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Kentucky by Heart: Harlan County has plenty to celebrate in the way of good people and talent

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “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.”

Kentuckians were excited and proud when 22-year-old Harlan County resident Jordan Smith recently won Season 9 of NBC’s “The Voice,” a show for which he had previously been rejected.

Jordan (Photo courtesy of gossipcop.com)

Jordan Smith (Photo courtesy of gossipcop.com)

The announcement of his victory unleashed a collective cry of joy around the state because this mountain boy, one of our own, proved he could compete in his art with the best in America. Not only that, Jordan won us over with his humble spirit and authentic disposition, something people in the Bluegrass appreciate as well as anyplace you’ll ever go.

Judy Hensley, now retired, taught sixth-grader Jordan Smith ten years ago at Wallins Elementary and Junior High School in Harlan County. It was a memorable time, but not so much for the reason that she had a future singing star in her class.

“I had 28 boys in the class that year as an experiment of gender separation and teaching to the specific learning styles of males versus females,” she explained. “The experiment lasted one year. Class sizes were too big to see a genuine impact.”

She remembered Jordan well from the group: “At year’s end, I looked forward to our student talent show to see who would perform and what they would choose. One year Jordan sang, once he played piano, and another time he played drums. He definitely showed some musical ability. But I can assure you that at no time in his public education did anyone have the foresight to imagine him winning Season 9 of The Voice.”

Judy Hensley

Judy Hensley

She had the opportunity to see him honored after his Voice event. “I rode on the retired teachers’ float from Wallins in the “Jordan Smith Welcome Home Parade. It was great to see the thousands of people who turned out. I’ve heard of people coming from as far Georgia and Indiana to be there.”

Jordan Smith is the latest person to bring pride to the community, but for those who might be unfamiliar with the area, others in this southeastern county have done admirable things, as well. I’ve had the privilege to acquaint myself and write about them in my Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series.

Let’s talk about Judy Hensley, or “Ms. Hensley,” again:

Her contributions to education in the mountains of Harlan County have also brought well-deserved recognition to the area. Ms. Hensley’s use of the noted Foxfire Method of teaching, a program that features children pursuing educational projects that follow their intense interests, led her class to make a difference for a Harlan County landmark, Black Mountain. That mountain is known as the tallest in the state of Kentucky.

The story started when a shy little girl in her class asked Ms. Hensley to read her letter to the class regarding mountaintop removal (MTR) and the fact that Black Mountain was the target. The class became interested in the subject, and in order to add objectivity to the project, they invited visitors with opposing viewpoints to come to the class and speak. In time, they elected to protest MTR on Black Mountain.

“They traveled on buses to deliver letters to the Office of Surface Mining,” said Ms. Hensley. “It was a field trip to practice freedom of speech.”

Later, Ms. Hensley’s class teamed with a class at Rosenwald Dunbar Elementary School, in Jessamine County, and traveled to Frankfort to speak to a legislative committee. The end game proved a happy one for the proactive students and their teacher at Wallins. “It came to a good resolution, so about 20,000 acres at the top of Black Mountain were preserved,” she said. The culminating experience was meaningful and memorable, with the students at the two schools holding hands at the base of the mountain they “saved.”

Mountain Santa

Mountain Santa

And there were other engaging projects, too, for Ms. Hensley’s classes. A noted quilter worked with them to make “angel quilts,” pen pal relationships were established, and they participated in an “Aging in Appalachia” activity with some Berea College students. Her classes even published an on-going book series called Mountain Mysteries, and Ms. Hensley has published children’s books of her own. Judy Hensley has truly been a positive influence for the youth of Harlan County.

A short distance from Wallins Elementary and Junior High lives Mike Howard, aka as “Mountain Santa.” For the past 40 years, he has led a project that delivers gifts to the poor living in Harlan County. Starting with one truck when he started, well over 100 loads were sent to needy hands in 2015. Hundreds of volunteers, inspired by the humble efforts of Howard, have made the work of compassion a huge success throughout the many years.

Besides the signature Christmas event, he is a true giver in other ways and all through the course of the year. He makes weekly visits to inmates at the local jail, strumming his guitar and singing uplifting songs. Mike also visits elderly persons at nursing homes around town. There, milkshakes, bananas, and other treats, along with his smile and the attention he gives them, add to many lives. Additionally, he has often helped neighbors pay their electric bills and likes to call on them to make sure they are safe or need something.

Tears well up in Mike’s eyes when he talks about some of the volunteers who help in the Christmas project, especially the ones who formerly were helped by him. “They say: ‘If it weren’t for you, we never would have had any Christmases. Now we are able to help you.’”

The Begleys

The Begleys

Ben Begley and his wife, Pat, shared their profound love of nature to over 80,000 people, mostly children, at Harlan County’s Pine Mountain Settlement School from 1987 to 2014.
Their outdoor and “hands on” classroom saw them take students from throughout Kentucky for long hikes up the mountainside (on the other side of Black Mountain). The Begleys often had to allay fears the children—often city dwellers—brought with them. It was gratifying, said Pat, to “see their little eyes light up.” The couple taught concepts such as orienteering, water studies, forest ecology. They offered tree, mammal, and wildflower identification. Crafts such as woodworking and weaving cloth also were enriching activities shared.

“We came here in 1987 with the expectation that we stay here for five years, then move on,” said Ben with a grin. But the Begleys stayed, to the betterment of thousands of young lives.

And, a tribute to Harlan County’s most recent people of note would not be complete without mentioning Tammy Horn, a native of the county who was named Kentucky’s state apiarist in 2014. Besides teaching at Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University, she has authored such groundbreaking books as Bees in America: How the Bee Shaped a Nation and Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us About Local Trade and Global Markets, and has garnered numerous recognitions in her field of study.

Collectively, the people around Harlan County are thankful for Jordan, Judy, Mike, Ben, Pat and Tammy.

All provide a proverbial “voice” for what is best in humanity.


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. His new book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” has recently been released and is available for purchase here. Flairty is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, as well as a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his past columns for excerpts from all his books. him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or friend him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart columns, click here.

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