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Kentucky by Heart: No shortage of inspirational quotes attributed to well-known Kentuckians

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

My dad used to say to me when I was growing up: “When in doubt, don’t.” I forgot his source for that bit of advice, but I have often recalled those words at appropriate times (though, frankly, I’ve not always heeded them).

Fact is, focusing on people’s words can certainly have an effect on the way we act, and that can sometimes be a real positive. At other times, the words might simply be a bit entertaining. We’ll leave the negative words alone for now.

Recently, while looking up some inspirational quotes for a biography I’m writing, the thought came that there must be a Ft. Knox gold collection of quotes from fellow Kentuckians that would be fun to research and share. Sure enough, there’s a bunch of ‘em, and only a relative few can be shared in this short space.


Some come from the mouths or pens of well knowns; others come from our friends and family members, or others–who may or not know the origins of the quotes.

Nationally known author Wendell Berry, who lives in rural Henry County, sums up much of what he advocates with this lofty gem of a challenge: “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.”

Wilmore Mayor Harold Rainwater offered a couple good verbal remembrances, one given by his father: “Don’t fight the enemy when they are in process of destroying themselves.” Harold also shared what former Wilmore mayor and Asbury College president, Z.T. Johnson, said about an employee he fired: “His evaluation of himself far exceeds his capabilities.”

A similar quote to Johnson’s came from Zanna, a cousin of the mother of Sandy Hart, Wickliffe, while observing a man “struttin’ down the road carrying an attitude.” Said Zanna: “Boy, I wish I could buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth!”

Ol’ Dan’l Boone is attributed a couple quotes about his love of his adopted state. “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place,” Boone reportedly said. Similarly, he gave a little more detail in another: “Soon after, I returned home to my family, with a determination to bring them as soon as possible to live in Kentucky, which I esteemed a second paradise.”

And, even wilderness experts apparently fall out of touch with where they are located at times. Here’s Boone again: “I have never been lost,” he explained, “but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Speaking of Kentucky icons, Abraham Lincoln’s quotes could fill (and probably have) a large book with his recorded expressions. Here is a rapid-fire list:

• All that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother.

• I, too, am a Kentuckian.

• Thoughtful men must feel that the fate of civilization upon this continent is involved in the issue of our contest.

• Still, to use a coarse, but an expressive figure, broken eggs can not be mended. I have issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and I can not retract it.

• In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.

Bardstown author Ron Elliott shared this quote of nationally-known humorist Irwin Cobb, from Paducah: “Being a New Englander is a chore; being a Virginian is a profession; being a Kentuckian is an incurable disease.”

A friend from Winchester, Gwen Bryant, shared memorable sayings from close family. “My grandmother always said ‘Be good, stay pretty,’ and Mother would always say ‘Honey, they’d do better if they knew better’ about rudeness,” said Bryant.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

One of my favorite contemporary quotes was given to national news correspondent Diane Sawyer, born in Glasgow, by her father, E.P. “Tom” Sawyer: “Do something you love in the most adventurous place you can and make sure it helps other people.” Incidentally, her father, a prominent Republican judge in Louisville, was killed in a 1969 auto accident on Interstate-64 near the city and the E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park was named after him.

My minister at the First Christian Church, Versailles, Marcus Lynn, reminded me of this quote by Kentucky boxing icon Muhammed Ali: “A man who views the world at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” Then there’s the one I first heard of Ali’s while I was a child: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

And Coach Adolph Rupp made some memorable remarks to his Kentucky basketball players over the years. Former high school coach Doug Sallee, Richmond, mentioned a couple of these Rupp zingers. “When a player wasn’t performing to expectations, Coach Rupp used to say: ‘You look like a Shetland pony at a stud horse show.’ Another one was: ‘You couldn’t guard me in a phone booth.’”

Another saying I like comes from Johnny Dawson, a produce farmer near Claryville, where I grew up. According to a daughter, Lisa Dawson-Knight, he often said: “A person’s wealth is not measured by their bank account. It is measured by the size of their funeral procession.” (I wonder if Facebook “likes” count?)

After my friend Roger Garrison quoted Henry Clay’s oft-repeated statement: “I’d rather be right than president” on my Facebook page, another friend, Robert Treadway, noted that Clay’s great rival, John Quincy Adams, replied that Clay needn’t worry because “he’d be neither.”

Any viewer of host Tim Farmer’s 20-year television run on Kentucky Afield can quote Tim’s show closing: “I hope to see you in the woods or on the water.” According to Tim, it’s not something he thought about much before he originally said it, but it became a trademark for him and a very familiar bit of encouragement coming to thousands of listening ears in living rooms all across the state.

Somerset writer Rich Dailey, quite a wordsmith himself, likes this A.B.”Happy” Chandler quote: “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home.”

If you have some memorable sayings of the Kentucky flavor (other than well-known ones) that you’d like to share, feel free to send them to me (sflairty2001@yahoo.com) for a possible future Kentucky by Heart column.

I’ll close by sharing something told me by Otto Fox, the custodian of Providence Elementary School, near Ford, Kentucky, over 35 years ago: “If I had all the money in the world, I’d pay on my bills as far as it would go.”


Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at the NKyTribune on January 3, 2017

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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