Transylvania University biology students study bats around campus; No, this isn’t a Halloween joke

October 27, 2015
Transylvania University biology student Kelli Carpenter makes notes while she and two other students work with instructor Josh Adkins to detect bats on Transylvania's campus. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Transylvania University biology student Kelli Carpenter makes notes while she and two other students work with instructor Josh Adkins to detect bats on Transylvania’s campus. Photos by Tom Eblen


When I heard that biology students were studying bats that fly around the Transylvania University campus, I knew there had to be a good Halloween column there. Could a punch line be much easier?

But what struck me was the fascinating technology used for this research. It is an example of how new and relatively inexpensive digital devices are revolutionizing science.

It was a dark and spooky night when I met Transylvania biology teacher Joshua Adkins outside a classroom building. We were soon joined by three biology majors: juniors Kelli Carpenter and Devin Rowe and sophomore Brandon Couch.

Kentucky has 16 species of bats. Many live in colonies in remote caves and forests. But other, more solitary species like city life, where street lights attract an endless buffet of insects for them to eat.

“A lot of basic, fundamental questions are unknown about many species of bat because they’re small, they’re nocturnal, they live in places you can’t easily access and they pretty much avoid or ignore people,” Adkins said.

Adkins and his students knew there were bats on campus. In their search for nooks in which to hide, bats occasionally wander in an open window. One flew into the orchestra room Sept. 9, causing quite a stir.

“I go to lacrosse games, which are usually at night,” Couch said. “I’ve seen a lot of them swooping over the athletic fields.”

Despite their creepy appearance and fictional association with vampires, bats are nice to have around, because they eat mosquitoes and other insect pests. Last year, Rowe and a student environmental group raised money to build two bat shelter boxes on campus.

“The idea really was to get a sense of where bats are most active and then use that information to place bat boxes in the most effective places,” Adkins said.

But since bats are small, dark and avoid people, how could the students figure out their favorite campus hangouts?

Luke Dodd, a bat ecologist who teaches at Eastern Kentucky University, told Adkins about a new $400 microphone that can detect the sounds bats make as they fly, most of which can’t be heard by the human ear.

150922TransyBats-TE061The Echo Meter Touch, made by Wildlife Acoustics Inc., plugs into an iPad and comes with software that records and can identify the species of nearby bats with about 80 percent accuracy.

Adkins got money from Transylvania’s David and Betty Jones Fund for Faculty Development to purchase a couple of microphones and iPads. One night a week since June, his three students have made three-minute recordings at a dozen locations around campus, and they have found a lot of bat activity.

Transylvania’s campus seems to have five species of bats: big brown, hoary, silver haired, Eastern red and evening bats.

On the night I walked around campus with them, they may have found a sixth. At one listening station, Rowe’s iPad detected a long-legged myotis bat, which normally is found in western North America.

“I’m not sure about that, but bats are migrating now,” Adkins said. “Maybe it could be lost.”

“Maybe he’s on vacation,” Carpenter joked. “Checking out Martha’s Vineyard.”

One species the students probably won’t find on campus is Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, which, like its namesake, prefers to live in forests.

Constantine Rafinesque was an eccentric biologist who was on the Transylvania faculty from 1819 until President Horace Holley fired him in 1826 because he was always off in the woods doing research and rarely on campus teaching.

Legend has it that Rafinesque put a curse on Holley, who was forced out of Transylvania and died the following year. Rafinesque died in 1840 in Philadelphia, but his body was dug up in 1924 and reinterred in Transylvania’s Old Morrison Hall. Rafinesque’s tomb is a popular campus attraction, especially at Halloween.

The students’ bat research will be winding up soon, because bats hibernate after the first frost of winter kills most insects. Adkins hopes to get funding to continue their work next year, and to expand it to include a study of campus insects that bats eat.

“Given that we’re a college right in the middle of Lexington, this is a perfect setting to determine what are some general patterns of bat activity in a city,” Adkins said. “Once these guys collect more data and present their results, I hope it will help take away that negative stereotype bats have.”

Carpenter, left to right, Brandon Couch and Devin Rowe stood with biology instructor Josh Adkins, right, outside the Haupt Humanities Building, one of a dozen campus locations where they have been surveying urban bat populations using a high-tech microphone hooked up to an iPad.

Carpenter, left to right, Brandon Couch and Devin Rowe stood with biology instructor Josh Adkins, right, outside the Haupt Humanities Building, one of a dozen campus locations where they have been surveying urban bat populations using a high-tech microphone hooked up to an iPad.

Adkins, left, works with Carpenter, Couch and Rowe to listen for and record bat sounds using a high-tech microphone hooked to an iPad.

Adkins, left, works with Carpenter, Couch and Rowe to listen for and record bat sounds.

Lexington one of six ‘university cities’; can it take advantage of it?

October 18, 2015
Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.


Lexington has been a college town for more than 200 years. But when Scott Shapiro, a top aide to Mayor Jim Gray, was benchmarking local data against other cities recently, he discovered something interesting: Lexington was one of six U.S. cities whose numbers place them in a unique category.

This group, which he calls “university cities,” have distinct characteristics that make them different from smaller college towns or major cities with big research universities. And those characteristics translate into big economic development opportunities in the 21st century’s knowledge-based economy.

“This is one of those ah-ha moments,” Gray said of the analysis.

So, how can Lexington capitalize on this insight? We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let’s see what Shapiro discovered about university cities, which he defined as metropolitan areas of between 250,000 and 1 million people with students making up at least 10 percent of the population.

Each city has a diversified economy closely tied to a major urban research university. In addition to Lexington, the cities are Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Lincoln, Neb.

Each city has an abundance of attributes that naturally come with universities, including educated people, talent, openness to new ideas, innovation, entrepreneurialism and a lot of arts and culture.

These cities seem to have more of these attributes than college towns, in short, because they are big enough that many students can stay after graduation rather than moving on to find economic opportunity.

But unlike major cities with universities, these six university cities have a lower cost of living, less crime and, in many ways, a higher quality of life.

Shapiro’s analysis found, for example, that 42 percent of adults age 25 and older in university cities have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent nationwide.

High education levels seemed to have a big influence on productivity and wages. When adjusted for the cost of living, Shapiro found that the median annual salary in university cities is only about $700 below that of the nation’s 15 largest cities.

Unemployment rates from 2009 to 2013 averaged 6.3 percent in university cities, compared with 8.7 percent in other similar-sized cities and 8.8 percent in the nation’s largest 15 cities.

Business starts averaged 16.3 percent higher in university cities than in similar-sized cities, and only slightly below the rate for the nation’s largest cities. The number of non-profit organizations, which often drive social entrepreneurship and improve quality of life, was almost double that of similar-sized cities.

University cities are much safer. Violent crime averaged 36 percent lower in the six university cities than in similar-size cities and 40 percent lower than in the nation’s 15 largest cities.

And university cities are more fun. They have 47.2 percent more arts, recreation and entertainment places per thousand residents than the average of similar-size cities. And while they average fewer cultural assets than the 15 largest cities, they have more of them per thousand residents — 25.7 percent more.

One key attribute of a university city is being the “right” size to balance economic opportunity, cost of living and quality of life. And therein lies a danger. While Austin is what many university cities aspire to become, the Texas capital has lost some luster as housing costs and traffic headaches have risen.

Shapiro has started a blog ( to share news and ideas about university cities, and he is talking with the University of Kentucky about hosting a national symposium on the topic next year.

This subject isn’t just of interest to academics; it has a lot of practical application.

Lexington’s mayor sees the university city model as an important lens through which to view many things, from business recruiting efforts and workforce-development strategies to land-use planning and infrastructure investment.

“I think it helps us in the sorting and filtering process,” Gray said. “When you know who you are, you have a better chance of getting where you want to go.”

For one thing, he said, it shows that Lexington’s economic development strategy should be mainly built around leveraging assets that grow out of the presence of UK, Transylvania University and other education centers.

It also underscores the importance of making sure affordable housing is available and traffic doesn’t get out of control. It means Lexington should nurture cultural institutions and other quality-of-life infrastructure that talented, educated people and the companies that want to hire them look for in a city.

The next step, Gray said, is to benchmark Lexington’s data against the five other university cities to assess strengths and weaknesses.

“I think we’re poised for exploiting the knowledge economy in a better way than the industrial cities have been,” Gray said. “It’s a question of how do you really take advantage of that.”

Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

February 28, 2015

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen


One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”

Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

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Transylvania transition offers fresh start, important lessons

February 18, 2014

Transylvania University has the opportunity to make a fresh start with a new president. How well everyone seizes that opportunity will determine the institution’s future for many years to come.


Seamus Carey

Seamus Carey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was chosen Monday to become the 26th president of Kentucky’s oldest university, chartered in 1780. He was one of four finalists brought to campus to meet with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Transylvania has been in turmoil since soon after Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker with impressive credentials but little academic leadership experience, was hired as president in 2010.

Williams took over after the retirement of Charles Shearer, who earned a lot of affection and respect during his 27-year presidency for rebuilding Transylvania, nearly tripling its endowment and doubling enrollment.

Williams impressed Transylvania trustees with his intellect, his diverse accomplishments and his plans for taking the liberal arts college to the next level.

Owen Williams

Owen Williams

But Williams’ arrogant and autocratic style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, both on campus and around town. Williams antagonized Transylvania’s faculty to the point that it voted 68-7 last May to express no confidence in his leadership.

Trustees responded by giving Williams a unanimous vote of confidence and blaming the faculty. Still, within weeks, Williams announced he would leave at the end of this academic year. Carey takes over in July.

Transylvania’s turmoil offers lessons the university community — or any large organization, for that matter — should take to heart.

The first lesson is that it matters how you treat people. However intelligent or visionary a leader may be, he can’t accomplish much if people won’t follow him.

The second lesson is that governing boards make better decisions when they are diverse and aware. When mounting dissatisfaction with Williams exploded into faculty rebellion last year, trustees were surprised. Had they been plugged into the broader Transylvania and Lexington communities, they would not have been.

The final lesson will be more of a test. How well can Transylvania’s faculty, trustees, staff and students work together with the new president to try to achieve some of the worthy goals Williams sought?

Transylvania reached the top echelon of American universities for a brief period in the 1820s. The rest of its history has been a series of ups and downs. Can Transy become a national player again? Improvement requires change, and change is hard.

Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013


 Poet Maurice Manning lives in an 1850s farmhouse on 20 acres near Springfield, fulfilling a pledge he made when he was in graduate school in Alabama. Photos by Tom Eblen


SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

“One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky,” he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

“Most farmers wouldn’t think much of what I’ve done with the place,” Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning’s daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name “Morris,” is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning3Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection,The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

“For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana,” said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

“I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky.”

The poems in Manning’s most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from “Fog Town Holler” in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

“There’s something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation,” said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes “intense descriptions of the natural world,” he said. “The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world.”

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

“It made everything seem less mysterious,” he said. “She wasn’t an aloof, obscure person.”

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren’s poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren’s 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

“One of the nice things about being a poet is there’s no money in it,” Manning said. “Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom.”

Manning2Maurice Manning has cut four miles of walking paths through his 20-acre farm. 


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.

A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012


I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.

Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.

I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.

America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.

That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.

Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.

Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.

Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.

Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information:

Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.

Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate:

At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.

Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.

Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.

Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.

Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”

From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.

Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information:

That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.

The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point.  Photos by Tom Eblen

A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.



The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.

Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.

Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.

The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.

A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.


Class aims to bring Transy, neighborhood closer

April 7, 2010

Transylvania University and the North Limestone neighborhood sit side by side — and worlds apart.

Kurt Gohde, a Transy art professor, and Kremena Todorova, an English professor, are trying to do something about that. For the past three years, they have taught a class called Community Engagements Through the Arts. It’s not an art class or an English class. The dozen or so students each year have come from a variety of majors.

“The original idea was that at Transy we needed to be better neighbors to our neighbors,” Gohde said. “We don’t have a lot of windows on that side of campus — just a lot of fences.”

Both the university and the neighborhood have been there for two centuries, and both have had good times and bad. The neighborhood, one of Lexington’s most racially and economically diverse, declined in the 1950s and ’60s as residents moved to the suburbs.

But in the past decade, many young people have been attracted to the neighborhood’s rich diversity and affordable stock of old homes worth restoring — from once-elegant brick mansions to Victorian frame shotgun houses.

An active neighborhood association has worked hard to clean up the area while embracing the many poor people who live there. Three new community gardens are being planted on city-owned lots along North Limestone. Once-seedy Al’s Bar at North Limestone and East Sixth Street is now one of Lexington’s coolest places. Duncan Park has a new summer concert stage.

Still, most North Limestone residents are much different culturally and economically from their neighbors at the private liberal-arts college.

“We want the students to gain an awareness of people who are very close to them that they know so little about,” Todorova said. “We want them to learn how they can connect with people who are not like them. It’s not easy.”

The Community Engagements class started meeting at Al’s Bar, moved to a community center last year, and has met this year in a commercial building being restored at North Limestone and Loudon Avenue.

The first year, the class put together a film exploring misconceptions about the neighborhood. Last year, students organized a show of residents’ eclectic collections at Transylvania’s art gallery.

This year, students worked with residents and others to make nearly 50 colorful quilts that are on display at X Furniture, 760 North Limestone, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday.

The quilts will be donated to Build A Bed, an organization trying to gather 2,000 volunteers in Frankfort on May 8 and 9 to build 500 twin-size beds and prepare “bedtime bags” with linens and toiletries for Kentucky children who need them. (For more info:

The class held five “quilting bees” this winter with neighborhood residents and other Transy students. The project’s energy was contagious: One student’s family made several quilts, as did Arturo Sandoval’s art students at the University of Kentucky and children at James Lane Allen Elementary School.

“We found that it was a great way to spend time with people and tell stories,” Gohde said. In addition to making quilts, the students interviewed residents about neighborhood history and lore.

Some students come to the class wanting to “help” the neighborhood, but that’s not the point. “We’re looking for ways to connect with and understand the neighborhood,” Todorova said. “If anything, we’re helping ourselves by educating ourselves.”

Resident Archie Turner has faithfully attended each class, as has neighborhood association president Marty Clifford, a candidate for the Urban County Council’s 1st District seat.

“It has been not only a good thing for the community but for the students,” Clifford said. “It has given everyone a different perspective. There are a lot of hidden jewels in this community that have been covered up by some of the negative things in the past.”

Student Austyn Gaffney, a sophomore from Bowling Green, said she will always remember the 98-year-old African-American lady she met who has told her stories about how the neighborhood and Lexington have changed over the decades.

“Without this class, I don’t think I would have been challenged to do that,” she said. “It’s a start toward building better relationships.”

Lexington educator knew nation’s early presidents

February 14, 2010

It’s hard to imagine our nation’s early presidents as real people. We know them only as images of stern-faced men in funny clothes, staring back at us from history books, paintings, money – and newspaper ads for President’s Day sales.

But to Horace Holley, they were friends and pen pals. Holley was himself a president, of Transylvania University, from 1818 until a few months before his death in 1827.

I didn’t know much about Holley until recently, when I got an excited call from my older daughter, Mollie, who works in Transylvania’s public relations office.

“I held letters today written by John Adams and James Monroe!” she said.

She had been in Transylvania’s Special Collections department, doing research for a university Web site feature she writes called Transy Trivia. It sounded so interesting, I went over and spent an afternoon looking through Holley’s papers.

The carefully preserved documents reveal what a well-connected man Holley was, and they offer revealing glimpses of some early American presidents and their wives – warts and all.

Holley came to Lexington from Boston, where he knew Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. His wife, Mary Austin Holley, was a cousin of Stephen F. Austin, a Transy alum for whom Austin, Texas, was later named. Holley was a Unitarian minister and admired educator who helped burnish Lexington’s image as the “Athens of the West.”

There are faded letters from the second president, hard to read except for the end: “… and real affection, your friend and humble servant, John Adams.”

Adams gave Holley a glowing letter of introduction to the third president, Thomas Jefferson. In September, 1824, Holley spent two days visiting Jefferson at his Monticello estate near Charlottesville, Va.

“Mr. Jefferson is a plain looking old gentleman, draped in a blue coat with yellow buttons, a buff jacket, a pair of snuff colored corduroy pantaloons, blue and white cotton stockings and black slippers up at the heels,” Holley wrote to his wife.

“He is grey, tall, square shouldered, takes long steps, and has not now a clear voice. His muscles are not vigorous, but his hand trembles little, and is not observed to tremble at all as he uses at table. He rides on horseback daily in fair weather, but walks out seldom. … He talked easily still, though 82, and preserves the faculties of his mind in vigorous operation. His memory fails of course in regard to names and more recent events, but his judgment is unimpaired.”

Holley wrote a Kentucky friend that Jefferson questioned him closely about Transylvania. At the time, Jefferson was lobbying Virginian officials for support of the new University of Virginia. He argued that if Virginia didn’t invest in a first-class university, the state’s brightest young men would leave for either Transylvania or Harvard. Of the two, Jefferson said, he preferred Transylvania.

That may have been because Jefferson had high expectations for Kentucky’s future. “The time is not distant … when we shall be but a secondary people to them,” Jefferson wrote to Adams in May 1818.

Holley’s papers include several letters from James Monroe. Holley wrote to his wife from Washington in April 1818, describing visits to Monroe’s White House, which only recently had been rebuilt after British troops burned it during the War of 1812.

Holley bragged that Monroe wrote him a letter of introduction to the governor of Virginia: “He voluntarily gave it, and the offer of it took me by surprise.” But he devoted most of the letter to detailed descriptions of what Mrs. Monroe and other ladies were like and were wearing.

“Mrs. Monroe … appeared so much handsomer to me in full dress than she did the evening before in common dress and a cap that was not becoming,” he wrote. “She is … 52 years old, and I never saw a woman of that age appear so young.”

Monroe and Andrew Jackson visited Lexington on July 4, 1819, and heard Holley preach. In 1823, the Holleys went to Nashville, Tenn., where they spent several days at The Hermitage as guests of future President Jackson and his controversial wife, Rachel.

In a letter to his father, Holley described Jackson as “one of the most hospitable men” in Tennessee. “The general gave me many anecdotes of his wars with the Indians. … He is a prompt, practical man with very correct moral feelings.”

Holley added: “Mrs. Jackson is not a woman of cultivation, but has seen a great many people, has fine spirits, entertains well and is benevolent. She is short in her person and quite fat.”

At the end of several such letters, Holley asks that his observations be treated with discretion. Nearly two centuries later, the letters are more enlightening than embarrassing. They show that American icons were people, too.

Raise the flag, strike up the orchestra

July 1, 2009

Nathan Vanderhoof, left, and Randall Smith of the Lexington Fire Department attach a giant flag to the front of Old Morrison hall at Transylvania University on Wednesday afternoon in preparation for the annual patriotic concert Friday evening.

The performance by the Lexington Philharmonic and the Lexington Singers is one of my favorite community events of the year. Come early with a picnic supper, a blanket and folding chairs and visit with your neighbors before the music begins. After dark, everyone will wave little flags and sparklers as the orchestra finishes by playing John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever.

This year’s concert will have an extra twist: It’s the first performance for the Philharmonic’s new music director, Scott Terrell, who is succeeding local legend George Zack. Read Rich Copley’s article about Terrell here.