The theme for this year’s Mountain Heritage Festival was “Letcher County: Where the highest of dreams begin.” The festival committee asked for submissions of people who were reared in Letcher County and have achieved their dream in their chosen area of expertise. The following 12 people were recognized during Saturday’s Mountain Heritage Festival Parade:
• Edison G. Banks, II, Letcher County Commonwealth’s Attorney
Banks has wanted to be an attorney since he was two. He enjoyed sitting in a rocking chair while watching “Perry Mason” and “Ironside”.
As a 1978 graduate of Whitesburg High School, Banks attended two years at Hazard Community College and then enrolled at the University of Kentucky. During his senior year he was initiated into the UK’s Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society in Arts and Science. He was graduated from UK College of Law in May 1985.
Banks began his law career with the firm of Gullet, Combs, Holliday and James in Hazard. After a year, he returned to Whitesburg as a partner with James T. Wood, Jr. and also served as assistant county attorney and assistant Commonwealth Attorney. In 2000, he was elected as Commonwealth’s Attorney. Banks was recently awarded the 2014 Attorney General’s Outstanding Commonwealth Attorney’s Award.
• Michael Collins, a political reporter for Scripps News in Washington, D.C.
Collins is a native of Craft’s Colly and a Whitesburg High School graduate. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Western Kentucky University. While at WKU, he was editor of the awardwinning student newspaper, the College Heights Herald. Collins also worked as an intern for The Mountain Eagle.
Collins is a political reporter for Scripps News in Washington, covering Congress and the White House. His work has appeared in newspapers across the country, including The Cincinnati Post, the Knoxville News Sentinel and The Memphis Commercial Appeal.
• The late Vernon Cornett, a U.S. Army veteran and a Letcher County barber for 56 years
Cornett enlisted in the Army on July 11, 1940. He served with Battery F 71st Coastal Artillery and achieved the rank of Sergeant. During World War II he was assigned to man anti-aircraft weaponry around the White House. He was honorably discharged in May 1943.
Following his discharge from the army he went to barber school in Knoxville, Tenn. He returned to Whitesburg to begin his career as a barber. He married Pet Blair and reared his family in Whitesburg.
At the age of 95, Cornett died January 10, 2013.
• Sarah Gilliam, a cheerleader captain and choreographer for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals
Gilliam, the daughter of David and Chesley Gilliam of Whitesburg, is a member of the first graduating class of Letcher County Central High School, where she started her dance career on the dance team. While in grade and high school, Gilliam volunteered as a junior committee member for the Mountain Heritage Festival. Gilliam always dreamed of becoming a cheerleader for a professional team and spent a few years working her way up by dancing for the Lexington Horsemen and the East Kentucky Miners. She has now been with the Ben-Gals for six years.
In 2013, Gilliam was selected by the team to represent the Bengals at the Pro Bowl, the annual All-Star Game which was held in Honolulu, Hawaii. This was a one-time recognition. After performing at the Pro Bowl, she finished up her season by going on a USO tour to military bases throughout Alaska.
• Mary Ellen Noble Kelley, child protective services worker of 26 years
Kelley was a resident of Old House Branch Hollow at Hot Spot, a hollow located on the road to Roxana. Kelley’s mother was widowed at a young age with nine children to rear. Kelley started her freshman year at Whitesburg High School, but left after six weeks and spent the next three years undergoing surgeries and hospitalization at Cardinal Hill Crippled Children’s Hospital in Lexington.
She credits her principal Jack Burkich for making certain she received her books and supplies to complete her studies via Eastern Kentucky College. She was able to return to school as a senior and graduated with her Hot Spot classmates in 1968.
Kelley obtained a full scholarship to the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg and graduated with a degree in Social Work and Education.
She began her career with Kentucky Human Services in Whitesburg in food stamp eligibility work and later was a family service social worker. She is retired from Wise County, Virginia Department of Social Services, a career which included a number of years as a child protective services social worker. She volunteers as a court appointed special advocate for children, CASA, and as an AARP community outreach worker.
Kelley has obtained her highest dreams in her career and her family. She was told by doctors that she would never have children, but has proved them wrong. She is the mother of two sons and grandmother to one grandson. She was prompted to submit her name when a former resident of Hot Spot, who, after 45 years had found Kelley’s telephone number, called and wanted her to know how proud she was of Kelley’s accomplishments.
• Destin Kincer, Miss Kentucky USA
Living in the shadow of Pine Mountain, Kincer grew up in Little Cowan. As all young girls do while playing dress up, Kincer’s highest dreams were of walking the runway with a crown on her head. In January 2014, Kincer’s dream became reality when she was crowned Miss Kentucky USA.
Kincer, the 21-year-old daughter of Stephen and Mitzi Kincer, is a graduate of Letcher County Central High School, where she was a cheerleader and a member of the dance team. While in high school she also worked as a lifeguard at the city swimming pool. She now models for Lifeguard and elifeguard.com.
She is a junior at the University of Kentucky, majoring in biology with plans to attend medical school upon graduation. She also hopes to become a professional model.
As Miss Kentucky USA, she has had the opportunity to visit local schools. She enjoys sharing her experiences with younger children and hopes that she can stress to them how important education is in reaching one’s highest dreams.
• Paul Pigman, businessman in Whitesburg for 49 years
Pigman was born in Knott County in 1923 and moved to Letcher County when he was seven years old.
He graduated from Whitesburg High School in May of 1943, where he played football and basketball for four years.
Pigman was called to the service in June of 1943. He served in the U.S. Army as a medic in Europe until he was discharged in January 1946. Pigman was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service.
When he returned home he was offered the opportunity to try out for the University of Kentucky football program by Coach Bear Bryant, but he elected to open Pigman Brothers Dry Cleaners in Whitesburg with his brother in June 1946. Pigman operated Pigman Brothers Dry Cleaners for 49 years until his retirement in 1995. as a launch control panel operator. He was directly involved with the world’s best known space programs at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA, including the success of the Apollo program that first landed a man on the moon and returned those astronauts safely to earth.
As the moon landing effort was coming to an end in 1972, the Space Shuttle program was established and Polly became the project engineer for the space shuttle hypergol facility and the launch equipment test facility.
After an active space age career, Polly retired from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA in 1993.
• Dr. Shelba Proffitt, a pioneer for women in the missile and defense industry
Proffitt began her government career as a member of the Von Braun space team. She then joined the U.S. Army Missile Command (MICOM) where she spent 13 years developing advanced technical weapons. In 1980, she moved to the Army’s Ballistic Missile Defense Advanced Technology Center (BMDATC), later the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (USASMDC); where she became an expert in management, communications and space surveillance technologies.
Proffitt served as program manager of the Army’s National Missile Defense (NMD) Program in the Program Executive Office Air and Missile Defense (PEO AMD). She became deputy program executive officer for Air, Space, and Missile Defense (PEO ASMD). She became the first female member of the Senior Executive Service (SES) at the U.S. Army Strategic Defense Command (USASDC) in Huntsville, Ala., on October 21, 1990. She culminated her stellar government career in January 2005.
Proffitt has published more than 25 technical papers, holds two patents and received numerous awards and recognitions throughout her career. She attributes her success to hard work and education.
Dr. Proffitt was the 32nd member of the U.S. Air, Space, and Missile Defense Distinguished Civilian Wall of Honor.
Proffitt was inducted into the U.S. Air, Space and Missile Defense Distinguished Civilian Wall of Honor as a part of the opening reception for the eight annual Space and Missile Defense Conference held at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center August 15, 2005. Assisting in the induction ceremony were the Honorable Robert B. Aderholt, U.S. House of Representatives, and Lieutenant General Larry Dodgen, Commanding General of the U. S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
• Rick Sparks, Franklin County Attorney
Sparks is the son of Eugene and Jeanette Sparks of Bottom Fork. He is a 1984 graduate of Whitesburg High School, where he was a member of the marching band and a recipient of the John Philip Sousa music award. As a student at the University of Kentucky, he played in the UK marching band. He was graduated from UK in 1989.
Sparks attended the University of Louisville College of Law, graduating in 1995.
He began his career as an assistant county attorney and became county attorney upon the retirement of the previous county attorney. He was elected and has served two full terms as the Franklin County, Kentucky County Attorney. At this time, he is a candidate for a third term of the county attorney office.
• Dr. Billy H. Stout, a professor of special education at Campbellsville University
Being an educator is Stout’s dream. The son of a coal miner and a native of Isom, Stout is a 1962 graduate of Whitesburg High School. To help others that had a dream, he became a teacher, principal, superintendent and a tenured professor of education. He is currently a professor of special education at Campbellsville University. Stout holds a master’s degree in elementary and special education and a doctoral degree in school administration. He has written for educational journals and for publications for school boards and school administrators.
• John L. Thomas, 20-year veteran of the armed forces and decorated Vietnam assault helicopter pilot
Born in Letcher County in 1937, Thomas is the son of Watson and Myrtle Thomas of Little Cowan. He lives in Prestonsburg with wife, Ethelene Frazier Thomas, a native of Big Cowan. They are the parents of two children and have grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Thomas began his military career in 1955 as a U.S. Marine. He was released from active duty in 1960, became a reserve and was honorably discharged from the U. S. Marine Corp on November 1, 1961.
On November 2, 1961, he enlisted in the U.S. Army hoping to enter the Airborne School in January 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October 1962, not long after Thomas completed airborne training. The 82nd Airborne Division had plans in place to be parachuted into Cuba and destroy the Cuban missile sites, however the missiles were pulled out of Cuba by Russia and the division continued normal training.
Thomas was selected in 1963 to be orderly to the Commanding General of Fort Bragg and the 19th Airborne Corps. The Commander was William C. Westmoreland, who later became Commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam.
In 1965, he was selected to march in the inaugural parade for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
He completed helicopter flight training by 1967 and received further assignment to Vietnam. While having flight training, he also became a certified commercial helicopter pilot.
He retired from armed services in 1976 after serving 20 years, one month and five days. His total military flight time was 3,195 flight hours and 1,396 combat flight hours. He was awarded numerous medals, badges and decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal, U. S. Vietnam Service Medal with 8 Campaign Stars, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Silver, Bronze Star and Palm.