Kentucky by Heart: Remembering 13 of Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes we’ve lost since the project began

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Over one hundred written profiles have appeared in the four volumes of the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, a project I began working on in 2006 and consequently published the first book in 2008. I’m currently about half way toward the completion of the fifth volume and hope to release it in the spring of 2019. Not to sound trite, but it’s been a labor of love, and along with it, I feel a special bond with all who have been recognized.

After one of my subjects, Mike Howard, died recently, I looked back to see that a total of thirteen of these noble individuals had passed. And though none of them died carrying out a specific act of heroism, they died as heroes for the way they lived–as overcomers or extreme givers…and some as both. Following are brief biographical outlines of each. They’ll uplift your spirit.

“Mountain Santa” was the name given Howard for delivering presents at Christmastime to thousands in his Harlan County community for four decades. Mike also supported emotionally and often financially those who were in jai. He regularly visited the elderly in nursing homes, and it was not unusual for him to pay electric bills and do other acts of kindness for those around him.

Kendall Harvey

The last time I talked to Kendall Harvey, of Adair County, he told me he had made and given away 156 three-wheel bikes he’d built to give those with significant disabilities. Kendall was a modest, humble man who used his gifted mechanical skills to change lives for the better. I always get strong and positive responses from the telling of his story.

The next time you find yourself on the University of Louisville campus, stop and see the beautiful Bettie L. Johnson Hall, a dormitory named after an amazing woman. There’s irony in that fact, though. Bettie was denied admittance to the university under cover of Kentucky’s infamous Day Law, which prohibited people of color from attending white schools. Undaunted, she attended another college and later became a successful educator and civil rights activist. She and her husband, also successful as a businessman, gave significant sums of money to the modern-day University of Louisville, and the school honored her for her selfless support.

Ruth Blair was a godsend for about a hundred immigrants from Vera Cruz, Mexico, who migrated to her Larue County community. She served as a teacher who, along with her husband, led award-winning speech teams at the local high school for many years. In retirement, she acted as a servant representative for the needs of this Hispanic population as a translator and ombudsman, allowing them to successfully integrate into the area. A sign of appreciation for her life of compassion came when former students gifted to her a new automobile to use in the outreach.

Though not normally a country music lover, I greatly enjoyed the vocals of Mt. Washington’s Calvin Ray Johnson performed from the constraints of a wheelchair at his music night spot near Leitchfield. Calvin Ray bravely battled the rigors of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and entertained thousands musically at the same time. He appeared several times on the Jerry Lewis Telethon, where he inspired huge television audiences. He died in 2015 at age 35.

The Cynthiana-Harrison County Museum is, in my opinion, one of the nicer small-town museums in the state. Harold Slade is a big reason that came to be. He had an incredible focus on detail and organization and you’ll see proof when you take the tour on South Walnut Street in Cynthiana. His desire long ago to preserve the memories of the past is helping hundreds in the area to grow greater in appreciation for the community.

Billy Edwards

Billy Edwards, Henderson, had difficulty communicating verbally as he struggled with the condition of cerebral palsy, a movement disorder that affected his speaking ability. Possessing a vibrant Christian faith, Billy spoke eloquently as a writer. For many years, he wrote religious columns for Henderson’s daily newspaper, The Gleaner, along with an inspirational newsletter called The Inspirer.

I first learned about Billy after speaking at a Rotary Club meeting in his hometown when several members told me what he meant to the community. Later, after including him in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book, I came back and spoke about Billy to a huge crowd who came to see him honored. He received a stirring standing ovation on that day, a testament to having touched the community so powerfully.

Della Jones, Williamstown, died at age 106 in 2009. She was a long-time educator in Wayne, Boone, and Owen counties and perhaps is best known for having attended classes at Kentucky State University for seventeen summers, culminating with her graduation from the school in 1957. She was persistent, for sure, and managed to have a remarkable teaching career despite the obstacles of racism she encountered, especially in her early years in the classroom.

In the tiny community of River, in Johnson County, a man affectionately called “The Can Man” lived. Charles Whitaker, a kindly and slightly built senior citizen, acquired the nickname after many years of gathering aluminum cans—mostly along highways and parking lots–and selling at a local recycling center in Prestonsburg. All told, Charles earned over $36,000. That’s not the main part, however. He gave every cent of the money as a gift to the local Johnson County Christian School as an act of his devout faith.

One of my favorite quotes from Charles was this, speaking about a man who verbally abused him: “The man told me that people were saying I was nothing but the belly of a snake who would stoop to do what I was doing,” said Charles. “But I forgave him and I don’t have any hard feelings.” Charles Whitaker took his religious beliefs seriously, and he’ll be missed for a long time.

Evelyn Johnson Seals lived in a modest, white-framed house on the side of a hill not far from Cumberland Gap, in Middlesboro. Her home came to be known as “The Blessing House” because a smallish room adjacent to the living room acted as a sort of mini-warehouse of goods, mostly clothing and blankets, for the poor or struggling around the community. She fed a huge crowd at her home annually on Thanksgiving Day, and she wrote about the people she knew living in the mountains in the local newspaper. She also authored three books, and when she heard about a neighbor in need, she traveled to isolated places to lend a hand.

Evelyn’s sister, Bobbie Warf, said this about her while she was still living: “All the things she does are not for publicity. She simply sees a need. She was raised in poverty and has spent her life giving to others.”

Mary Jo Phillips, Central City, partnered in over 50 years of fruitful church ministry with her husband George, a Methodist Church evangelist, working throughout Kentucky and other states, and even internationally. In an outreach mission in poverty-stricken Paraguay, South America, she obtained financing for a day-care center that would allow poor mothers to work for subsistence pay. She achieved that by humbly selling drinking cups and a small booklet, and she offered emotional support and leadership.

Today, the Mary Jo Phillips Methodist Daycare Center of Ascunsion, in Paraguay, is a thriving beacon of hope amidst the poorest of the poorest there. Mary Jo tragically died in an automobile accident in 2009, but the saintly woman leaves an image of a servant’s heart to those in this South American community, along with those who knew her in Kentucky and elsewhere around the United States.

For much of his adult life, Ed “Sy” Sypolt, Burlington, admitted that he was “immature and a jerk,” as a pharmaceutical salesman. But when he retired, he made some serious changes in the way he treated others after seeing a couple of his relatives die. Sy figured it was time, he said, to “start doing things for other people and returning some favors.”

He volunteered for a couple local community organizations, and in time, he became an important part of the Hospice of the Bluegrass organization, where he spent time with dying patients, along with providing respite help for caregivers of the dying. A Hospice official told me that Ed served the most of situations, and in 2011, he traveled to Frankfort to accept Kentucky’s “Senior Volunteer Service Award.”

Beulah Campbell

At his death in 2013, nobody who knew him in his later years saw a need to call Sy Sypolt a jerk.

Beulah Campbell’s ancestors, who founded her hometown of Campbellsville, would be very proud of her. She taught at Appalachian State University for many decades and was a true pioneer in the field of children’s literature. She donated a large collection of personal correspondence with noted children’s authors and other items to the Campbellsville University. She reached her goal of living to the age of a hundred and died in 2016.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of 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 KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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