 and had lived almost all of her life in the Knott County community of Pippa Passes.

“I often referred to her as the Grandma Moses of the mountains,” said Mike Mullins, longtime director of the Hindman Settlement School. “She loved to expound on the virtues and values of people from the hills in a very positive light.”

“She had a great sense of tradition and family … and a natural, wonderful way of expressing herself,” said Loyal Jones, retired director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College.

“Verna Mae Slone was a gracious, dignified, intelligent woman,” said New Jersey photographer Barbara Beirne, whose 1993 portrait of Slone became the centerpiece of her exhibit Women of Appalachia at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

“What I especially remember about Verna Mae is her pride in being Appalachian,” Beirne said Monday. “Everyone who views her photograph seems aware that they have been introduced to a very special person.”

Slone was born Oct. 9, 1914, in Knott County. Her mother died when she was 6 weeks old and she was raised by her father, Isom “Kitten Eye” Slone.

She married Willie Slone and had five sons, whom she cared for alone during the week while her husband was off supporting the family. He drove a bulldozer all over Appalachia, carving roads through the mountains to lay natural gas pipelines. He died in 1989.

Their oldest son, Milburn, said his mother completed eighth grade but didn’t move on to high school until he was old enough to go. They were in the same class until she became pregnant with his youngest brother, who was 13 years behind the other four.

Slone, 71, said his mother had a photographic memory and a lifelong love of reading she passed on to her children. Her hands were always busy, making thousands of cloth dolls she gave away and more than 1,800 quilts, many of her own design. Fifteen of those quilts decorate the walls of the main hall at Hindman Settlement School.

“Making a quilt is a lot like living,” Slone once wrote. “When we are born we are given a bundle of scraps; the way we put them together is left up to us.”

Mullins said he met Slone in 1972 when he was directing an oral history project at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes. “It seemed like every time we had a topic, she would give us an unbelievable interview,” he said.

As the interviews were transcribed, Mullins gave Slone copies. Those interviews sparked her interest in writing, and she wove them into a book about her father and the joys and hardships of old-time mountain life. She had 100 copies printed to give away to family members.

Somehow, Mullins said, a copy of the book found its way to a writer, who read excerpts on National Public Radio. New Republic Books published the book in 1979 under the title What My Heart Wants to Tell, and it has sold widely ever since.

Milburn Slone said his mother received fan letters from around the world about that book, but the one that meant the most to her came from a leper colony on an island off the coast of Africa. A copy of the book had made it there. “They said that book, second to the Bible, gave them a reason to live,” he said. “It told how you could survive under any circumstances.”

Slone went on to write five other books, including the novel Rennie’s Way and a book about Appalachian language called How We Talked. For many years, she wrote a column called Now and Then for a local newspaper, the Troublesome Creek Times.

Mullins said Slone’s home was a regular stop for visitors seeking to learn about mountain culture: “There were literally thousands of people who sat at the feet of Verna Mae and listened to her talk about life in these hills.”

Slone’s health began declining after a fall six months ago, but she was alert until 15 minutes before she died, her son said.

Mullins last visited Slone on Dec. 23. She was in bed, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, but she recited a long poem she had written.

“She encompassed love of family, love of the hills, love of the values and traditions, and she had the ability to translate that through her crafts and her writing,” Mullins said. “Just to look into her eyes and have her look at you with that smile on her face was one of the most inspiring things.”