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Kentucky by Heart: From ‘splittin’ jeans’ to splitting genes, Pendleton County native earned Nobel Prize

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at KyForward May 3, 2016

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Rural Kentucky had a big part to play in the awarding of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. That’s because Dr. Phillip Sharp, who accepted the international award along with Richard J. Roberts, was raised on a tobacco farm near Falmouth, along the Licking River, in Pendleton County.

Put simply, the prize recognized the two’s work to “split” genes. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Sharp for a profile of him for Kentucky Monthly. I found him humble, gracious, and obviously quite bright. I also talked to his father, a farmer who sounded a lot like my own father, now deceased, and a Pendleton County farmer. His father told how young Phillip once bent over while “working in the tobacco patch, and he split his pants.”

Chuckling, he continued. “So, Phillip was splittin’ jeans early in his life.”

Dr. Phillip Sharp was raised on a tobacco farm near Falmouth, along the Licking River, in Pendleton County (Wikipedia Photo)

The Pendleton County school system later named their middle school building after Dr. Sharp, and, to me, it’s one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen around the state. Sharp continues as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also co-founded three companies in his field: Biogen, Alnylam Pharmaceuticles, and Magan Biosciences.

He is an important player in cancer research, and was asked to review the recently presented PBS special, produced by Ken Burns, called “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.”

About two years ago, Dr. Sharp was in Falmouth and honored at Phillip Sharp Middle School for his noted career, along with his support of the local Pendleton County Education Foundation. During the day, he visited classrooms at the high school, sharing words of encouragement with students. At the event, which was a tribute to the Falmouth Rotary’s 90th anniversary, his remarks to the audience emphasized the critical importance of getting a good education, and he shared personal stories and connections to his local roots in Pendleton County.

Dr. Sharp cited a New York Times article stating the connection of college education to higher lifetime income levels.

One personal story related the time he was asked by his father to wash the family car “to get it ready for church the next day.” Young Phillip diligently scrubbed the vehicle to a nice sparkle, but didn’t bother to wash a square section in the middle on the car’s roof, figuring no one would see it. The next day at church, his father was able to look out from his Sunday School classroom on the second floor, where the unwashed top of the car wash was plainly visible.

It was a valuable lesson. “I learned then that whatever you set out to do, you need to do it right,” he said.

One might safely say the renowned geneticist and biologist internalized that principle…in spades.

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One of my favorite regions in the state is the Jackson Purchase, which is on the western end, connecting with a relatively small section of the Mississippi River. The major city there is Paducah. Here is a review I wrote, first printed in Kentucky Monthly, on John E.L. Robertson’s book, Paducah, Kentucky: A History (The History Press, 2014).

“Paducah is the largest city in western Kentucky’s Jackson Purchase. It is often called Quilt City USA because of its renowned Quilt Museum, along with being the home of the American Quilters Society. It might also be, metaphorically, an appropriate name for another reason. A panorama of Paducah’s past demonstrates a patchwork of intriguing pieces that, sewn together, form what is today a thriving community poised for the possibility of a bright future.

“Historian John E.L. Robertson, in Paducah, Kentucky: A History, sheds light in a detailed way on what brought the city to this juncture.

“Paducah was named by pioneer explorer William Clark, though there is disagreement on where the name originated. The city was established in 1830, and the “tenacity of Paducah’s people” has sustained it, according to Robertson. Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, the community has endured a number of floods, most noted being the 1937 one. There were tumultuous Civil War times and blatant racism, along with the controversial era being an “atomic city” as a uranium enrichment facility. Robertson leads the reader to seeing its modern status as a UNESCO-designated City of Crafts and Folk Arts, a city of murals, a place with a celebrated community college, and, of course, its ongoing Lower Town Revitalization program.

“The patchwork pieces of a diverse and often challenged heritage seem to be coming progressively together in Paducah…and are already on exhibit.”

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Regarding the town of Paducah, one of Kentucky’s most illustrious individuals of the early 1900s was born there in 1876. Irvin S. Cobb gained national attention as a journalist, a writer of fiction (mostly humorous short stories), and even found himself involved in motion picture work on a national level.

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.”

Cobb’s Judge Priest stories were the most known of his humorous writings. His journalistic work started as a teenager in home-town Paducah, and he later wrote for the New York Evening Sun and the Saturday Evening Post. While at the Post, he reported on the war in Europe when the United States was still neutral.

Reports are that he and four others were taken prisoner when they slipped beyond German lines, but were released, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.

Cobb consulted Will Rogers in the making of the movie called Judge Priest, and he also sold some scripts to Hollywood. As an actor, he played the Mississippi riverboat captain in the film Steamboat Round the Bend, as well as appearing in five others.

But Cobb was predominately known for his writing, which was prolific, and his ability to help people laugh at themselves through his colorful and familiar characters. Famed muckraking journalist Sinclair Lewis said this of him: “Cobb has made Paducah and all the other Paducahs—in Kentucky and Minnesota and California and Vermont—from which the rest of us come live in fiction.”

Cobb’s autobiography, Exit Laughing (1941), gave him even more national acclaim in his last years. Historian and author William Ellis, from Richmond, Kentucky, is currently working on another book about the life of Cobb.

The western Kentucky icon died in 1944 and is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery, Paducah.

(Resource material on Irvin Cobb was drawn from William Ward’s book, “A Literary History of Kentucky” and “The Kentucky Encyclopedia.”)

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In the rural Campbell County town of Claryville, one of the places I was raised, a sign standing outside a saloon was marked with the words, “Claryville Inn.” We sometimes joked about the town being so tiny that the other side of the sign said “Claryville Out.”

Across the street, or maybe better termed “road,” was Schacks General Store. I still recall the oily-smelling BBs I bought there for my air rifle (which was the subject of some of my youthful mischief). I also bought candy cigarettes and baseball cards, and I liked the smell of the place.

I really felt special when Harold Schack, Albert Schack’s son, called me “Flairty” instead of “Stevie.” That helped me feel more grown up.

Seems kids can be so impressionable.

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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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