One of the best annual features on television is the salute by CBS’s “Sunday Morning” to notable people who died in the year just ended. This space, as a chronicle of Kentucky politics, seems overdue for a similar presentation. Each year, our state loses from its public life dozens of people who made a difference — often for good, sometimes for bad, and occasionally both — and in large and small ways made Kentucky what it is.
Perhaps one reason this space hasn’t featured such lists is that they are inherently difficult to make. The stories that need telling are longer than the space available. But on Dec. 29, when C-J political writer Joe Gerth’s summary of the year’s political news mentioned the deaths of legislators Jim Bruce and Larry Belcher and publisher Tom Gish (the only Kentuckian to make The Associated Press’s national necrology), we wanted more — and we thought you might, too. Let us know whom we left out.
The most notable passing in Kentucky’s public life in 2008 may have been that of a man who never held public office, but made it his cause to pressure officials and powerful interests on behalf of the disregarded and the dispossessed. The Rev. Louis Coleman’s tireless activism for civil rights and social justice wore thin for some, and he was an imperfect messenger, but that is true of most who speak truth to power. Kentucky needs more like him.
Kentucky also needs more women in public life — women like former Deputy Mayor Joan Riehm, who made many good things happen for more than 20 years, including co-founding Leadership Kentucky and helping accomplish the successful merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County governments. Her sunny disposition won friends for many causes.
Women’s causes were central to educator Lilyalyce Akers. She was internationally known for that work, but she also campaigned for world peace and sustainable development. And though she was a feminist, she invoked a traditional female privilege, keeping her age secret even past her death!
Nelle Horlander was a feminist, too, and much more: Labor union leader, Democratic leader, and crusader for, and first board chair of, the Transit Authority of River City. She wanted to be a doctor, then a distillery chemist, but that was a job for men only in the late 1940s. So she became a telephone operator, and quickly a leader in the Communications Workers of America. In politics, she communicated clearly and sometimes bluntly, but always with good humor.
Louise Underwood looked out for those who had no occupation because of mental disability. She organized and led Concerned Families for Hazelwood, and fought for years to keep the state hospital in South Louisville open.
None of those four Louisville women ever held public, elective office — a reminder of Kentucky’s near-bottom ranking in that measure of social development. Kentucky Republicans have often done better than Democrats in that regard. Mae Hoover of Jamestown was in the state House only one term, but she was a leader of GOP women in the state and left it the legacy of her son Jeff, the most respected House minority leader in many years.
Gross Lindsay of Henderson was never an elected leader of the House, but was a leader nonetheless. His encyclopedic knowledge of legislation and the rules that govern it made him an essential adviser to leaders and many others, and his combination of impish wit and hard-nosed chairing of the Judiciary Committee made him one of the most memorable lawmakers of the modern era.
Dottie Priddy and Bob Hughes were memorable, too, as advocates for Okolona and the rest of southern Jefferson County, which they represented in the House, and vocal opponents of busing for school desegregation. Priddy was arrested at a demonstration and became famous for wearing a hidden pistol, but later was chair of the county’s legislative delegation and, in two terms on the county school board, opposed changes to the desegregation plan.
Some who died last year never served at the state level, but served the state in local office. As coroner of Carroll County, Jimmy Dunn handled the nation’s deadliest bus crash well in 1988. C.J. Hyde became Louisville police chief less than two months before the city’s 1968 race riots, and worked hard to decrease racial tension. Pete Flynn was mayor of Frankfort but later became much better known as an affable restaurateur and barkeep to lawmakers.
Journalists can also be part of public life, and that even includes editors — like Elmer Hall, who as city editor handled this newspaper’s coverage of busing and the 1974 tornado and pleaded with reporters to “write for the Shively housewife.”
Some strong threads of Kentucky’s political history ran through the lives of two Lexington men who died a few weeks apart last year. The paths of Robert D. Bell and Eugene F. Mooney crossed just once, 30 years ago, when the lesserknown Mooney succeeded Bell as secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection — at the time, the hottest seat in state government.
Bell had been commissioner of parks and revenue, and a highways and conservation deputy to legendary Democratic bureaucrat Henry Ward. He improved strip-mining enforcement, but quit in 1978 after Gov. Julian Carroll publicly criticized his handling of legislation on the issue. The unspoken reason was Bell’s conflict with state Democratic Chairman Howard “Sonny” Hunt, who carried the water of political supporters seeking mine permits. In his resignation letter, Bell called his two years in the job his most frustrating, difficult, challenging and rewarding in public life.
Just a few years later, Hunt was in federal prison, taking the major hit for the pay-to-play systems of the Carroll and Wendell Ford administrations, and Bell was an Ashland Oil executive who helped clean up the company and build support for the University of Kentucky and the rest of the state’s higher-education system. Republican Larry Forgy, defending Bell from political criticism, called him “one of Kentucky’s most respected and clearly one of our most valuable citizens.”
Bell and Mooney exercised their intelligence and independence very differently. Bell was methodical, spoke slowly and was the textbook image of a professional public servant. Mooney was full of ideas, sometimes impetuous, and colorful, favoring a cowboy hat and boots. An environmental leader called him a “gunslinger” who forced confrontations, when folks called him “Marshal Mooney,” he seemed to like it. After he was secretary, he was counsel to a 1980 House subcommittee that rewrote the state strip-mine law to confirm to the federal law passed three years earlier. In those meetings, he was no longer the gunslinger, but a skilled lawyer finding common ground between warring interests.
Ten years later, Mooney played a constructive role in Kentucky’s scandal of the century, which federal investigators dubbed Boptrot. He was the lawyer for M.L. Vaughan, the Henderson racetrack owner who called the feds when a legislator asked for what amounted to a bribe. Perhaps these threads show that in Kentucky, there’s no such thing as six degrees of separation.
And lest we forget: It has been 56 days since we invited President elect Barack Obama to Hodgenville for Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
Al Cross, former Courier- Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own, not those of the University of Kentucky.