April 26, 2010

“Honor is the subject of my story.”

With those introductory words, Cassius proceeded to coax Brutus into joining him in a conspiracy to overthrow Julius Caesar.  Never mind that Caesar had magnanimously spared the life of Brutus for being against him in his war against Pompeii, and that he had even come to love and cherish his friendship.

Brutus nonetheless proceeded to join in on the murder of his old friend, literally stabbing him in the back.  Then, after Caesar’s death, Marc Anthony, another friend of Caesar, shook hands with the bloody butchers and agreed to be on their side.  But within minutes, Marc Anthony had used his eloquence to turn the crowd against the conspirators and had them run out of town.  At least this is Shakespeare’s account.

Honor should be made of more sternly stuff.  It is a word that has fallen on hard times today.  You usually don’t hear it spoken as part of our vocabulary unless someone is talking about a soldier.  Otherwise, honor has lost some of its message.

The Honor Roll at school has more to do with kids who are smart than with those who are honorable.  The bumper sticker, “My Child is an Honor Student,” actually is referring to children who make good grades.  But making good grades is not a criterion to good character.  If it were, a lot of us dummies would be social outcasts.

I think our kids need to be taught – and taught regularly – what honor means and why the very survival of our civilization as we know it depends upon its practice.  While it is certainly laudable for our youngsters to aspire to be on the Honor Roll, every child should be taught that he or she is capable of being honorable irrespective of the grades they make.  I say that every parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, minister, and person of influence ought to start throwing the word “honor” around a lot more.  And when they do, they should give meaning to it.

Honor is a virtue that has been admired for centuries.  But what does it mean?

I would first go to our Declaration of Independence, upon which a small group of courageous men subscribed their names with “their lives, their fortunes, and sacred honor” hanging in the balance.  For better or worse, these brave men were committed to staying the course.  They were committed to doing what they said they would do.  It wasn’t easy.  Many of these men were once very wealthy, but ended up not so wealthy.

Honor means keeping your word, even if – as my father used to say – “it takes the skin off your nose.”

Honor means showing up at work on time and hustling to do well whatever task or job that has been assigned to you.

Honor means loyalty.  It means sticking by friends, even when their stock is low and they may have been lambasted and forsaken by the community in which they live.  An honorable man does not have to condone poor conduct in order to remain a friend.

Our dear Brutus did not get the memo on this score.  Instead of bearing the knife against Caesar, he should have raised it in his defense.  Then honor would have truly been the subject of that story.

Honor means paying your child support, or to at least die trying.

Honor means defending your neighbor against unsavory and unreliable gossip.

Honor means bravery.  Very few of us have ever had to prove our courage on the military battlefield.  However, most of us have been called upon from time to time to make an unpopular choice and to take the road less traveled when doing the right thing.  Conscience, if not followed, does make cowards of us all.

Honor demands that we be honest.  The most glowing attribute of General Robert E. Lee was not his military prowess, but his character.  When asked about a subordinate being considered for a promotion by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee gave the young officer high praise and commendation.  An aide pulled Lee aside and reminded him that this officer had never passed up an opportunity to berate and undermine Lee behind his back.  “The President asked my opinion about him,” Lee laconically responded, “not the officer’s opinion of me.”  Few of us have this type of honesty.  It is a badge of honor.

Honor means taking full responsibility for your mistakes.  Again, General Lee comes to mind.  This honorable man took full credit for the bloody and catastrophic failure of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.

In short, honor means to win without boasting and lose without excuse.

So I would submit that the term “honor” should be mentioned more than at military ceremonies and homecomings.  Honor might find a place in the classroom – or even the locker room.  I would even like to hear it mentioned in church occasionally.  As the adage goes, it we don’t use it, we might lose it.


April 26, 2010

People like to read interesting books, see interesting movies, meet interesting people.

And people like to go to interesting places.

That’s why we spend thousands of dollars to travel to Europe and walk down narrow, ancient streets of cobblestone.  There we stand in awe of crooked old buildings centuries old.  That’s why millions go each year to Epcot in Orlando to view newly created villages made to look like old ones.


Closer to home in Kentucky, that’s why people motor up to Midway, Stanford, and even our state capitol, Frankfort, to see the historical houses and buildings where history pours out to us from every pore.  These well-preserved landmarks are pleasing to the eyes.  Old buildings anchor us to a sense of place.  They are what make our town different from your town, our place different from your place.  Pikeville different from Paducah.  Danville different from Smithland.  Community leaders are now learning that these old historic homes, churches, courthouses, hotels, restaurants and office buildings can also mean money because they are interesting.  And people flock to see interesting places.

Joe Riley is the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina.  He has been in office for over thirty-five years and has made preservation the cash cow of that charming city.  And, most importantly, he has started a wave of preserving and restoring our architectural history across this land which has economically revitalized communities.

Charleston was transformed from a sleepy little southern city on the coast to a vibrant and bustling city through the preservation of historic buildings, which in turn attracted downtown businesses.  The place is now teeming with tourists who come to Charleston by the millions each year to walk about its interesting streets or enjoy the carriage rides along its tree-lined avenues.  The revenues of the city have grown in leaps and bounds because of the added vitality and growth.  Clean industry and financial and informational businesses rush to locate there because of the town’s livability.  And it is due, in large part, to the historic preservation efforts of Mayor Riley and other leaders of the community.  He is the “Double P poster child” — preservation and progress.  A leading executive of the National Park Service has said: “Joe Riley has perhaps the best understanding of any mayor in the country of the fundamental value of preservation.”  Notice that he said “value,” which includes the monetary boost to the local economy.

The Battery in Charleston Still Appears Today as It Did 100yrs Ago

But Joe Riley doesn’t have the field to himself.  And you don’t have to go to Charleston to see the economic benefits of preservation.  Here, in Kentucky, many little towns are experiencing a resurgence of economic growth by protecting their histories and interesting pasts.  Stanford, Kentucky is a delightful little town to visit.  One can walk along its downtown and see what has been done with the interesting architecture of the past.  People drive for miles to see an old filling station and garage which was slated to be demolished.  Instead, it was preserved and renovated into a downtown covered parking garage which also serves as a sheltered bazaar for vendors during the town’s periodic festivals.  “In 1990,” says Stanford’s Mayor, Bill Miracle, “we could not give one of the old buildings downtown away.  But since our Main Street project and the renovation of these historic buildings, they are in great demand.  We have people moving here because of our preservation.  A while back a couple from Maine were on their way to Berea to live.  Seeing our historic and interesting downtown, they decided to move and live here instead. Preservation has been a tremendous boost to our local economy.”

In Stanford, and other small towns, preservation requires not just political leadership, but the support of bank presidents and merchants.  In west Kentucky, the little towns of Cadiz, Princeton, Hanson and others have become interesting places where tourists like to visit.  These towns do not have a symphony or a major league baseball team.  Neither was Abraham Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis born there.  And no massive Civil War battles were fought there.  But they have saved what the past has given them and made the best of it.

The preservation movement is loading up and getting ready to leave the station.  Those old communities which are destroying all of their old buildings with random recklessness are going to be left at the station.  My good friend, Bill Black of Ray Black Construction in Paducah and a working preservationist, has correctly stated: “A community not interested in preservation is not proud of its past.”  Neither does such a community have a vision for its future.  Progressive community leaders are capable of seeing not just what old buildings are, but what they can become.  They have vision.

There is a scene in Man of La Mancha which speaks to the value of the preservation of old buildings.  Don Quixote and his servant, Sancho Panza, stand gazing at a dilapidated inn.  The building is ugly and unpainted.  Its windows are broken out, the roof full of holes, and the shutters dangling at all angles.  Quixote describes the inn as having turrets and magnificent gates, comparing the building to Alcàzar, the royal palace in Seville, Spain.  The servant tries hard to shake him into reality after failing to see the ruins as Quixote sees them.  Quixote is unfazed.  He responds: “I will not allow your facts to interfere with my vision.”

The Obituary

April 26, 2010

The obituary in the local paper was only five paragraphs.

It told me that Willis Patrick Oliver was dead.  It gave his date of birth, date of death, place of the memorial service, survivors, and a sentence or two about his occupation.  Like thousands of death notices reported in newspapers across this great land daily, it failed to capture the true essence of the life now gone.

I first saw Pat Oliver when we were both in the fifth grade.  He had missed most of his early school years because of polio.  He rolled into the classroom in a wheel chair.  His legs were held rigid by metal rods.  His upper body was encased in a back brace which extended all the way up to his chin.  Pat’s head was held erect by a padded holster.  He could not turn his body.  His arms and hands were free, but his fingers were so twisted and deformed that when he wrote on the board laid across the arms of his wheel chair, it almost hurt you to watch.  But write he did.  He was one smart customer.

It took you all of fifteen seconds to like Pat Oliver.  Looking out of that twisted body was a handsome face with a quick and engaging smile.  He laughed often with a glint of merriment in his eyes.  It was surprising how much strength he had in those wasted little arms.  Pat delighted in besting about half the other boys in class in arm wrestling.  After a short while, the class hardly noticed his handicap.

It was, of course, against the rules to run and race in the hallways.  But there, in the dark basement of the old school where our classroom was located, we used the corridor for foot races to the cafeteria.  Pat participated, either flailing away at the wheels on his chair, or partnering up with a buddy to be pushed.  After recess or the lunch break, Pat’s clothes were as disheveled and his hair as matted with sweat as the rest of us rough neck boys.  He even flirted with the girls.  He had fun.

Kids can be cruel.  But they also can be kind and tolerant.  Pat’s friends were kind.  We carried his books, returned his lunch room tray, pushed his chair.  Even at that early age, we recognized with reverent and solemn respect his simple grace and dignity which only angels teach.  We soberly recognized that but for the grace of God his fate could have been ours.

He had a younger brother, H.B., who assisted him; and his mother, Trela, was nearby working in the lunch room.  But those were the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act.  How he managed all the steps and traveling obstacles in that old school I really don’t recall.  I do remember some of those sunny spring days when the rest of us would be romping gleefully across the ballfield and playground.  Out of somewhere, there would sit Pat in his wheelchair in the doorway of the school basking in the sun and watching his classmates gambol on healthy legs across the green.  What went through his mind as he watched us — legs flying and arms churning in the beautiful dance of youth, unfettered by the scourge of polio — God only knows.

The following year, when we moved upstairs to the sixth grade, Pat’s condition had improved.  He was able to discard the brace holding his upper body.  It gave him added mobility.  In the school pictures, taken from the waist up, his polio was indiscernible.  Maybe a little frail — but we were all skinny as heck back then.

In the seventh grade, Pat parted ways with our class.  Having missed a grade or two because of his polio, he was smart enough now to be moved back up to where he belonged.  Then the impoundment of Barkley Lake and the relocation of the old towns of Eddyville and Kuttawa wreaked division and separation on the community.  We went our separate ways.  I saw him occasionally, wheeling across the campus at Murray State.  We would exchange warm and familiar greetings.  At college, he roomed with another polio victim, my friend Ronnie Oliver.  There was enough courage sleeping in those two beds to stock a standing army.

This smart young man, shackled to his wheel chair for life, graduated from Murray State and then the University of Kentucky with degrees in physics and mathematics.  He then went to the University of Alabama at Huntsville where he obtained a degree in administrative science.  He crafted a stellar career serving his country, first with the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency as a physicist, and then the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missile and Space Intelligence Center as Senior Intelligence Officer Physicist.

Very impressive.

He married and had a son.

Only the rich, famous and infamous in our society have their departed lives chronicled in detail in obituaries.  But across this great land daily, thousands of ordinary people are reported dead with short, abbreviated messages spelling out the barest statistics of their lives.  But, it is this daily procession of the common dead that routinely speaks to the greatness of America — those ordinary lives that have done extraordinary things.  Those who fought mighty odds — as Pat did — and not only survived, but prospered and contributed in mighty ways.

Each of these unfamiliar names, briefly mentioned in the thousands of weeklies and dailies in far flung nooks and crannies of the country, represent a thin thread weaved into the rich fabric of the American tapestry.  Drive through the forgotten cemeteries of small towns and country church yards in America.  Look at the varied tombstones with their short inscriptions of the simple dead.  They represent a lot of water lines laid, a lot of drywall put up, buildings built, crops raised, students taught, sermons preached, and a lot of glorious victories won over the many tragedies which beset simple folk.  These faceless names on tombstones and in brief obituaries are stones in the foundation of our way of life.  As Thomas Gray so magnificently wrote, “Even from the tomb, the voice of nature cries, even in the ashes live their wonted fires.”

So, I stare at the cold print in the paper announcing his death.  These meager words tell us that Pat Oliver is gone, no more with us on this earth. Actually, as you can see, that is not completely true.

A World Without Cable

April 26, 2010

My five sons grew up calling me the “weirdo Dad”.  Sometimes to my face. Most times to my back.

I did not allow television in my house. With cable and the wide array of channels,  I knew that with five children, there would be no way I could control what they watched. So, I banned television.

I have many failings as a Dad. But one thing that I can proudly boast. I have never  written a check for cable television.

Not that the television set itself was not present. I allowed the VCR and tapes.  The tapes cost money and were required to be rented.  They could be controlled, especially when growing children of a struggling lawyer and public servant  have little of their own money to spend.

One time I walked through the house and there were several youngsters hovered around watching a tape. My ear caught the ugly sound of some foul language coming from the set. I walked over, ejected the tape and check it. It was R rated. I took the tape back to the video store and, in so many words, warned, “the next time you check out an R rated tape to any of my kids….you won’t get it back.”   Problem solved.

So, what did my wife do with these young buckaroos through the long summer afternoons? They played outdoors. Yeah, believe it or not there was a time when kids played outdoors in the summer time. Tree houses. Hideouts in the woods.  Fishing. Swimming. Camping.  Even baseball out in the hot sun. And of course, it was all peppered with a certain amount of mischief and broken windows. Our yard was a mess. Sometimes the wonderful mother of these rowdy kids would wistfully wish for a nice lawn. ”We’re not raising grass here,” I’d remind her, “we’re raising boys.”

And during those winter days of confinement we talked a lot. Read a lot. Question and answer games at the dinner table.  After we got a video camera, we had a bunch of budding Stephen Spielberg and our own versions of Saturday Night Live.

Without television taking over the house, conversation has to become more than just a series of “uh,huhs” and “you knows”.  You actually have to learn to communicate in complete sentences.  And, in self defense if nothing else,  learn some conversational manners- like not interrupting others.

Of course the last thing a 13 year old wants to do is have a conversation with their Dad.  But you force it. I’d camp out in the room and say, “Let’s talk”.  The insolent reply would be, “I don’t have anything to talk about”. And then cold silence. “That’s fine.” I’d nonchalantly declare and plop down in a chair. “I’ve set aside 30 minutes to do nothing but sit here in your room with you. We’ll just enjoy the silence.”  A thing that a 13 year old hates worse than talking with a parent is-you guessed it- 30 minutes of silence. So over an hour later I’d leave the room after an interesting and learning conversation with my son.

Did my kids slip off and watch TV at a friend’s house up the street?  Of course. And when we went on vacation they would have the remote smoking in the hotel room.  But  we don’t live in a perfect world.

Once a teacher gave an assignment for one of our middle schoolers to watch a program on educational television at home.  My nonplused student in resident skillfully attached a twisted clothes hanger to the dusty old black and white portable pulled  from the closet. “Everybody else has cable.” he dolefully remarked, “We’re the only family in the county that has clothes hanger TV.”

We now have an empty nest and we still don’t have television. At times in the past my wife has hooked up the old rabbit ears to watch the local news. However, we were informed not long ago that we can’t even do that anymore. Something about high definition television and that we can no longer pick up local stations without modification of the sets.  We just shrugged when we heard that. It’s over out heads.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’d find time to watch television.

It’s got to be time consuming. We are newspaper, magazine, and internet addicts. By the time we wade through all these, peep into the four books I’ve been  reading at one time for months,  catch up on our children scattered all over the country, prepare for the next day’s work……well, I just don’t know how other people do it.

As for my grown children now with their own homes?  You’d have to asked them if they feel abused or  scarred or ill educated from growing up in  a home with no television. Thanks to a good mom, and the good Lord, and church on Sunday,  they all got college degrees and have fulfilling  jobs and happy lives.

They managed.

I can share with you the recent comments of the grown son who once lamented the “clothes hanger tv”.

He says, “we must ask ourselves whether TV is giving us experiences or taking them away. How many great moments together would we have lost, if we had been a TV family? I doubt you will find many people on their death beds regretting that they had not spent more time watching television.”

Well said.

I remember the first time I ever saw television. . I was a small boy and the owner of the appliance store in old Eddyville naturally got the first television in town.  He was eager to show it off. So he invited people to his house to see it. I remember going with my parents on a Sunday night after church.

It was incredible. There affixed to a piece of furniture in Rudolph Morgan’s living room was a bright, glowing screen-a miniature movie with people talking and moving about. Sure enough, it was snowy, and in black and white.  But it just blew me away.

I couldn’t resist getting a closer look. So, when all of the adults had moved out of the living room into the kitchen for coffee, I got down on the floor and edged up close.  Fearfully I reached up to touch the glow. I wasn’t sure if my hand would disappear inside, be chopped off, or burned to a crisp. So, I breathlessly touched it with one finger.

It was glass. Cold glass.

That was as cozy as television and I ever got.

Bones of Our People

April 26, 2010

There is inherent within the human race a natural reverence for the dead.  You have seen it with a funeral cortege when oncoming cars begin to pull to the side of the highway and stop for the procession.  Total strangers – nameless faces – pause for just a moment in their hurried way to pay respect for a life that has passed.  Their silent salute of the dead reminds us of the shared loss of our being one less.  At these times, we are momentarily connected to all humanity by the common cord of mortality.

Holding that thought for a moment, contemplate the following.  When most people look out over Lake Barkley in west Kentucky, they see only a beautiful lake.  Few fully comprehend the social upheaval and turmoil that came about as the result of this vast public project.  In the late fifties and early sixties, thousands of people in Lyon and Trigg Counties were displaced from their homes, farms, businesses, and even towns, to give way to the mighty waters of the Barkley Dam Reservoir.

The land not only had to give up its living, but also its dead.  During the acquisition and flattening of the expansive flood plain in two states, melancholy graves in ancient cemeteries were opened and the dusty remains of those sleeping there were moved to higher ground.  The remains of over 700 grave sites in 23 cemeteries in Lyon and Trigg Counties were dug up and relocated.  At least 40 of these were the remains of some of my relatives, including my great-grandfather.

Such old burial grounds as Liberty Point, Cumberland Baptist, and Ferguson Springs were erased from the face of the earth.  Graveyards with family names such as Henson, Cunningham, Calhoun, Hendricks, Peal, and Allen – just to name a few – all disappeared.  The dead reposing in these places were reverently exhumed and somberly carried away to be reburied in other cemeteries such as Little River, Saratoga, Metheny, and Lady’s Cemetery.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers deserves a hearty pat on the back for the sensitivity and respect they brought to this somber task.  While over 200 headstones or monuments were moved, there were also many graves without markers.  The Corps sent people into the communities to solicit input from family members regarding the identities of those buried in these poorly marked graves.  From this information, 448 new concrete markers were furnished and installed at the new interment sites.  When possible, the next of kin were notified of the time and place of the exhumation and re-burial.  The loved ones were then allowed to conduct their own private ceremonies if they wished.  Fifty-four interested groups visited the relocation operation.  All expressed satisfaction with the manner in which the movements were accomplished.

So as to not risk damaging the coffins, and in an effort to be very respectful of the contents, all excavations of old graves were required to be done by hand digging.  No machinery was allowed.  If time had completely obliterated any signs of remains in a grave, the workers were instructed to gather up one half cubic foot of material at the bottom of the grave and move such as the last remains.

All of the body – or the last remains – including jewelry and clothes, had to be removed from the grave, along with the casket, and suitably transferred for re-burial.  In cases where the coffins had disappeared, a solid box made of pine lumber was furnished.  Upon each box was affixed a rust proof metal plate on which the name of the deceased was inscribed, as well as the cemetery from which it came.

Although the U.S. Corps of Engineers contracted this daunting task out to the Western Vault Company of Holyoke, Colorado for an incredibly low bid of $62,795.00, the Corps maintained administration and close inspection of the operation.  One of the primary people responsible for carrying out this sobering job with such dignity and professionalism was my good friend, Ray Wilson of Trigg County.  He was a field inspector for the Corps and charged with the responsibility of visually checking each and every grave that was dug up.  In a conversation with Mr. Wilson, he related, “I told every one of my workers to treat every single grave as if it were their mother’s.”

The disturbance of the dead for the purpose of the construction of Barkley Lake is a poignant story.  On the other hand, it tells us something good and decent about ourselves and our government.  The deep reverence that we give to our ancient burial sites and the remains of our ancestors touches the better angels of our natures.  Like the cars stopped along the side of the road, it pronounces a spiritual connection to the mortal temples of past souls.

Perhaps Gladstone said it best many years ago, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

A Father’s Day Message

April 26, 2010

We were at a local restaurant finishing up lunch together, my good friend and I.

I mean this is a really, really good friend.  We were boys together, played ball together in high school, roomed together in college, and were in each other’s weddings.

We had taken epic trips together – from floating down the Tennessee River on a homemade raft, to paying our first visit to our nation’s capitol in his little red Volkswagon while we were in college.  We once built our own canoe out of canvas and wood, and paddled with no current from Old Eddyville to Paducah during the hottest part of the summer.  It took three days.  I don’t recommend you try it.

On the trip to Washington, D.C., we sat in the gallery of the United States Senate thanks to passes from the revered Kentucky Senator, John Sherman Cooper.  As crew cut, pimply faced youngsters, we peered down on two brothers – Robert and Ted Kennedy – surviving heirs of a martyred President conversing privately in the back of the chamber.

This is the kind of friend you can go for a year without seeing, then call him on the phone and spend an hour laughing together.

On this particular cold winter Saturday, we had plenty of time to sit and enjoy a slow and leisurely conversation long after our food and last refill of iced tea were gone.  We talked about our families and friends and young people.  We’ve raised seven boys between us.

As we sat talking, I realized that there was something about this friend that I had never seriously pondered.  He grew up without a father.  He was raised by a hard working, devoted single mom during a time when most of us enjoyed the stability and influence of a conventional pair of parents.

As a judge, I thought of those hundreds of pre-sentence reports I had read and about the prison records of many convicted felons.  One common thread that ran through almost all of the lives of these unfortunate people was absent fathers.  Divorced.  Dead.  Whereabouts unknown.

And here was my friend, well-educated and happily married with children, whose rap sheet was spotless.  He had a stellar career in education.  Why had he not become a high school dropout?  Why had he not become addicted to drugs or alcohol?  Why had he not chosen a life of crime, graduating from petty offenses to felonies?  Why had he not spent his life in and out of treatment centers, reform schools or prison?  Instead, why had he spent a lifetime as a productive and contributing citizen?

So, in that moment of easy conversation between two friends, I asked him.  His answer was quick and direct, as if he had long ago pondered and resolved that very riddle.  Of course, the lion’s share of the credit went to his strong, noble, and loving mother.  But there were others.

“I had other role models, father figures,” he said.  “I had a strong uncle.  And there was Coach.”  After a slight pause, he went on to say, “And your dad.”

My dad?  I was taken back.  What had my father done to influence the life of this close friend?  My mind raced tack to our younger years when my father was still living.  I tried to retrace the relationship of my father with this man as a young boy.

My father was very fond of him.  That’s really all I could remember.  No fishing trips.  No intimate walks together along the fence row, talking about the perils of adolescence or the challenges of manhood.  My father, like most fathers of my generation, was not the “buddy-buddy” type with children.  But he was an awfully good man – honorable; trustworthy; law-abiding; hard-working; God fearing; sober; charitable; kind and tough at the same time; compassionate, but quick to fight at the drop of a straw if honor was at stake; and dedicated to the principle that a man kept his vow to his wife, his children, and his fellow man no matter what

Of course, I knew my father had influenced my life mightily.  But the thought that he had influenced the lives of other boys never dawned on me.  It had never occurred to me that, by simply being himself, his sphere of influence had moved outside the family circle into the broader world around him.  My father had reached out and touched other young lives.  He had served as a role model for my good friend.

There is a powerful message here for every man.  You don’t have to have children to be a father.  All you men out there beware.  There are young eyes upon you.

You may be a banker sitting next to a fidgety seven-year old at the barber shop.  Is your conversation positive, free of gossip and ridicule?

You may be a mechanic.  Do you treat the child’s single mother with honesty and respect?

You may be a leader in the church.  Are you warm and friendly to the young and restless Sunday School horde of boundless energy?  Do you only say long public prayers in church, or do you show up on a Monday night to help set up the pizza party?

You may work at the sewing factory.  Do you constantly complain to the child next door that your work is dull and senseless?  Or do you tell the youngster that you make clothes that keep people warm during the midst of winter?

You may come upon a broken down motorist with a desperate child’s face pressing against the glass.  Do you stop and extend a hand, or do you speed on past?

You may be an ordinary man – thinking you are unseen, unnoticed, and unappreciated.  You may show up on time for work every day, say hello to the tow head at the candy counter, and drop money in the jar for the needy family.

You are not ordinary.  You are not unseen or unnoticed.  You are not unappreciated.  Values are caught more than they are taught.  Don’t take my word for it.  Just ask my friend.

Happy Father’s Day.

Jefferson’s Nephews

April 26, 2010

Several years ago, a friend of mine and I took advantage of some gorgeous weather to go on a little field trip to Livingston County.  We proceeded across the Cumberland River Bridge at Smithland, and traveled three miles up the Ohio River near the settlement of Birdsville.  We pulled into a narrow lane, got out of our car, and climbed up to the top of a heavily wooded summit called Rocky Hill.

We both stood and looked out over the beautiful, sunlit Ohio River Valley.  The wilderness around us was peaceful and serene.  With the exception of the chirping of the birds and the breeze rustling through the large oaks, it was quiet.  There was nothing at this spot to remind us of the sheer horror which had taken place on that hill on the night of December 15, 1812.

On that night and at that place there stood a plantation house.  And it was in the kitchen of that mansion that Lilburn and Ishman Lewis, nephews of Thomas Jefferson, bound a sixteen-year-old slave boy by the name of George and proceeded to hack him to pieces in front of other slaves who were frozen with terror and shock.  Lilburn and Ishman threw the pieces of the dismembered body into the blazing fireplace there in that kitchen.

It appears that George, who was somewhat of a troublesome servant, had run off the day before and had either been recaptured or had come home on his own.  The young slave had gone down to the spring below the hill to fetch water in an heirloom pitcher.  Unfortunately, he had dropped the vessel and it had broken.  This apparently caused Lilburn, who had undergone tremendous financial strain as well as other personal problems, to completely lose it.

The unspeakable murder ensued at the same time that a series of earthquake tremors were spasmodically afflicting all of western Kentucky, rippling out from the epicenter near New Madrid on the Mississippi River.  As if by some divine design, a major tremor struck that night, causing the chimney of the fireplace to cave in.  One of the plantation dogs dragged the decapitated head of the young slave away from the chimney ruins and down to the roadway which ran between Salem and Smithland.

A few days later, a neighbor passing by discovered the grisly evidence and took the head to Salem, the county seat at that time.  An investigation followed and some months later, both Lilburn and Ishman were indicted by a Livingston County Grand Jury for murder.

Even though George was a slave, his murder occurred in a community of slave owners who mostly believed in treating their human chattel with compassion and care.  Consequently, there was outrage among the people over the barbaric butchering by the Lewis brothers.  Lilburn’s former substantial status in the community plummeted.  His beautiful wife, Latisha, deserted her husband and took their infant child to live with her father in Salem.

Wracked with depression, Lilburn and his brother, Ishman, entered into a suicide pact.  They proceeded to the small cemetery where Lilburn’s first wife was buried.  There, they planned to stand a few paces apart, direct the barrels of their muskets at the other’s chest, and then fire on the count of three.  But in showing Ishman what to do in case his weapon did not discharge, Lilburn accidentally shot himself.  Aghast and horrified at the scene of his brother bleeding and dying, Ishman fled.  He was subsequently jailed, but escaped and was never heard from again.  There was speculation that he proceeded down the river to New Orleans where he died with Andrew Jackson’s forces in the Battle of New Orleans.  No one knows for sure and it all remains a mystery.

My friend and I found the little cemetery where Lilburn had met his end.  There is a tombstone there reported to be that of his dead mother, Lucy Jefferson, the sister of the third President of the United States and author of America’s Declaration of Independence.  We also searched the grounds for any evidence of the location of the old plantation house, but were unsuccessful.  Then, just before we descended down the narrow lane we spotted a clump of stones near the crest of the hill overlooking what is now an abandoned rock quarry.  On closer inspection of a huge tree that had been blown down, we discovered sandstone blocks matted in the tree’s root system.  These stones had once made up part of the old plantation house.  The fallen tree had actually unearthed and excavated the old root cellar of the mansion.

We stood there somewhat mesmerized by our discovery.  Also, we were absorbed in the dark irony of it all.  Just as an act of nature had uncovered evidence of this brutal crime that had occurred almost two hundred years ago, nature had also uncovered evidence of where this terrible crime had taken place.

This is just a smidgen of the wide breadth of history that sweeps across west Kentucky.  Some of this history is heroic and uplifting.  And some of it, as this episode reflects, is bloody and sad.

College Not For Everyone

April 26, 2010

I have a friend whose name is Cecil Neel. He is an auto repair mechanic.He is a super guy and a super mechanic.

One hot summer afternoon recently, I stopped by his garage to chat.  Cecil was underneath the hood of a car sweating and working.  Cars were stacked up in his lot awaiting repairs.  Cecil has a reputation.

On this day, he was all alone.  I asked, “Where’s your help, Cecil?”  “You’re looking at him,” was his reply.  We talked about the shortage of available good help for mechanical duties.  He had more work than he could get to.  A couple of state agencies also wanted him to service and maintain their cars.  Like I say, Cecil has a reputation.  I walked away pondering Cecil’s dilemma.

The next morning, I was riding my bicycle in the neighborhood and ran into my good friend, Wayne Oliver.  He pumps and treats water in my hometown of Kuttawa.  He was “flushing” a fire hydrant.  I plied him with questions about the purpose of spouting out gallons of water onto a city street on this hot and steamy morning.  He briefly gave me the nuts and bolts about keeping safe water coursing into our homes.  He explained that periodic flushing of the lines is required by law.  He told me how it was done and why.  He also explained how fire departments hooked into the hydrants.              He knows his stuff.

I told Wayne that I appreciated his good work which keeps my water running and makes my life more comfortable.  As I was leaving, I said: “Wayne, if I don’t go to work today, no one will know the difference.  But if you don’t go to work today, the whole town will be calling.”

The very same day that Cecil and I had our conversation, I also visited an elderly friend of mine who is in a retirement home in Paducah.  He does not have a high school education and has spent his career as a brick layer.  As I sat there and talked to him, I wondered how many foundations he had laid for beautiful homes?  How many patios he had constructed for the outdoor pleasure of others?  How many schools and churches he had helped raise from the dust to enrich our communities?  All of this with his skilled hands – with the bending of his back and the sweat of his brow.  My friend can get in his car, drive his grandchildren around town, and point out various structures he has helped to build – most of which will remain standing long after he is gone.  That’s more than his state Supreme Court Justice can do.

I remember the words of my father who said many times: “There will come a day when someone who can work with his hands will make more money than anybody else.”

Folks, that time is fast approaching.

But it seems our educational system is blind to it.  Here we are in the deepest economic recession of my lifetime, with people desperate for jobs, and Cecil Neel can’t find a capable, trained mechanic to assist him.

Why?  Is it because our educational system is failing?

Today, our experts in education preach the gospel of science, math, and computers.  They push high school graduates to go on to college.  There is a tremendous focus on GPA’s, CATS scores, testing, testing, and more testing.  Ask any teacher in the trenches and they will tell you this.  Testing has swallowed up teaching.

Many of the national voices of education are encouraging a longer school term, longer school days, more and more time in the classroom for our youngsters.  For what?  Education was around long before classrooms and dry marker boards.  Could it be that a kid with a summer job helping Cecil at his auto repair shop, or selling Bibles door to door, or working for his father down at the bank, or working on a ranch out west, might receive a broader summer education than that found in megabytes or algebraic formulas?

The teaching of our young has become an elitist system geared toward making every young man and woman a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, or a computer whiz.  In doing so, we have neglected the training and education for the most important jobs in our society.

Vocational school has always been a stepchild of our educational system – kind of like an afterthought.  It has been treated more like baby sitting for those kids who can’t cut it very well in mastering differential calculus or valence charts.  But let your heat go off on a sub-zero night and we are calling on those very kids we sent off to shop.  College degrees, computer programming, and SAT scores fade away into the frigid night.

A school system is graded in part on the number of kids who go on to college.  A high school is given high marks for churning out 65% of its graduates who enroll in college.  So these youngsters go off and get college degrees in an ever widening array of majors, including history, English, psychology, sports management, marketing, and the like.  These college graduates then join the growing roll of the jobless, with huge student loan debts knocking at their doors.

Not every kid can, or should, go to college.  The standard of excellence should at least include an alternate question: “How many kids educated at this school have been taught skills which have landed them jobs that make them happy, productive citizens?”  Fixing our cars.  Building our houses.  Keeping the electricity running through our houses.  Making certain that we have running water, heat, and air conditioning.  These are all very important skills.

I get the sinking feeling these days, as we talk about education, that we are missing something.  When we talk about, “No Child Left Behind,” we might start considering the possibility that some children may not need to be – nor should be – dragged along into the dreary world of computers, doctoral theses, or mathematical equations.  As long as we push children in the direction we want them to go, instead of where destiny calls them, there will always be children left behind.  You can’t put in what God left out; and you can’t take out what God put in.

Perhaps a larger segment of our younger people may be meant for the equally noble purpose of working with their hands, as well as their minds.  They can serve us with their hands just the same – and sometimes better – than lawyers and doctors service us with their minds.  I stand amazed at things that carpenters, mechanics, and electricians can do.  Just as I am amazed at how teachers can – day in and day out – stand in the classroom and teach children, many of who are unwilling to learn.

The best way that we can make certain no child is left behind is to train them in accordance with their unique gifts, instead of trying to channel them along some bureaucrat’s pre-conceived notion of what success is all about.

Meanwhile, the cars stack up on Cecil’s lot.

Mary Lou

April 26, 2010

If you travel to Pickneyville, Kentucky, on the Cumberland River in Livingston County, you will find a scenic, sleepy little hamlet with an attractive church and cemetery. One tombstone in that cemetery has a rather unusual inscription, which provides a clue to one of the most dramatic stories in Western Kentucky history. It is the grave marker of Mary Lou Hollowell, wife of Robert Hollowell, originally from Caldwell County. However, the inscription reads, “Mary Lou Eastland, wife of Robert Hollowell.”

            Mary Lou Hollowell was married to Robert and they had a young son named Price. They lived in the McNabb School area of Caldwell County during the time of the Tobacco Night Riders, who roamed the hills and hollows of that area at night. The Night Riders were the militant arm of the Dark Tobacco District Planters Association. That organization was formed for the farmers to pool their tobacco in order to get tobacco prices up, which were controlled by the American Tobacco Company, known to the farmers as the “Duke Trust”.

            For some reason or another, Mary Lou did not get along well with the Hollowell side of the family. They were all Night Riders and Night Rider sympathizers. She took the other position, and proceeded to lambast the Night Riders at every turn.    

            She attempted to have Night Riders indicted for their raid upon Princeton in 1906. For her trouble, the Night Riders scraped Mary Lou’s plant beds. Mary Lou proceeded to reciprocate by hiring two of her tenants to scrape the plant beds of her brother-in-law, John Hollowell. This caused the Night Riders to pay a visit upon her family, beating her and her husband, scaring the daylights out of their son, and running the family out of the county.

            Mary Lou rebounded quickly and hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit in the Federal District Court in Paducah. She ultimately obtained a $35,000 verdict against the Night Riders, which was the first successful litigation against their actions.

            Mary Lou took the judgment money and moved with her family to the Salem area of Livingston County. Over time, their son Price was a successful farmer; and when he died in 1975 without children, he left a large sum of money to the Livingston County Hospital.

            So, Mary Lou, Robert, and Price are buried there in the little Pickneyville cemetery. The fact that she took her maiden name back for the inscription on her tombstone is proof positive that the bitterness lingered toward the Hollowells until the date of their death.

            The Night Rider Movement—like the Civil War—divided families and turned neighbor against neighbor. There was both right and wrong on each side of the issue. Only recently, a hundred years later with the recent burials of the last survivors, have the intense hard feelings and bitterness been to rest.

            If one travels just a short distance up the Cumberland River to the little river town of Dycusburg, the full picture of the dangers Mary Lou stared down is graphically illustrated. High on the hill overlooking Dycusburg is the cemetery. In that cemetery is the tombstone of Henry Bennett. The inscription on that grave marker includes the words, “Killed By The Night Riders.”