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Kentucky by Heart: More possible historic events for a Kentucky-centric ‘You Are There’ TV servies

Author’s Note: This is the second of two-parts exploring what might be included if there were a ‘You Are There Kentucky’ TV series. As mentioned in part one, the included subjects are my own choices, arbitrary and I touch on only a few basic details of the events. Hopefully, they’ll spur your interest for further study.

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

The appointment of Louisa native Fred M. Vinson as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

The eastern Kentucky town of Louisa, in Lawrence County, is proud of native son Fred M. Vinson. Appointed by President Harry Truman, he took the oath of office as the 13th Chief Justice on June 24th, 1946. The position was the summit of his professional life, but he had a remarkable career working in all three branches of government, and he also served in the Army in World War I.

Vinson graduated at the top of his class at Centre College, later got a law degree at Central University (which later joined with what is now Eastern Kentucky University). He started a law practice in Louisa and was elected City Attorney in the town. He later served as a congressman from Kentucky, and during his tenure, he befriended colleague Harry Truman. Just getting started in his work, he became Chief Judge of the Emergency Court of Appeals. Resigning from the bench for a period, he led several federal economic agencies, and in 1945, Truman designated him as America’s Secretary of the Treasury before his appointment to the Supreme Court. Not bad for the son of a small-town jailer raised in a poor county in eastern Kentucky.

To get a take on how the Vinson term as Chief Justice is portrayed, I asked Dr. Tom Appleton, EKU history professor emeritus his thoughts. “Scholars pay too little attention to the Vinson Court, likely because Vinson’s tenure as Chief was relatively brief, only seven years,” noted Dr. Appleton. “Plus, he presided over a Court that did not render high profile decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). But under Vincent, the High Court laid the significant groundwork on which the Warren Court soon based some of their landmark decisions.” Dr. Appleton emphasized, for example, Vinson’s role in “striking down discriminatory laws in housing and education.” And though Vinson worked with some justices who were “real prima donnas,” he said that “under Vinson, the Court was fairly harmonious.”

The establishment of the Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River

Wolf Creek Dam (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The construction of the Wolf Creek Dam, at Jamestown, Kentucky, served four purposes for the state: to generate hydroelectricity, to limit flooding, to control release of stored water, and to create recreational opportunities to promote Kentucky’s tourism economy.

Here, I’ll focus on the recreation aspect. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impounded the Cumberland River by the construction of the Wolf Creek Dam in 1952. Most Kentuckians likely are aware and consider the created “fun place” a blessing. This great body of water, having a total of 1,255 miles of shoreline and covering some 65,530 acres, is the location of two popular state parks, Lake Cumberland and General Burnside. Next to the dam is the Wolf Creek Fish Hatchery, where there is a great stash of interesting information at the Visitor/Environmental Education Center. There are several marinas around the area, and, of course, the fishing is great. Check out lakecumberlandvacation.com for more information.

Tim Farmer, the long-time host of Kentucky Educational Television’s Kentucky Afield before his retirement, filmed many of his programs in the area and continues to enjoy the recreation. “We are blessed with one of the finest cold-water fisheries in the nation below the dam,” Tim said. “Folks come from all over to enjoy this stretch of water. Trophy trout, striper, walleye, and many other species keep me traveling to this part of the world. Not to mention the lake itself.”

The lure of Cumberland Lake, spawned by the creation of the Wolf Creek Dam many years ago, is a huge reason why so many come from out of state to visit the Commonwealth of Kentucky. If we were there as the earth was moved and concrete poured… would we have imagined what it would become?

A twelve-year-old by the name of Cassius Clay mentored by policeman, changing his life

A fascinating article in the September 17, 1996 New York Times told about a Louisville policeman named Joe Elsby Martin who took Cassius Clay under his wing after the youngster, only 12, had his new bicycle—a Christmas gift from his father—stolen. Martin was active in amateur boxing in Louisville, and he encouraged Cassius to work with him to learn the skills of the sport. It would be an appropriate way to channel his anger and give direction to his life, the policeman figured.

Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to the iconic “Muhammad Ali,” took Martin’s offer… and the rest is history. Lots of Ali’s followers may have their own take on his ten top accomplishments, but I’ll use the list that learnodo-newtonic.com published as a reference point.

1. Gold medal winner for U.S. in light-heavyweight division in 1960 Olympics

2. Youngest boxer (age 22) to unseat the reigning heavyweight champion

3. His “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier

4. Won the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman

5. Won the “Thrilla in Manila” against George Frazier

6. First in history to win the heavyweight title three times

7. Refusal to serve in Viet Nam made him icon to many (My words: Though not sure this should be considered an ‘accomplishment’, it is something people will always remember—and some with dismay)

8. Was a prominent humanitarian and activist

9. Widely regarded as one of greatest athletes of the 20th century.

10. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005

The Kentucky Civil Rights Act of 1966

Dr. Martin Luther King with Kentucky Governor Edward T. Breathitt (Photo from Louie B. Nunn Center)

In what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the strongest and most comprehensive civil rights bill passed by a Southern state,” the Kentucky Civil Rights Act was signed by Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt on January 27, 1966. The Kentucky Encyclopedia called the act “stronger in some respects than the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Breathitt’s support of the bill came after a protracted period before it was passed, when on March 5, 1964, 10,000 marchers, including King, Jr., hit the streets of Frankfort to demand the passing of a strong public accommodations bill and criticized Gov. Breathitt for inaction to that point. However, Breathitt later received the Lincoln Key Award for his leadership in the ‘66 passed bill and gained the endorsement of MLK.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire; the Carrollton bus crash; and the Comair Flight 5191 crash

It is reported that the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, in Southgate, was the third deadliest nightclub fire in America’s history, killing 165 people and injuring more than 200. Estimates are that there were 900 to 1300 people in attendance the night of May 28, 1977, to enjoy the food and watch John Davidson perform. Unfortunately, the Fire Marshall estimated that about 600 was a safe number.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former 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)

The investigation of the fire proved quite damning regarding building code deficiencies. Consequently, Governor Carroll created the Department of Housing, Buildings, and Construction and appointed Lexington native Jim Bird as its first commissioner. Now four decades removed, I contacted Jim at his home in Virginia.

“We were charged with developing a statewide building code and the reception was mixed,” said Jim. “Most local fire departments and building code officials supported our charge while some didn’t want to give up their authority. First and second-class cities were supportive and some fifth and sixth class cities were opposed. Thankfully, all ultimately accepted our efforts and today the Commonwealth has a uniform building code that protects all citizens. One of our problems was trying to convince officials that making a building one hundred per cent fireproof was ideal but not economically possible and would result in diminishing returns. We developed the statewide building code and began its implementation prior to my departure.”

Hopefully, the building code measures and enforced compliance will forever eliminate a tragedy such as the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire happening again.

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On May 14, 1988, an alcohol-impaired driver of a pickup truck was driving the wrong way on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, in Carroll County. It collided with a church bus with 67 people onboard a church bus on the way home from a day at King’s Island, in Ohio. The collision caused a fire that engulfed the bus and brought fatalities and injuries. All told, 27 were killed, including 24 children, and 34 others were injured.

The horrible event spurred stricter drunk driving and bus safety measures in the state and added impetus the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Initiative (MADD).

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Another tragedy, this time to the Lexington area, occurred when Comair Flight 5191, scheduled for an August 27, 2006, flight from Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport to Atlanta, Georgia, crashed when it overran a runway that was too short to navigate, and not the one assigned. The event occurred at about 6:07 a.m., killing all 47 passengers and two of the aircraft’s crew.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the cause on the flight crew members’ negligence. The case brought a host of lawsuits, including most of the victim’s families bringing suits against Comair.

Judge Ray Corns and his impactful court decision that changed Kentucky’s schools

Ray Corns (Photo provided)

An event in Kentucky’s past that directly affected me in my professional life as a public school teacher, along with affecting thousands of families’ lives across the state was the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). It was passed by the General Assembly in 1990. Previously, on May 31, 1988, Judge Ray Corns ruled in the Franklin County Circuit that Kentucky’s method of school finance failed to provide all of Kentucky’s Common Schools the substantially equal educational opportunities afforded in an efficient system of Common Schools throughout the state (University of Arkansas of Little Rock Law Review, vol. 27). In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court followed by agreeing with the ruling of Judge Corns, adding impetus to the passage of KERA the next year.

The implementation of KERA was not a smooth process, but it brought needed change to a state that had long short-changed its focus on education. Visit eric.ed.gov for more information about those changes.

Sources: The Kentucky Encyclopedia; nationalparkreservations.com; nunncenter.org; mapcarta.com; Wikipedia; boxrec.com; kentuckytourism.com; abcnews.go.com

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