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Kentucky by Heart: From Lincoln to Ali to Henry Clay, everyone has their favorite colorful Kentuckian

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Who is your favorite Kentuckian from the annals of history books?

Consider a person you find particularly fascinating who was Kentucky-born or, if not, made their mark while living in the state. Your choice may be one of sterling reputation, as mine is…or one of questionable repute—or some other in-between person.

If one uses the term “colorful” in describing their choice, that may, indeed, be code for one who ended up in jail or was on their way there. A “favorite” doesn’t mean you agree with their behavior.

As a child, I pretended I was Daniel Boone in the woods and around the creeks in Grant’s Lick and Claryville, but Honest Abe is probably my all-time best from the Commonwealth. I liked his intelligence, his amazing ability to be patient and cultivate crucial relationships, and his knack of acting courageously at the right moment in the midst of momentous times.

Recently, I thought it would be fun to ask friends and acquaintances about their choices on the matter. I received a wide assortment of responses, with some a bit surprising. That was a good thing, and I learned a few tidbits more about our heritage.

Judge Roy Bean (yesteryearsnews.wordpress.com)

Here’s a sampling of the names that came in: Mary Todd Lincoln, Wendell Berry, Jim Bowie, John Hunt Morgan, John Filson, Franklin Sousley, Kit Carson, Henry Clay, Jenny Wiley, Judge Roy Bean, and Carrie Nation. One person even mentioned Belle Brezing, who operated a thriving brothel business in Lexington in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.

Gerald Fischer, Brandenburg, chose two he called “unusual,” Judge Roy Bean and Carrie Nation.

“Roy Bean was born in Mason County in 1825. He left home on a flatboat when he was 16 and made his way to Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and California,” he said.

Bean was a Confederate soldier, fought duels, and killed a Mexican man who threatened a U.S. citizen.

“He was appointed as a justice of the peace for the new Precinct 6 in Texas called Vinageroon,” he continued. “He labeled his court ‘Law West of the Pecos.’ He was a combination judge, saloon keeper, con-man, and all-around colorful character.”

Fischer also noted that though Bean was known as a “hanging judge,” he only sentenced two to hang, and one escaped.

Of Carrie (later changed to “Carry) Nation, born in Garrard County, Fischer explained that she was a “woman activist in the temperance movement and chopped up bar fixtures and bottles with her axe. She led marches down the streets of many cities, and likely started the real movement to ratify the 21st amendment.”

Jon Greene, Lexington, didn’t have to think long for his favorite individual in the state’s history. That would be Muhammad Ali.

“A man with the courage of his convictions,” he said. “He was kind, intelligent and humorous. He was not only the greatest boxer ever in the greatest era of boxing ever, he was a polarizing political figure. He is a civil rights icon and a true national treasure. He sacrificed his prime years as an athlete out of a moral obligation to himself, his religion and his race. He’s the reason the masses know of Parkinson’s disease and its devastating effects. Plus, that jaw. Not only could he talk but man he could take a devastating punch and keep on going.”

Christy Witt, Mt. Sterling, profusely praised Franklin Sousley. He was the Kentucky connection in the iconic World War II flag-raising photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on the island of Iwo Jima where fierce fighting raged between America and Japan.

Sousley served bravely as a U.S. Marine and grew up in the tiny town of Hilltop, in northeastern Kentucky. He died from wounds on Iwo Jima near the end of the conflict there.

“What strength and courage this young man had that represent the many, many, many more who sacrifice their lives in war,” she said.

Another person recalled that he, like me, loved Daniel Boone while a child.

“When I was a kid, I stayed in the woods pretending I was him,” said Mike Snyder, Kirksville. “I got to meet Fess Parker in Frankfort one time on a field trip in fourth grade. He played Daniel Boone on television, and gosh, he was a big man but so kind to all of us kids.”

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.”

Connie Burton, Nicholasville, remarked that she was partial to Boone because an ancestor of hers was a settler who came through the Cumberland Gap with Boone. She also admires Henry Clay.

Although Steven Thompson, Covington, noted that compromise is an unknown word in politics today, he appreciates what the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay, meant to America in the 1800s national political scene.

“As a teenager taking history classes, I was always absolutely fascinated by stories of Henry Clay, and now my in-laws are buried not that far from Clay’s tomb in Lexington.”

Interested people can visit Ashland, the former estate of Henry Clay near Richmond Road in Lexington.

Over in the western part of the state, in Henderson, Stephanie Brown picked four Kentuckians she finds especially intriguing.

“Loved Abe, of course,” she said, “but his wife Mary Todd Lincoln has also fascinated me, so guess it is a tie! The Lincoln love story always amazed me. I also find Colonel Sanders and (Adolph) Rupp interesting characters as well. Colonel was a dreamer, not a quitter, even in his senior years. Rupp? Well, he was Rupp.”

And, we should not leave out Jim Bowie in this short and informal survey.

Bowie was born in Kentucky but died bravely in 1836 in a mission fighting for Texas’s independence against President General Santa Anna’s Mexican Army.

“Most probably don’t realize (that) even though he was at the Alamo,” said Ramon Greene, Winchester, “he was sick and confined to bed when fighting happened…but still, he was right next to Davy Crockett, the ‘King of the Wild Frontier,’ no relation to Elvis, of course.”

I’m glad Ramon volunteered the information about Elvis…and by the way, has Elvis been sighted around Kentucky in a while?

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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 sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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