Harold Rainwater remembers a special moment in 1994 that happened at the funeral home visitation as he stood before his father’s burial casket. While receiving heartfelt condolences from two good friends, he thought about the irony of what they said to him. “One of the men was the president of the college,” said Rainwater, “and the other was one who picked up the garbage in town. Each remarked about how my father had impacted their lives.” Their sentiments awakened him like a clanging bell, and the simple encounter that night proved pivotal in Rainwater’s life.
Harold Rainwater (Photo provided by Steve Flairty)
“That sort of put in motion for me that ‘goodness’ is more important than ‘greatness,’” said Rainwater, now the Wilmore mayor who has held that office since 1976, along with being a highly effective and ground-breaking faculty department head at Asbury College (now Asbury University).
For Rainwater, goodness means treating all with simple dignity, working hard, trying to do the right thing …“just being who you are – don’t be pumped up,” Rainwater says. All of those qualities were ingrained in him by his father from an early age.
And to many citizens of Wilmore, Rainwater is just that, a decent and good man who impacts many from all walks of life. Bethany Tucker, one of his early students in the Asbury Equine program Rainwater initiated at the school, said: “Harold Rainwater is a man like no other you have met. He desires to serve rather than be served.”
Tucker praised her long-time mentor for his leadership in making the program “one of the premier college equine programs in the Bluegrass.” She continued: “Harold began the program with his own few horses on his own land. He has secured funding for projects, done many of the projects himself, recruited students to participate, allowed them to experience and achieve things they only thought imaginable.”
As Wilmore’s mayor, Rainwater has been an important part of significant improvements in the life of the city. Said Lisa Williams, who has watched as he has performed his duties in tune with the wishes of the citizens: “During his time serving the city, Wilmore has blossomed into a wonderful community noted for its beauty and developing downtown which is rich with cultural programs. Wilmore’s water processing and waste treatment plant has been recognized nationally while the Kentucky Veterans Center and Wesley Village have been invaluable additions to the area.”
But it’s not so much the grand and public accomplishments that Rainwater performs around town that brings him respect. It is the special, kindly way he treats those around him. “He makes you feel valued, asking about family and if there is anything he can be doing to make Wilmore a better place,” said Tammy English, a teacher’s assistant at a local middle school. “He lets kids of all ages visit and ride his horses.”
The Equine Management program, now with 80 students and the third-largest department on campus, is a direct result of Rainwater’s vision and leadership. Tucker praised Rainwater for being a constant source of encouragement as she met trying times in her college life at Asbury. “He (Rainwater) has taught me it’s OK to fall off of the horse, as long as you get back on—literally and figuratively. Harold seems to have this effect on pretty much everyone who knows him,” she said.
The Equine Management program that Harold Rainwater started at Asbury is now the third most-popular major. (Photo from Asbury University)
Williams noted how Rainwater gives scholarships to many kids who may not have the opportunity to come to a summer Christian horse camp. “I have heard many parents of prospective students ask him for a promise of being at Asbury when their son or daughter comes,” she said.
Rainwater has had candidates run against him only twice in his long tenure as mayor. In 1990, he was almost beaten, and he learned a valuable lesson.
“He was a worthy opponent,” said Rainwater. “He worked hard and I didn’t. I didn’t realize I was that vulnerable and was naïve.” The final tally showed Rainwater winning by a razor-thin margin, 503 votes to 500, a fact that Rainwater said made him realize that he “was just barely mayor.” In the 2010 election, however, Rainwater was challenged again, and this time won by an overwhelming margin, taking 86 percent of the vote.
“I felt affirmed,” said Rainwater, who earlier in his career dreamed about becoming the governor of Kentucky. But that was before the words from the two men at his father’s casket. Now just being a force for good around town is plenty big-time for Rainwater. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be than the mayor of a whole town – like Wilmore,” he said.
Rainwater has the support of city workers, also, continued Williams: “He tries hard to give his city workers attention and time and pay raises when available, and he tries to listen to their complaints,” Williams said. “He is tender hearted.”
His connections to the town that is only a 15-minute drive from Lexington began when his grandfather arrived in Wilmore in the 1940s to work at Asbury College. “His job,” said Rainwater, “was ‘to keep the students warm’ by doing manual labor, working with the campus heating system.” The value of hard work, honesty and frugality is important in the Rainwater family lineage, as Harold’s father demonstrated when he opened a shoe store on Wilmore’s Main Street in the late 1950s. Young 12-year-old Harold held part-time jobs as a Grit newspaper salesman and mowed lawns. It was “get a job or work in the shop,” said Rainwater of family expectations. By most accounts, he was following in the footsteps of men known for their “goodness” around town.
But even as a busy youngster, Rainwater found time to enjoy his passion for horses. He watched TV shows featuring horses, such as Fury and Roy Rogers. He rode his cousins’ horses bareback – akin to Rainwater’s American Indian bloodline – while visiting them in Mintonville, Ky. “They had horses, we had bicycles. They rode bicycles when they came to Wilmore,” he said with a grin.
But it wasn’t until 1973 that Rainwater actually owned his own horse, tended on three acres he acquired adjacent to his home property.
But that was just a start. He soon immersed himself in the business of boarding and training Standardbred and Western horses. “I associated with ‘horse people,’ managed sales, did trail rides, showed horses – but had no formal training,” said Rainwater. What Rainwater called a “mom and pop” operation would become inspiration for the Equine Management program at Asbury College.
The Asbury equine program also serves as a rescue operation for 'discarded' horses. (Photo from Asbury University)
Early in the 1980s, Rainwater approached Asbury College officials about starting a program involving horses – with the idea to support an eventual Christian ministry with that emphasis. He was turned down initially, but in 1993, Rainwater proposed a two-hour course, called Horsemanship, that would be taught in his home. It was accepted and that began a steady growth in the program, which today is thriving on land owned by Asbury University. It is thriving as the third-most popular major, according to Rainwater. Besides the training and positive educational benefits of the Equine Management program, it serves as a rescue operation for what one might call “discarded” horses.
“Every horse is here because someone doesn’t want them. They might be maimed, blind, crippled … broke down at the track,” said Rainwater. “That is divine, too, the way we treat our animals, God’s creatures.”
And so it goes with him, long respected as a mayor of a town that demands respect in their mayor. He is a visionary teacher and humanitarian, and he sees the positive potential in young people and vulnerable animals. Many would see Rainwater as a truly great man, an icon in his Wilmore community.
But for Harold Rainwater, simply to be called “a good man” would be plenty affirmation for him.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes” series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3,” due to be released in December 2012. His most recent book, Kentucky’s “Everyday Heroes for Kids” is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook.