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Kentucky by Heart: Kentuckians throughout history faced similar challenges to those we face today

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

I find it enjoyable to look for inspiring Kentuckians, often unsung, from the past who acted nobly in handling challenges similar to what we face today. Recently, I picked up Bill Cunningham’s book, Flames in the Wind, one I’d read some years ago. You may know Bill as a retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice, but he has also authored several historical books focused on his western Kentucky homeland.

I found three profiles in Flames that offer instructive models as we confront today’s pandemic, issues of racial equality, and economic challenges. Each of the three individuals profiled lived in Paducah, in the Jackson Purchase region.

Dr. Reuben Saunders (Image from findagrave.com)

Let’s start by saying that within the pathos of the current Covid-19 virus, there are those who courageously stand on the frontline of danger in serving the medical needs of patients. Some greatly sacrifice their time and efforts to create and produce therapeutics and vaccines. In the time of one of the cholera epidemics that touched Paducah in 1873, local physician Dr. Reuben Saunders was heroic in his efforts. Bill wrote that “Dr. Saunders, risking contagion and death, worked tirelessly with the afflicted, attempting the best he could to alleviate their misery.”

Dr. Saunders also discovered as he treated patients, that the hypodermic use of morphine-atropine was a treatment of cholera, something to give hope. He was honored by medical associations around the world for his contributions and loved by community members. As an interesting side note, he also was the grandfather of noted Kentucky humorist Irwin Cobb.

In the realm of racial justice, Dr. Dennis Henry “DH” Anderson was a black man born in Tennessee who came to Paducah in 1909, working in construction and serving as a part-time preacher. Many of his race around the town, Bill said, “remained predominantly unlearned, untrained, and unskilled, thus making it impossible for them to make a living above the bare subsistence level.” Concerned and a person of action, Anderson set his sights on establishing a black school of higher learning in western Kentucky in order to help his race raise their standard of living. With the help of his wife, he had previously opened schools in the Kentucky counties of Fulton and Graves.

The quest to build a junior college in Paducah was difficult, as it was received coolly by many whites and supported by blacks with few resources. Anderson went door to door in seeking help and received some funds and acquired some donations of materials by various businesses. He received a huge blessing from a white family who donated some property for the location of the school.

With that encouragement, Anderson “literally began to build the school himself using pick and shovel,” noted Bill. “He worked into the night by lantern light pursuing his dream. The skeptics and the negative remarks never slowed him from his quest.” But Dr. Anderson realized he would need state funding to succeed and sustain the project, and he began to make trips to the General Assembly in Frankfort to request such. In 1917, he received an appropriation of $17,000, but soon Governor James McCreary vetoed the funding.

That wasn’t the end of it for Anderson, and if you like stories that warm your heart, here is a good one. Bill Cunningham related it this way: “Undaunted, Anderson pressed on and when the General Assembly met again, he headed back to Frankfort riding his old dilapidated but familiar motorcycle. Near Simpsonville (Kentucky), he was involved in an accident, breaking his arm and severely injuring his eye. But gallantly Anderson pushed on to Frankfort despite his pain and suffering and with his arm in a sling and his head bandaged, he stood before the legislators again, literally bleeding in both body and heart.”

West Kentucky Industrial College historical marker (Photo from Waymarking.com

In 1918, the funding measure for the West Kentucky Industrial College was signed into law by Governor A. O. Stanley and higher financial support came later. Dr. Anderson served as president for a period. The institution merged with Kentucky State College in 1938, becoming West Kentucky Vocational Technical School. After being renamed West Kentucky Technical College, the school merged in 2003 with Paducah Community College and became West Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC).

Dr. Anderson, who died in 1951, leaves an inspiring legacy of vision, persistence, and ingenuity in the pursuit of equal footing for the opportunity of attaining education for those previously denied such.

Some of the greatest contributors to society are those who spur economic development to those in their sphere of influence. Luther Draffen was such a person for the people of western Kentucky.

He was a Kentucky farm boy from Calvert City who grew up to be a successful businessman in nearby Paducah during the early 1900s. Ironically, his business operations prospered from the 1920s to the Depression years in the 1930s. That fact bothered him when he saw so many in his region suffer economically. He desired to do his part to help them.

First, he assessed what natural resources western Kentucky could use to develop for business. It was clear that it was replete with streams and rivers-a true strength-on par with nearly anyplace in America. There was a problem, however, in that the waterways flowed erratically, meaning that sometimes they drained dry in areas and other times overflowed their banks and threatened people and property. Engineers ascertained that a series of flood control dams were needed to keep the water flowing more consistently, and with that, Draffen set his mind on a specific plan—to get a dam built on the Tennessee River (in Kentucky). If he succeeded, it could be a big boon for the region’s economy.

Luther Draffen (Image from Marshall Co. Daily)

In the late 1920s, Draffen began his dream quest. It would be a long and often frustrating process. According to Bill, “‘Mr. Luther, as he was known by close associates, usually drove his own car at his own expense on the many trips to Washington, Frankfort, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. At times it appeared that the whole idea was doomed as the wheels of the federal bureaucracy not only moved slowly but at times backward.”

But Draffen’s efforts paid off when in 1938, Congress appropriated over two million dollars for the construction of the Kentucky Dam at Gilbertsville to begin, and it would put nearly five thousand to work. It took six years and eventually 117 million dollars to complete the amazing project, at the time one of the largest projects of its kind in America. In doing so, it created one of the largest man-made lakes in the United States with great recreational attraction.

Luther Draffen and the supportive people who joined him brought much economic prosperity to the region: jobs, industrial development, cheaper electricity, and expanded tourism in western Kentucky.

As Kentucky, like the rest of America, is enduring such a difficult time, we can look back at Dr. Reuben Saunders, D.H. Anderson, and Luther Draffen from past days to inspire the best in us.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former 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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