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SKCTC’s Whitesburg Campus success story




“It takes 20 years to make an overnight success,” said Eddie Cantor. Close to 20 years ago about 400 students showed up for classes on the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College’s Whitesburg Campus at 2 Long Avenue. Since that time an average of 500 students have been showing up every semester. The students served on the Whitesburg Campus since opening day in 1990 is somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 students.

On Wednesday, Sept. 23 — Whitesburg Day during this year’s Mountain Heritage Festival — the college will celebrate 20 years of providing higher education in Letcher County. Additional celebrations that day include the official opening of the Belinda Mason Building, naming of the Cora Reynolds Frazier Auditorium, the naming of Caudill Hall with the dedication of a mural by Sue Greer Pitt that depicts the history of the campus, the dedication of the Mary Bingham Library, the James D. Asher Bridge, and the Hogg Allied Health Center. Those wishing to attend the ceremonies that will begin at 10:30 a.m. should contact Angie Sturgill at (606) 589- 3160 by Sept. 18.

The theme of the 20th anniversary celebration is “Dreams Come True”. In the late 1980’s, after a request by then-mayor Jimmy Asher for suggestions regarding the use of the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant that the city had purchased, Penny Ritter Combs shared a dream of a college for Whitesburg and surrounding Letcher County. Her dream had come after conversations with her late husband, Goebel Ritter, her parents, Atha B. and Judge James M. Caudill, R.C. and Francis Day, Mayor Asher, SKCTC President Dr. Bruce Ayers, Dean of Students Charles “Red” Sellars, and others.

Mrs. Combs said, “The highways had bypassed us and all the communities around had a college except us.” Later she said when recalling her dream, “I could see it — the college there. And, then, Jimmy (Asher) called me not long after that and said he agreed that we might pursue getting a college to locate in Whitesburg after all. He said he’d use his expertise as an attorney to help us set up a structure to make it pos sible.”

The idea of a permanent location was appealing to Southeast’s president, Dr. Bruce Ayers. But while there was interest in the idea, Dr. Ayers explained that time was short. He said that he’d have to make a formal proposal to the chancellor of the Community College System, then a part of the University of Kentucky, at the end of that week. And, he told the group it would take a lot of money, explaining that the college did not have the funds to renovate the Coca-Cola building.

Mrs. Combs said, “I think the city had paid $161,000 for the building. We (by then a group of interested citizens had formed the Whitesburg Education Development Foundation Inc.) wanted to buy the mortgage on the building from the city. Then, we could mortgage the building, advertise for bids, borrow against the building and remodel it. About 10 of us signed the note to borrow the funds for the remodeling.”

She remembers, “We hit the road running — getting pledges and donations — whatever we could secure from businesses and the public in general. And, it grew from that. We had a radio show and people called in to pledge as little as a dollar and as much as a thousand dollars. Every major coal company operating in Letcher County, some doctors, and different businesses gave us donations. The E.O. Robinson Trust made a matching donation of $142,200 as well as the Letcher County Fiscal Court, Community Trust Bank and the Bank of Whitesburg. We even sold stickers that said ‘I’m backing Southeast Community College’ at the Mountain Heritage Festival.

Another community leader, Josephine Richardson, invited Mary Bingham, whose family owned the Louisville Courier Journal for many years, to donate to the project, and “she sent us $50,000.” Later Mary Bingham was invited to come and see the college. She came and spent a weekend with local author Harry Caudill and his wife Ann.

Mrs. Combs said, “I never left Mary’s side — talking to her — wanting more money. I said we needed it. She said that she’d given money to many things that had disappointed her, but that she was impressed with the college in Whitesburg. In fact, she was so impressed that she gave another $100,000 — for a total of $150,000 — to the project. In all, we (the Whitesburg Education Development Foundation Inc.) raised over $1 million.”

Mrs. Combs recalls, “People said we couldn’t raise the money in time, but we did and a college (Southeast’s Whitesburg Campus) was born here in 1990. In all almost 400 showed up that first year. The average age of those in attendance was 29, and 75 percent were female. As of this year, the Whitesburg Campus offers programs in several different areas to men and women of all ages who come from all the surrounding hills and hollows to develop their talents and to go forth and serve the various communities in southeastern Kentucky and even into Virginia and beyond.”

In addition to the gift of the renovated Coca-Cola Bottling Building, the Whitesburg Education Development Foundation Inc. gave a lead gift of $232,410 in 2006 (made possible by income derived from a gift of land to the foundation from Maynard and Evaleen Hogg), and from the sale of a gift of land from the Reynolds/Frazier family in 2008. Many others have enabled the foundation to continue to support higher education in Letcher County. And, there are several endowments from community members that provide scholarships to those from Letcher County who desire a college education.

SKCTC’s Whitesburg Campus is the story of an overnight success that will be celebrated beginning September 23. Each and every year since opening in 1990 has been successful because of a community who believed in a dream.


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