A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Everyday Heroes: ‘Stranded’ in Winchester
37 years ago, Kibbey still making a difference

Ron Kibbey's 'peace and love mentality' has helped change the human services landscape in Winchester. (Photo provided)


By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

He was young, idealistic and believed passionately in a “peace and love mentality” that swept the country in the 1960s. He looked the part, too, with shoulder-length hair, granny glasses, jeans with “real” holes. And, he he drove a VW – though not the classic hippie mobile.

“People want to make it a VW bus, but it was actually a Beetle,” said Ron Kibbey.

That’s important, because long ago, Kibbey’s Vermont-bound VW Beetle broke down while on a cross-country trip from California not long after Kibbey served four years in the U.S. Air Force in a non-combat role. The car stopped dead with a broken clutch cable, near the old Bonded gas station in downtown Winchester, not far from where his aunt was living.

Fortunately, for people in the Winchester community, Kibbey has been content to be “stranded” there for more than 37 years, and, along the way, has helped significantly change the landscape of human services in Clark County.

His influence has been compassionate and effective. He has helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, to raise their standard of living and improve their lives and families – and, for many, to achieve their long postponed dreams.

Interestingly, except for being 36 years older, he still looks a lot like the hippie of the 1960s, except that he now commands respect even among the most staunch conservatives in town. Truly, his ideals have not changed, either.

Kibbey began his Winchester career as a social worker in December, 1973, shortly after the car breakdown. “I had to have the VW towed to Lexington,” he said, “because no one worked on foreign cars in Winchester at that time.”

While staying with his aunt in town (the purpose of his visit to Winchester), he wandered aimlessly into the employment office while killing time and casually asked, “Do you happen to have any jobs working with people?”

A lady at a desk answered quickly. “We just happen to have a social worker position becoming available this Friday. You might be qualified, but first you’ll need to take a test in Frankfort.”

The hippie soon was hired as a social worker in Winchester, Kentucky – a long way from Vermont. Kibbey never regretted the decision. He became a fixture in the town where people love Ale-8-1 soft drinks and are passionate about favorite-son film-maker Jason Epperson.

To this day, Kibbey has a mantra that guides him, one he developed as a youth growing up in a blue collar neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. It is one that followed him when he graduated in 1969 from Towson State College (now Towson University). A mantra that guided, even, his work in the Air Force.

“I believe anybody can change, can accomplish…become self-sustaining,” Kibbey said, “if we can help them to remove barriers that prevent it from happening.”

An example of the barriers he saw around Winchester fairly soon after taking the job was that the local social service agencies were not properly informed about the others’ responsibilities – both in terms of what each agency could do and also what they couldn’t do.

“The groups weren’t talking to each other and ‘turf wars’ developed,” said Kibbey. “People were working against each other instead of together.”

That’s when Kibbey and others implemented the idea of inviting representatives from the different agencies to meet monthly. It was simply a matter of better communication.

“We talked about common issues and services,” he said, “and we got to know each other on a first name basis.”

The Human Service Council was born, and it immediately paid dividends for the community. Kibbey and the council helped develop educational forums where issues such as child abuse, domestic violence, and special education needs were discussed and real solutions began to emerge.

Then a tragic event – the murder of a local child – ignited a firestorm of anger and frustration in the community “People started expressing how upset they were and many expressed it publicly, and that was it,” said Kibbey. “But others participated in bringing some solutions to problems in our community”

Soon, their idea of a “drop-in” day care center called Rainbow House opened in a local church. In 1985, Kibbey spearheaded the establishment of the Latch Key program, which used local schools to provide a safe place, along with positive activities, for children who came home from school and were left unsupervised while their parents were at their jobs. The program is now called Kids Carnival and is still going strong at most of the county’s elementary schools.

Kibbey served as president of the Clark County Association for Handicapped Citizens for many years. He, Joe Ann Dove and many others were concerned about opportunities for those with physical or mental disabilities after leaving public school services. That concern led to Camp Clark, a summer recreation and socialization program for the population—one that later evolved into a vocational program.

Now the clinical director of Comprehensive Care in Winchester, Kibbey was on the original boards of the Winchester YMCA and Big Brothers-Big Sisters, and he was a force in forming the Community Services Center, an effort of local churches and government to more efficiently serve indigent citizens.

Dove, who also has an admirable resume of service to the community, praised Kibbey for facilitating a staff that is “constantly at work in the schools, in the jail, at the center, and at the Pioneer House, providing services to the community. Ron is self-forgetting, dedicated, and committed.”

Two nurses at the Clark County Health Department echoed Dove’s admiration of Kibbey. Carol Hisle, who coordinates the diabetes program there, noted that “Ron is an outstanding individual who seems to always be available in our community to assist on any project, work on any committee while maintaining his professionalism.” Karen King, a nurse administrator, pointed to the fact that Kibbey “has a gift of helping others keep things in perspective and see the positives in practically every situation.”

In Kibbey‘s mind, the “positives” that Karen King mentioned are like watching a great adventure film, where all the challenges, the acts of courage, the excitement of new frontiers navigated pay off, eventually, in a triumphant way, leaving the audience with a sense of private joy. “As I see it,” noted Kibbey, “we’re kind of like Johnny Appleseed, going around with a pack of seeds on our back and sowing them. We don’t always have the opportunity to see them grow, but sometimes we do…”

He remembers counseling a high school senior about her future vocation, a young girl living with her family on a tenant farm. Kibbey was warned that “you’re wasting your time on her. She’ll never make anything of herself.” The remark emboldened Kibbey to work even harder with the impressionable youth, helping her get an educational grant to train in the medical field.

“Years later, I found out that she is now a doctor in Florida,” beamed Kibbey.

There are the drug abusers he has counseled in jail, who, he says, “want to get clean, and want to change their lives. You see their humanness when you talk to them one-to-one.” More time and money needs to be spent on rehabilitation rather than locking people up, Kibbey thinks, as he believes jail is “extremely costly, and they often come back out to get in trouble again.”

Some might suspect that Ron Kibbey struggles with a chronic and incurable case of simple naiveté, that he imagines an unrealistic world of “nice” where all will be well if we only communicate and treat others with dignity. He might be easily dismissed for that reason, but for Kibbey, his effective staying power has demonstrated that he’s much more than a Pollyana spirit.

In his years of service, he has accumulated a healthy dose of experience-based wisdom. In regard to the oft-stated admonition to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” he has some strong thoughts.

“In theory, everyone can do that , but what if you don’t have any boots?” he asked. “We need to help those people find the boots, to help them remove the barriers to achieving for themselves.”

Kibbey has learned to work within the often daunting bureaucracy to achieve good results. “The system, I think, is here to protect and give support,” he said. “It can also ‘trap’ people in a box. I have to talk to some and teach other ways to do things than to ‘beat the system.’”

Incidentally, his work as an office worker on an Air Force base in the Mojave Desert “taught me a lot about working well in a bureaucracy,” he said with a sly grin. Some might say that Kibbey is gifted in that regard, and that he is further fueled by his passion to meet human needs, and to connect.

Grace Witt started her tenure as a nurse at Winchester’s Clark Regional Hospital, and she often felt a sense of tenseness. “Ron, as a social worker, was a great resource for me and a person that always had time just to talk and assure me that things would get better and easier,” she said. “He made a stressful atmosphere a place of peace when he was around.”

For modern-day hippie Ron Kibbey, the hours are long, the obstacles are real, and the recent economic recession has made his vocation, and avocation, especially more difficult to navigate. Daily, he faces nagging challenges. But he has no imminent plans to retire. There’s too much to do. Naturally, he sees better days ahead and probably always will.

Kibbey was chosen as one of Kentucky’s “torch carriers” for the 2000 World Olympics Events, one of his happiest moments. Unifying people for a greater good, as the Olympics seeks to do, just makes sense to him. In retrospect, Kibbey has always carried a torch for the dignity of humankind.

Now in his early 60s, Kibbey still dreams, and he still hopes. He dreams about helping diminish the stigma of mental illness, an area of specialization for the last 20 years – that those who suffer from the affliction will be treated with more understanding. He hopes to make it easier for the elderly, in particular, to be treated, and he wants to promote education on the issue.

He thinks about how special it would be to see those with prior felony convictions be given more employment opportunities and experience a realistic chance to turn their lives in a positive direction. He knows it can work, and the community will benefit. “We want ex-felons to work, but we don’t always want to hire them,” Kibbey said of the dilemma.

Kibbey would like communities everywhere to invest in our children, to encourage all to think big and noble thoughts, and to look for the best in each person we encounter.

“We need to accept others where they are,” said Kibbey, “and understand that they can be someplace else.”

Fortunately, a hippie who’s wheels stopped rolling in a Central Kentucky town back in 1973 is still there. For those who welcomed him, and for the others who embraced him later, it seems the karma was right for this groovy partnership.

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and 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. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores, and Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, Steve’s fifth book, will be released in early 2013. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

To read more from Steve Flairty, click here.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment