Masonry Matters

July 24, 2015

It comes to a sober surprise to many, that there are high school seniors in the Commonwealth of Kentucky who are destitute. By that I mean, there are those who do not have money to meet even the basic needs and wants of a high school student. Even in the most thriving school districts, there are young men and women enrolled in our public schools who cannot afford to go to basketball games, pay fees for certain extra curricula activity, or expenses to participate in such constructive activities as band, debate team, or cheerleading.

A high school principal in one of the more prosperous school systems reports that he had one student who did not have decent clothes to wear to school. When proper ones were bought for him, they were promptly stolen at home. Consequently, clothes were bought for him, kept at school for him to change in and out of each day upon arriving and leaving school.

Some schools have resources upon which to rely in order to meet some of these needs. Many, if not most do not. Even with those schools which can turn to giving hands, there is still always more need than money.

So, upon this great need, Masonry Matters was born.

Local lodges in the counties are coming together to conduct joint collections or fund raising efforts for the needy children in their local schools. The lodges jointly make their contribution to the respective principals to go toward the needs of these young students. The only condition placed upon the gift, it that it be given according to need, without regard to color, creed or gender, and that the recipient simply be told, “it’s from the Masons”. We trust our school principals with the rest.

The declining membership in Free Masons speaks to the growing apathy toward our great fraternity. With our ancient signs and symbols, we are perceived as no longer relevant in today’s society. And to some extent, and sadly, this has become true.

But to the young man who gets to play the trumpet in the high school band, or the young girl who gets to attend her one and only prom, we become very relevant, when we give them this precious opportunity.

Nothing can be more productive for our country than to give to the mental, spiritual, and cultural growth of our young. Nothing can sell Masonry more than for a youngster to be told, “the local Masons care about you.” That young man so assisted or the brother of that young girl given aid may be so inspired by our gifts as to want to know more about our order, and eventually become members. At the very least, this very critical segment of our society will know from heart warming experience that Masonry Matters.

Helmetless Riders

July 11, 2015

I read in the newspaper this morning where another motorcyclist has been killed on a Kentucky highway. He was not wearing a helmet.
While I was in the Army, I rode a motorcycle all over Europe. I’ve been at the throttle of a two wheeler pushing one hundred miles per hour in the left lane on a German autobahn. I was running from a huge Mercedes on my tail flashing its lights for me to get out of the way. I had no place to go. The right lane would be clogged with slow moving lorries. I’ve driven swiftly and sometimes desperately through the narrow and twisted streets of the ancient ports of Trieste, Ostende, Holyhead, and Split. One day I received a harrowing police escort through the large port city of Newcastle, England, by a motorcycle cop. He was generously trying to get me to the ferry before it departed. My whole life flashed before me.
I’ve driven a motorcycle across our beautiful United States. The eye popping scenery along the Snake River in Idaho had to be seen from a narrow road following the stream with mirroring twists and turns. I’ve negotiated hair pin curves while riding on two wheels over the deep crevices in the Rockies. I’ve had snow spitting in my face in Montana when it was 90 degrees in Kentucky. You haven’t been drenched and desperate at the same time until you are caught on a motorcycle in downtown Memphis during a blinding downpour, searching frantically for an underpass.
I still have a motorcycle license.
What does all this have to do with anything? I say all that to say the following with at least a smidgen of credibility. All the money in the USA couldn’t get me to ride a motorcycle without a helmet. It would take even more loot for me to put someone I love—girlfriend or wife—on the motorcycle with me, without a helmet. (Almost 90% of all motorcycle passengers killed are women.)
My dog Julep use to ride the motorcycle with me. If there had been helmets for dogs, I’d had one on her.
There are no fender benders on a motorcycle. Only serious accidents. I had a good friend who didn’t make a curve, ran off the road at moderate speed and took a tumble. He got up, said a few words, collapsed into a coma and died. The bike was virtually undamaged. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. If he had, he’d be alive today. There was a heart stabbing twist to this tragedy. He had just bought the bike and was on his way home to get his head gear.
In 1968, Kentucky enacted a helmet law for all motorcycle riders. Then, thirty years later in 1998, that law was repealed. Now only operators under the age of 21, those riding on learning permits, or those who’ve had a license for less than one year are required to wear helmets while riding motorcycles.
Kentucky is listed near the top of the states which had the largest drop in helmet use after the repeal of the law. Shame on us. Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida are the only states in the south without a helmet law. Again, shame on us.
Here are some facts you need to know from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
· Motorcycle fatalities increased by over 50% after Kentucky’s helmet law was repealed.
· In 2014 there were 1,275 motorcycle injuries and 76 fatalities in Kentucky. Of those injured, 688 were not wearing a helmet. Of those killed, 46 were not wearing a helmet.
· For every 100 motorcycle riders killed in crashes while not wearing a helmet, 37 of those 100 could have been saved had they been wearing a helmet.
· Forty-one percent of motorcycle operators and 50% of motorcycle passengers who died in 2010 nationwide were not wearing a helmet.
I know this is getting tiresome. So we’ll end with this. Nationwide, helmets reduce the risk of death by 37%. They reduce the risk of head injury by 69%. That’s not a misprint—69%!
The argument against a helmet law is appealing. “My own safety is my business. It invades my own individual liberty to force me to wear a helmet.”
Of course the reasoning is flawed. Motorcycles travel on public highways. Your death or injury upon the public highways affects us all. When a cyclist goes down on the highway, we all go down. The young daughter growing up without a mother is stricken. The elderly and infirmed father is deprived of an only son. An empty chair sits at the holiday meal.
There are things worse than death. A perpetual coma or total paralysis for years is not out of the picture for head injuries sustained by a helmetless rider. Medical and nursing costs can run into the millions. Most families cannot afford it. They keep their loved one alive with the help of costs shared by taxpayers everywhere. The national economic burden from crash-related injuries and deaths in one year alone totals 12 billion dollars. Your carelessness may well become the business of strangers.
Here’s what Lt. Col. James Champagne, former Executive Director of Louisiana Safety Commission says. “You can talk about freedom of choice, but when other people have to pay for the consequences of that choice, then it’s not freedom of choice at all.”
There is another dimension no one ever considers. Unless you’ve been one of those unfortunate souls who have been involved in a fatal traffic accident which was not your fault, you will not fully understand. The person killed would have lived, had they worn their seat belt—or wore their helmet. You are innocent. But you are also a human being. You are sensitive to the loss of human life in an accident in which you were involved. You have sleepless nights. Though totally without fault, you carry this searing memory to your grave.
The real pros I see on motorcycles today are the ones dressed in leather trousers and jackets. And of course they are wearing good helmets. Leathers are expensive and can be unbearable in the summer. But I wouldn’t bike without a helmet if I was cruising down the golden streets of the New Jerusalem in heavenly weather.
I see the helmetless riders on the road today and I cringe. I see the imaginary words written across their backs, “it won’t happen to me.” It saddens me. These are such nice people riding motorcycles today. I want to say something. But I don’t. My wife and grown children keep me in ample supply of “none of your business.” Instead, I’m writing these words.
So, if you have loved ones who ride motorcycles without helmets, you might consider cutting out this article and giving it to them. Chances are very slim that it will do any good. But at least you would have tried.

Back in the fall

January 4, 2015

Back in the fall, my son Alec and my grandson Nicholas were fishing on an ocean inlet in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.
We witnessed an amazing act of nature.
An Osprey made a dive from the sky to secure a fish in its talons. Another day at the office for the Osprey. Not quite. Normally, once snatching the fish, it would alight with its prey to fly off to its wife and kids waiting for supper. But, the fish was too big. The Osprey could not rise out of the water with its catch. So, there the bird flapped, trying to stay afloat with it’s hefty catch still clutched in its grasp.
We assume that the water birds of prey fish every day, and catch fish every day. Maybe they fish every day, but do not catch fish every day. It is doubtful this Osprey was clutching to this day’s catch out of greed. It could have been a week’s worth of food. A week’s worth of hunger.
The water eagle had to make a decision. Turn loose of the wonderful catch, or drown.
The bank was only twenty-five feet away. The bird then began to swim with fish in tow. To call it “swim” is being generous. It is hard to describe. Flapping the only wing not submerged in the water, this incredible water fowl, slowly and laboriously made its way to a rocky fringe of the lagoon. There it landed, fish still gripped strongly in the right talons. It climbed up on to solid footing. For fifteen minutes it flapped it’s wings and shivered it’s under feathers like a dog jumping from a bath.
It was getting rid of the excess weight of the water logged body. Lightening its load for a takeoff.
And then when nature, or God, or whatever told this lowly creature it was time to go, he lumbered off on its solitary way. Like the old bulky and rattling C-130s I fearfully rode so many times in the Army, our feathered creature ponderously gained attitude furiously beating its wings just above the surface of the water for a terrorizing time.
And then it headed into the sky, home in time for supper with Molly and the kids.
Upon reflection, I realized that this lowly creature—this bird brain—used amazing intelligence to extricate himself from seemingly a hopeless situation.
What if he had been in an open waters, maybe miles from shore? He would have released his prey. But he wasn’t. He eyed the shore near at hand, which was his salvation. “If I can make it over there, I can lighten my load of water soaked feathers. I won’t have to lift off from this watery entanglement. Patience. I can do this.”
And so it made it’s ugly way to shore. And there, with the fish still clawed in its clutch, it had to think. Am I ready to take off? He possessed no computer chip buried in a composite jumble of wires and connectors calculating his weight to drag ratio. He was solely on his own, his wit against nature.
At some point—like a human decision to fill up the gas tank and leave for vacation—he made a cognizant decision. Time to go.
I went home that night and read about the Rosetta Mission. The European Space Agency had sent out a space craft ten years ago to land on a meteor speeding through space 300 million miles from earth. That is not a misprint. 300 million miles from earth. And, it caught up with the fleeing meteor which was traveling 40,000 miles an hour. That’s right, 40,000 miles per hour.
And…it landed on its surface. At my reading of the report, it was sending back to earth information about the composition of this meteor. There is much more. We’ll leave it at that.
The mind can only absorb so much. After a while the superlatives—amazing, incredible, unbelievable—become hollow and meaningless. For many things in our space exploration, our adjectives have not caught up with our feats.
Intelligence. Which had the most? The human mind evolving over eons to master such a venture to the stars? Or the lowly Osprey in the water, desperately holding to life? The master mind of the homo sapien chasing meteors around the universe like a cowboy chasing down a stray calf? Or the ocean eagle, with its limited ancestry and the brain size of a lima bean?
It’s all relative. One effort was rooted in curiosity. The other—survival. Life is not being dealt a good hand. It’s playing a poor hand well.
In the grand scheme of God’s unbelievable universe, I’d call it a draw.

“One Kind of Game”
By: Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham

A couple of weeks ago, on May 7th, I was the keynote speaker at a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone for the historic old Calloway County Courthouse in Murray. As we were gathering for the event on a fine spring afternoon on the front lawn of the courthouse, I was approached by a gray-haired man about my age and size. He stuck out his hand and said, “January 12, 1962. I’m Mickey Boggess.”

I immediately knew who he was and what he was talking about. On that winter night so long ago, we played in one of the most unusual high school basketball games I have ever seen. I hadn’t remembered the date like Mick had, but I have never forgotten that night.

The Calloway County High School Lakers were the force of the First Region. They had come to Benton High School in December undefeated, 8 and 0, and were number one in the region. Benton had a good team too, but not perfect. The Lakers were easily picked to win. Before a full house in the Chambers Memorial Gymnasium in Benton, we shocked the Lakers by beating them 17 points.

In January, we had to go to their place. And we knew what to expect. They would be laying for revenge. And they were. A packed house of Calloway County fans were screaming, stomping, yelling, and whistling from the very get go. At first, it looked like they would get their revenge as the game started close. But by early in the second half, the Benton Indians had begun to pull away. Instead of the Lakers getting their revenge, it looked like it was going to be a replay of our December encounter.

Then, in the fourth quarter, Calloway County made a run. The Lakers cut the lead to one point with less than 20 seconds to go in the game. We tried to hold the ball until the time ran out as the whole place came apart at the seams. As the clock ticked down into single digits, an incredible series of things took place. Mickey Boggess knocked the ball out one of my teammate’s hands. The Benton Indian swiped desperately at the ball, but instead got a big piece of Mickey. The referees called a foul and we all looked at the big score clock to see if time had expired. There were nothing but zeros on the clock, but inexplicably the horn had not sounded. Bad news for the Indians. Mickey Boggess would shoot one and the bonus for Calloway County with no time left on the clock.

There is no more of a pressure situation in basketball than this. The Lakers are down by one point and Mickey is going to the line for one and the bonus with no time on the clock. If he hits the first basket, the game is tied. If he doesn’t, the game is over and his team is defeated once again by those pesky Benton Indians. If he hits both baskets, the Lakers win the game. At least that is what everyone in that gym thought that night.

Ice water Mick went to the free throw line in the deafening noise and bedlam of the moment and knocked down those two free throws like he was kicking two cans out of the road. The home standing Calloway County fans went berserk. They ran onto the floor to embrace the winning Lakers and especially the hero of the moment, Mickey Boggess.

The referees, however, had the presence of mind to remember one very important thing. The horn had not sounded. That was long before the modern second hand time clock. Technically, the game had not ended. The referees began to wave the crowd off the floor. If I remember correctly, they even had the help of a couple of state policemen dressed in their familiar gray uniforms and Smokey hats. Confident that their celebration had been only momentarily postponed, the happy crowd moved back to their seats.

Finally, the floor was cleared and only the ballplayers were on the hardwood. One referee yelled at us and said, “You’ve got the ball till the horn sounds.” My teammate, Steve Miller, stepped into the end zone, took the basketball from the official, and looked down court. He spotted Russell Anderson open near the mid-court line and about 60 feet from Benton’s basket. He heaved the basketball to Russell baseball style. Russ grabbed the ball and pivoted toward our basket. Here is how one writer described it: “He caught the ball just behind the mid-stripe and all in the same motion pivoted, crouched, and then let fly a two-handed shot exploding from his chest.”

I stood near mid-court and watched the flight of the ball. It headed up into the dark stratosphere of the arena and started its downward trek as the air went out of over 2,500 people. I remember thinking, “It’s long.” And it was. But not too long. The ball came crashing down upon the glass within the square above the rim and banked back through the basket. The refs looked at each other in astonishment and both extended their left arms and made the downward motion of their right hands. The basket counted.

We had won by one point thanks to that amazing shot by Russell Anderson. Now the Calloway County fans, who had been celebrating only seconds before, stood numb in disbelief. The joyous Benton Indian fans stampeded onto the floor. Four points had been scored with no seconds left on the clock. Had the three point line been in use then, it would have been five points. To my knowledge, it still stands as a Kentucky high school record.

At that courthouse ceremony the other day, I had not seen Mickey Boggess since that basketball game over 50 years ago. Time and the destructive hand of consolidation have done what the Calloway County Lakers could not do. Destroy the Benton Indians. They are no more. The Calloway County Lakers are still going strong. I guess ole Mick and his boys got the last laugh after all.

Miss Mary

April 12, 2013

“Miss Mary”
By Justice Bill Cunningham

I read in one of the local papers that a teacher has been suspended for throwing a book at a student.

I had a seventh grade English teacher who threw books at her students.

Her name was Miss Mary Henson. I use her real name here for two reasons. First, she was an old maid with no family that I know of and has been dead for many years now. And secondly, everyone, including her students, loved and respected Miss Mary. Even if she did throw books at us.

Miss Mary was very old. I mean really, really old. And she looked the part. We were convinced that she had been on a first name basis with the Old Testament prophets. She had a shock of frizzy gray hair and wore granny glasses and old- fashioned dresses. At the end of the day, with her frazzled hair standing straight up and shoulders sagging, she looked like a used bar of soap.

Miss Mary drove a black Model A car to school and always parked it in the same exact spot every day. She only drove the car to school and back from her little white house up on the hill next to the prison. There was a story, apocryphal of course, that one day she decided to drive the ancient auto to Princeton and it turned in at the school automatically.

Miss Mary was not a very good teacher. And she had very little control of her classroom. The fact that we liked her and respected her age kept us from taking over the room, tying her to the chair, and changing all our grades in her grade book. She would sit next to her desk in an old wooden chair and read parts of stories from Washington Irving and Rudyard Kipling. She would recite poetry from Keats, Tennyson and Coleridge. It was the first time I ever heard the word “Longfellow.” With a name like that, I thought he must have played basketball. I was also blown away to learn that a great writer actually had the good fortune of being named “Wordsworth.”

Her daily monologue of dusty old authors and ancient writings bored us. So, we would begin to whisper among ourselves. Then we would begin to talk to each other, giggle, and even laugh. Finally, the din in the room would rise to the same level of Miss Mary’s talking. Then she would lose it. She would stand up, scream at us, and then hurl the giant old literature book towards the back of the room. It would go sailing over my head, pages flapping in the wind like some exotic bird trying to take flight. It would finally smack into the back wall and, like a dead pigeon that had flown into a plate glass window, crumple lifeless to the floor.

The room would immediately go deathly silent. Miss Mary would stand there with her eyes a glaze with anger, her hands on her hips surveying the room, just daring anyone to say or do anything. It looked like she was searching for someone to pull out of his or her chair and choke to death. No one wanted to be that person. We lay low and still in those tense moments. Then, like a teapot on the burner of a stove which had been turned off, she would begin to cool. At last she would sheepishly go to the back of the room, pick up the book, and return to her chair. After a couple of minutes of composing herself and finding her place in the book, she would continue to feed the sleeping gas into the room.

We would be quiet for a week or so. And then the decibel level in the room would begin to rise until Miss Mary’s stress needle would once again edge over into the red.

In her defense, I never remember the book hitting anyone. It’s hard to know how it missed. Maybe she was aiming just above our heads. A warning shot. Also to her credit, she fought her own battles. Miss Mary never passed the buck by sending students with notes to the office for the principal to do her dirty work. She stood her ground.

No one ever complained about Miss Mary throwing books. The reason was simple. If we complained to our parents about her throwing a book at us, the conversation would naturally lead to the question, “Why was she throwing a book at you?” We would not want to go there. Another reason no doubt why we didn’t report it is that many parents would just laugh. They had books thrown at them too by Miss Mary.

I guess, because of her age, Miss Mary was taken out of the classroom the next year and moved upstairs to become the librarian. Now she had many, many books to throw. Funny. I never remember her throwing a single book when she was the librarian. All that ammunition and not a volley fired.

Finally, I think it was my 9th grade year, she announced her retirement. One spring afternoon they had a big retirement ceremony for her out in the old gym. It was packed with school kids, teachers, and all the muckadee mucks from the county school system. There were speeches about Miss Mary and the program took on a theme of “This is Your Life”– a popular TV program at the time. They brought back some old friends and even former students. In fact, some of her former students looked almost as old as she did. When it was over, the little wooden cracker box of a gym came apart at the seams. We kids yelled, screamed, stomped our feet, whistled, and cheered. We liked old Miss Mary. Even if she did throw books at us.

At the close of the ceremony, they presented a portrait of Miss Mary to be hung in the school. I remember that it was really a good likeness and very well done. It hung in the library of the school. I wonder if it survived the demolition and relocation of the school. I wonder if it still hangs somewhere in the various rooms and hallways of the Lyon County school system.

Many years later, when I got out of the Army and came back home, I was amazed to learn that Miss Mary was still living. Incredibly, she was still living alone in the little white house next to the prison where she had lived all her life. I went to see her and found that she didn’t look any older than she had in her book throwing days. I guess you get to a certain age and, like a rock, you just stay that way till the end of time. Her mind was alert. There is a time in most of our lives when we go back to visit old former teachers as equals. It is a pleasant time of catching up and swapping stories. At that meeting, with the brooding prison walls looming just outside her door, she told me two interesting stories.

The prison was built when she was just a little girl. She remembered the large sign hung over the entrance when it first opened for inmates — “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”

It was the second story she told me that was the most intriguing. For the first time I got an intimate peep into the old lady’s past. She said she had dated the French engineer who had come to help install the electric chair in 1911. Miss Mary dating? Miss Mary with a boyfriend? Miss Mary involved in a romantic relationship? It was unthinkable.

I remember wondering as I drove home that day how the romantic engagement with the French beau had ended. I wondered, with sadness, if maybe her heart had been irreparably splintered by his return to his home far away across the waters just before the bloody World War began. It saddened me to think that she was left there alone in the dirty river town, destined to take care of aging parents till she too was aging. Assigned to teaching piano lessons at night. Abandoned to carry out a long lifetime of driving the old Model A to school and back every day. And throwing books at yard apes like me.

Miss Mary’s health finally gave way and she went into a rest home. She suffered from dementia. One moment she was in the real world; the next she was in a world of her own.

I went down to see her at the rest home one last time. She was lying in bed, flat on her back, with the sheet pulled up around her neck and staring at the ceiling. I gingerly approached the head of the bed. “Hello Miss Mary. How are you doing?”
There was a sudden glint of recognition and brightness in her eyes as she glanced toward me. “Well, hello Billy Boy!” she exclaimed in a strong and kind voice. “How are you doing? Don’t you think this is the best school year we’ve ever had?” I leaned closer to speak directly into her ear. “Yes ma’am. How are they treating you here? How is the food?” I inquired. She answered immediately. “Just great, Billy Boy. And I think this is the best school year we’ve ever had. Don’t you think it’s the best school year we’ve ever had?” I had dealt with these people before. I knew how to handle it. So, I responded. “I sure do Miss Mary. What are you teaching this year?” With that question, her eyes widened and flashed with an excitement as if I had just set her bed on fire and was standing there holding a can of gasoline. “Teaching?” she bellowed incredulously. “I’m in the rest home!”

There are times when no matter how much your mind is racing for something to say, the conversation just kind of dries up.

So, many years later, I’m sitting in my easy chair in the late night quietness of my home. I’m reading the news report of the teacher suspended for throwing a book at a student.

The newspaper slips into my lap and I stare into space. I can see it as clear as if it happened yesterday. I see the big literature book–Keats, Tennyson, and Chaucer all in flight together–sailing past my head, the leaves flapping in the wind. I can even feel the breeze.

December 4, 2012

Justice Cunningham visits Eastern  

  Kentucky Correctional Complex


Kentucky Supreme Court Justices Bill Cunningham and Will T. Scott toured the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty, Kentucky on Tuesday November 27th.  Secretary of Justice Michael Brown and Commissioner of Corrections LaDonna Thompson accompanied them.

Justice Cunningham stated: “We almost daily affirm sentences which sentence our fellow citizens to prisons in Kentucky.  Justice Scott and I feel that we should periodically tour and learn about these places where they are imprisoned.  As always, when we visit prisons in Kentucky, we were impressed with the warden and his staff and the professional manner in which they do their jobs.”

The Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex was opened in 1990 and currently has a population of 1,689 inmates.  EKCC’s mission is to operate by  “providing care, custody and control in a safe and secure environment.”

Justice Cunningham was elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court in November of 2006.  His first district consists of twenty-four counties in western Kentucky.  Justice Scott was recently re-elected to represent the eastern seventh Supreme Court district of the state.


November 9, 2012


By:  Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham

(The following article was first published several years ago.  It has been one of Justice Cunningham’s most popular writings.  Its meaning seems to be timeless.)

We have become a nation of whiners, complainers and cry babies.  We complain about taxes, politicians, and the weather.  We complain about lawyers and doctors.  We rush to join our own narrow interest groups, from where we can vilify the rest of the world and lament how badly our members are being treated.  We have created heat indexes and wind chill factors so that, when the meteorologist gives us the weather, we can talk about how much worse it really is.

Surely, the good Lord must grow weary of it all.  For it seems the ones who complain the most have the least reason to complain.

People not only complain incessantly, they look askance at those who don’t.  If you are not making a fuss or criticizing, they say you really don’t understand the situation.

Amid all this, I retreat to my closet and confess that I am thankful.

I’m thankful we live in a country where complaining people do not get strung up by the neck for complaining.

I’m thankful for my doctor who cares; for medical science which continues to advance; and for being able to go to my dentist without pain.

I’m thankful for my good neighbors, who benignly tolerated my dog and my five boys, and didn’t take me to court for the bother.

I’m thankful for the health and safety of my family, and for living in a community where people don’t have to lock their doors and where strangers wave at you on the road.

I’m very grateful for my honest and skillful mechanic, who patiently put up with the nickel and dime repairs of my teenage drivers.

I’m thankful for political candidates who subject themselves to the slings and arrows of a fickle public and hypocritical media to give back their time and service to the community.  They help maintain our roads and streets, educate our young, care for our elderly, and preserve the democratic process.

I’m thankful I am able to see the beauty of the morning sun, the gathering storm on a summer day, and my son’s line drive.

I’m thankful for my minister who offers hope, my friends who offer smiles, and my enemies who make me feel worthy.

Thanks to the millions who show up for work each day in spite of sick kids, alcoholic spouses, heartaches and broken dreams.

I’m thankful for those who do volunteer work – elderly ladies in hospital lobbies, small town firemen, Sunday School teachers, soccer coaches, blood bank workers, and on and on.

I’m thankful for the teachers of this country who – at far less pay than they deserve — labor at molding young minds and developing the leaders of tomorrow.

Thanks to the nice people who stop on the frantic and fast moving interstate highways to offer aid to stranded drivers.

I’m grateful for sales clerks who smile and for people who say thank you when you hold the door open.

I’m thankful for summer nights when the wonderful chorus of nature serenades us and the homeless to not freeze to death.

I’m thankful for my mother and father who, in their humble way, taught me many things, including reaching for a rung above them for something better.

I’m thankful to be alive today – not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today – the most exciting time in the history of the world.

So, I am thankful – deeply and profoundly grateful.

It won’t get me on the morning news, nor invited to the mayor’s tea.  It won’t get me on a call-in show.  What will it get me anyway?

The Beatitudes assure is that the kingdom of heaven shall belong to the poor in spirit.  The meek shall inherit the earth.  Peacemakers shall be called the children of God.  But no mention is made of the grateful.

Surely gratitude is worth something.  Like keeping you out of last place, maybe?

So, on Judgment Day, I will be confronted with an indictment of many sins to which I will humbly plead guilty and ask for mercy.  The Lord will search my long list of wrongs, looking for something good.  “Remember me, Lord?” I will anxiously and plaintively implore.  “I was thankful.”


August 21, 2012

I came within 200 yards of being born in prison.

My mother gave birth to her fifth child in government housing just across the street from the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Kentucky.  We youngsters grew up in the shadows of those brooding gray walls.  The prison was a part of our lives.  I first went to prison as a small boy, acting as a bat boy for a local baseball team.  That’s right.  I was in and out of prison several times as a juvenile.  

The prison shaped our early lives and we got to know many of the prisoners who served time there, especially the trustees who worked outside on the sprawling grounds of the Castle on the Cumberland.  My third cousin, Hodge Cunningham, was the first guard killed there by inmates in October of 1923.

I went there as public defender for the inmates and then as Commonwealth’s Attorney.  As Circuit Judge, I presided over inmate cases in the little courtroom we have there.  Even today, as Supreme Court Justice, I visit frequently.  Some of the wardens and guards have become my good friends.  So have many of the prisoners.

There is a saying, “If you have a thousand friends, you don’t have a one to spare.”  I cherish my friendships with guards and prisoners alike.

Some of my inmate friends are actually people I have prosecuted or sentenced.  I did my duty with respect for them as human beings.  They took their medicine manfully.  I never added one word of scorn or ridicule onto their sentences.  Never humiliate anyone when they are helpless.  Out of those unique encounters, guided with a proper respect, have come friendships.  There are also others down through the years that I did not know prior to their incarceration who I met for the first time at the prison.  I also have friends who have stumbled badly, committed crimes, and are doing time in prison.  I have searched in vain and have not found in our penal code the penalty of loss of friends as a required punishment—nor the banishment of hope.  For Shakespeare wrote, “The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.” 

So, I get mail on a weekly basis from inmates.   Some of the mail comes from people I do not know with whom I have had only a causal passing.  Some may have passed through my court over the years.  Some of the mail is from people that I have never encountered directly, but know who I am.  Their letters are what we call ex parte attempts to reach directly into the Supreme Court of our state.  These correspondents want their sentences reduced, a new trial, parole, or some other relief.  They claim innocence, blame a prosecutor for being unfair, a defense lawyer for being inept, or a judge for being biased.  Many blame girlfriends, wives, mothers, or anyone else but themselves.  A letter lies on my desk, even as I write, asking me to intervene and grant probation.

These letters are easy to handle.  I simply send them on to the appropriate person or agency— Commissioner of Corrections, judge, defense lawyer, prosecutor, clerk, minister or whoever I might decide is appropriate.  Then I send the inmate a polite response, “Sorry son, I can’t help you.  I’m on the state Supreme Court.”  Or words to that effect.

Sometimes the letters are totally out of touch with reality.  A few border on the humorous.  I once received a letter from a female prisoner I had sentenced which read: “Judge, I really would like to serve the two years you gave me, but I really don’t have the time.  I’ve got other things I need to be doing.”

The tough letters, the ones that lie around on my desk for days, sometimes weeks, awaiting a response are the letters I get from friends in prison.  They are not asking for anything.  They are not asking for their sentences to be reduced, for money to be sent to their accounts, or for me to talk to their lawyers or prosecutors.  They are not even asking for my sympathy.  They are asking for nothing except maybe a reply.  Something from the outside world; from another human being; yes, from a friend.  Words from someone outside of bondage who recognizes they still exist.  That they are still relevant to the world in some way.  That they still merit some time and attention, meager as it may be.

I’ve been receiving these types of letters for years.  I always respond, sometimes belatedly.  But I have never fashioned what I consider an adequate reply.  How do you tell a person in prison to “have a nice day”?

Have a nice day wearing the same khaki garb you wore yesterday and will wear tomorrow. 

Have a nice day eating three meals of institutional food on stainless steel trays in a roomful of hundreds of sullen convicted felons.

Have a nice day hearing the continuous sound of metal doors clanging instead of the hum of a passing car or the shrieks of children playing down the street.

Have a nice day seeing your loved ones through Plexiglas only on certain days and times.

Have a nice day sauntering around the same sterile landscape of concrete and asphalt, paradoxically called “the yard.”  

Have a nice day living like this for the next five years, ten years, or the rest of your life.

I’ve never found the right words—ones that do not sound hollow or meaningless.

Neither does it seem humane to mention even the most mundane things in life which we all take for granted.  Things like mowing the grass, shopping at the mall, taking your kids or grandkids to ball practice, eating fresh vegetables, or simply sitting through the dawn of a summer day on your front porch with a porcelain cup of steaming coffee in your hand.  All of these things would surely make the heart of the deprived reader ache at the thought of such blessings needlessly forfeited.

So, these letters lie on my desk for a while as I conjure the will to respond to them.  To tackle the daunting task of writing something which is honest and yet hopeful.  It doesn’t take much.  I have another letter on my desk from a friend in a Louisiana prison.  He is 72 years old.  He said that my last letter to him had motivated him to go out on the yard and do something about his poor physical shape by doing pushups and sit ups.  I think that all I did in my letter was to merely inquire about his health.

We do not have to receive jail mail from friends in prison to be confronted with this somber challenge.  The need to respond and offer hope to people confronts us all, almost on a daily basis.  We are constantly encountering those friends who have fallen upon the thorns of life and are bleeding.  The friend dying from cancer, the friend whose spouse is dying from cancer, the friend who has lost a child, the friend who has suffered a stroke and cannot move or speak.  We all must answer “jail mail” from those dear people who have been imprisoned—perhaps for the rest of their lives—by a terminal disease, unbearable loss, or a life changing tragedy.  It may even be a friend who has been the victim of a crime and who is unalterably scarred by the experience.  An injury inflicted by a person similarly situated with my friends who write me “jail mail” from prison.

We all struggle with the right words to say.  A good friend of mine was asking me for advice about visiting his nephew who was in prison on drug crimes. “What do I say to him, Bill, when I go visit?”  I told him he didn’t have to worry about what he said.  Just being there would be enough.

Life is hard.  Harder for some than for others.  So we continue to meet those friends in prison or at the funeral home, in the hospital, and casually on the street, who are suffering in seemingly hopeless situations.  Muted and witless we stand with that friend who is bereft of hope.  In that awful moment, we share for a short distance their weary road, groping together in the desperate darkness for a hidden light.

That is the best we can do. 

Manhood Crisis

August 11, 2012


State Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham addressed the 40th annual training conference of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police in Bowling Green on the evening of August 8.

In his comments to the group, Justice Cunningham shared experiences of growing up and his 40-year career in law enforcement.  “I served as Commonwealth’s Attorney, Circuit Judge, and even Deputy Sheriff,” he said, “and at the Supreme Court level I still consider myself in law enforcement. The big difference between you and me is that I have months and the benefit of lawyers and fellow justices and the quiet tranquility of the conference room at the capital to decide cases.  In many instances, you only have 15 seconds during the middle of the night to make a decision.  All of us on the state Supreme Court appreciate and understand the tremendous pressure under which you work.”

Justice Cunningham discussed law enforcement yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  He believes current crime and delinquency can be attributed to the dysfunctional homes in which young people grow up.  He cited statistics as to how “fatherless homes” have a particularly negative effect upon young boys, and stated that the growing number of men who are not paying child support sets an example of lack of responsibility.  According to the Pew Research Center, one in three children today live without a father. He also paralleled the lack of wholesome and constructive sexual identification and development in the home, as well as the increase in child pornography, with absent fathers.  And he went on to say that juvenile delinquency is often the result of the lack of an authoritative and disciplining hand of a father.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have as many good men today as we had fifty years ago.”  The decline of manly virtues such as responsibility, work ethic, honesty, loyalty, and respect for women, children and others can be laid at the feet of the growing number of young boys growing up without fathers.  Justice Cunningham attributed this mainly to the decline in the number of people getting married and the rising divorce rate, citing the statistic that married persons have declined 20% since 1960.  He suggested that police chiefs and other law enforcement agencies in the future would have to be involved in “hacking away at the roots of crime instead of the limbs” by mentoring young men.  One course of action would be to get into high school more with law clubs.

Justice Cunningham was elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court in November of 2006. In addition to his judicial career, Justice Cunningham has authored several regional history books, including “On Bended Knees” about the tobacco night riders of far west Kentucky.  He and his wife, Paula, have five sons and eight grandchildren.

The meeting was presided over by Association President Chief Bill Crider of the Dawson Springs Police Department.  The Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police was formed in 1971 to secure official and personal cooperation among law enforcement executives and the citizens of Kentucky.


The Southern Cause Today



By Justice Bill Cunningham


The lost cause is not lost.

But almost.

The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is on life support.

We know that the cause of the Civil War was states’ rights.  The issue was slavery.  The cause was noble and vibrant.  The issue was indefensible.

At the time of Appomattox, the idea of secession and two separate countries died.  But the belief in a Federalist system, where states maintained their sovereignty and especially retained powers, survived the War Between the States and, in fact, was fully accepted by both the North and South.

Even the idea of secession in the early days of our Republic was not so incredible or unacceptable as it seems today.  Virginia threatened to secede over Alexander Hamilton’s idea of consolidation of the national debt.  They had paid off most of their Revolutionary War indebtedness and did not want to get saddled with that of the other states through taxes.  Also, in New England, secession was kicked around to some extent over their disagreement with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and especially with that region’s opposition to the War of 1812.  At the Hartford Convention, the rumors of secession became especially ominous.  Some argue that only the Treaty of Ghent and the ending of the war precluded that from becoming a reality.

And, of course, we almost had a Civil War in 1832 when South Carolina, through its voice, John Calhoun, threatened to secede over the high tariffs which arguably strangled the southern economy.  President Andrew Jackson quickly put an end to that possibility by threatening to send in Federal troops.

Arguably, our greatest southern President and ardent champion of state’s rights proclaimed, “Disunion by armed forces is treason.”

Slowly the cause of states’ rights has been bled white by federal encroachments.  The concept of Federalism, as our founding fathers intended, is almost quaint from the lack of use.

The overwhelming concern of the opponents of the proposed United States Constitution of 1789 was the seemingly unchecked powers of the central government.  Not only did our forefathers demand that certain rights be guaranteed by the Constitution, but also that the governing doctrine recognize the sovereignty of the states.  In fact, there were some who desired that the states be deemed superior to the federal government.

The ten amendments making up our Bill of Rights were proposed to the states to appease those who grudgingly voted for the Constitution.  Although listed last, the Tenth Amendment reserving powers to the states was considered by most to be the most important.  Since the states were the closest to the people, the early Americans felt secure in the knowledge that a government closest to the people would be the most responsive and less likely to abuse their freedoms.  With the main authority of the states reserved, the people believed all of their other freedoms and rights would be properly protected.

There is also genius in the concept of multiple smaller wheels of democracy churning together within a larger wheel to provide an efficient and effective democracy. The late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandies wrote in 1932: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Justice Brandies shared the vision of our forefathers.  That is that bold new ideas and innovations would be given the opportunity to breathe and either succeed or fail under the grand canopy of the federal government.

Of course, this has all changed.  With states being given less and less power, our behemoth federal government has become more ponderous, remote, and inefficient.  Federal powers through extortion are so far into public education that bureaucrats in Washington are now telling school boards in remote Montana how to educate their children.  The “laboratory” of California has legalized marijuana for medical purposes.  Yet, the Feds have intervened to enforce their own criminal laws for that state.  It is instructional and significant that the Attorney General of the State of Alabama, one of the toughest states in America against marijuana, filed an Amicus Curie with the United States Supreme Court defending California’s right to pass any law it wants to pass concerning marijuana.  Voltaire’s words certainly come to mind: “I may not agree with you, but I defend to my death your right to say it.”  With Alabama’s intervention in this lawsuit, one can almost hear the Rebel yell of “foul and rebellion” in this constitutional skirmish.

How many great and creative programs, which would have aided all mankind, have been smothered and destroyed by the evisceration of the 10th Amendment?

In 2007, a building burned in downtown Frankfort, Kentucky as the result of an arsonist’s torch.  The offender was tried in federal court, not state court, because one of the buildings is on the National Historic Registry.  This stretch of jurisdiction would cause even the staunchest Federalists at the Constitutional Convention to spin in their graves.  At the current rate of the dissipation of a state’s control over its own criminal laws, in fifty years there may not be any state crimes, with the possible exception of parking tickets.

Unfortunately, the cause of the 10th Amendment and states’ rights has been badly tainted and corrupted by white racists.  Most notably were the ones from the Deep South during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.  Those political leaders—mostly governors and senators—barring our black brothers and sisters the elementary right of citizenship under the banner of state’s rights, inflicted nearly a lethal blow to the viability of the 10th Amendment. One glowing exception was Governor Ned Breathitt of Kentucky who ushered through his state legislature the first Civil Rights Act south of the Mason Dixon line.

The Southern cause today also suffers because of a distorted and narrow view of our past.  Yet we who take pride in our Southern heritage still believe in a virtuous idea that government is best when it is most responsive.  And that government is most responsive when it is closest to the people.  However, we, as Southerners, have much baggage which needs to be jettisoned from our held beliefs before we can lend credibility to the cause of states’ rights.

First, we—especially Sons of the Confederate Veterans—need to quit demonizing Abraham Lincoln.  He possessed a vision for this country that blinded the view of our Southern leaders.  If he had lived, the reconciliation between the North and South would have occurred with much less rancor and discord.  Due in great part to Lincoln’s vision, America has become the greatest nation on earth.

Don’t take my word for it.  Recall the reaction of all the Southern leaders upon the death of President Lincoln.  None received the word with elation or relief.  To a man, they were dismayed at the news.

Lee’s biographer, Charles Bracelen Flood, relates Lee’s reaction to Lincoln’s murder— “It’s a crime previously unknown to this country and one that must be deprecated by every American.”  Distinguished historian, Shelby Foote, tells about Jefferson Davis’ reaction to the assassination— “I fear it will be disastrous to our people and I regret it deeply.”  When Union General Tecumseh Sherman broke the news to Confederate General Joseph Johnston at Hillsboro, North Carolina, Johnston was deeply and noticeably distressed.  “Perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead,” Sherman later reported of Johnston upon hearing the news.  Johnston described Lincoln’s death as the “greatest possible calamity to the South.”

And on and on it went among the Southern leaders.

And, incidentally, who was the last President to request the playing of Dixie at the White House?  The Kentucky born Lincoln.

We need to quit minimizing the evils of slavery.  Sure enough, the slaves of the Antebellum South may have generally lived in relative peace and contentment when placed in the perspective of those hard times.  The slave blacksmith at the Draper Plantation in South Carolina most likely lived a life of luxury compared to the yeoman farmer of west Tennessee.  And it may also be true that the horrible tales of the mistreatment of slaves were the exception rather than the rule.  We can rationalize that only economic conditions and climate precluded the North from engaging in the same practice.  But one cold and terrible truth remains uncontroverted.  We sanctioned the tyrannical practice where one person owned another person simply because of the color of their skin.  We should be ashamed and openly admit it instead of creating tomes and writings rationalizing our sins.  Specific tales of brutality and inhumane treatment give way to that one indefensible truth.

Thirdly, we need to admit that secession was a terrible idea.

The venerable Southerner Justice Hugo Black, whose father served as a 16-year- old soldier for the Confederacy, made such an observation: “I have felt for a long time that the war

. . . was a wholly unnecessary one.  A wiser leadership in the South would have been honest with the people and would have let them know that, as brave as they were, there was practically no possibility of their winning a military or political victory.”

Lastly we need to decry and disown loud and clear those persons who have in our past used the noble purpose of the 10th Amendment to hide the sinister motives of racism.

This does not require us to be any less loyal to the cause or to be less respectful of our gallant Confederate dead.  And it surely does not require us to abandon the falling banner of states’ rights.  The South would never have made such a blunder if we had not been suffering from a dearth of strong and capable leadership.  The brilliant, heroic, and peculiar Sam Houston had fled to Texas and had become irrelevant.  Andrew Jackson was dead.  Polk was dead.  Clay was dead.  How could anyone with a sense of history and living under the ineffective Articles of Confederation think that a Confederacy of loosely fitted states could successfully wage war?  Southern giants such as Jackson knew full well the utter foolery of disunion when he threatened to send troops to South Carolina to knock some sense into firebrand John Calhoun.  It worked for a while.

We, as heirs of the lost cause, have much to contribute to our national well being.  The battle is now, not in the dreamy past.  But we must attain relevancy.  We must attain credibility.  This we do through the portals of truth.

We believe in the nobility of the men who fought and died at Shiloh, Antietam and Missionary Ridge.  We believe fervently in the cause of the rank and file of that bloody war– freedom, liberty, and the sanctity and sovereignty of the states.

To become relevant in today’s world, however, we need to quit fighting the war our Confederate ancestors fought 150 years ago.  Instead, we need to fight the war our Confederate ancestors would fight if they were here with us today.

Bill Cunningham is a Justice on the Kentucky State Supreme Court. He is a native west Kentuckian and has authored numerous books on regional history. In April of 2011 he was named the winner of the Robert Penn Warren Writer of the Decade Award for west Kentucky.  He is a member of the Ft. Heiman Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.