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Kentucky by Heart: Poring over Kentucky’s past gives new meaning to the present, future

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

This is a reprint of a column originally published on June 21, 2015.

I typically write about contemporary life, but once in a while I like to pore over items from Kentucky’s past, especially when I feel a real connection. This particular column will have that focus.

A while back, my Aunt Sue sent me a local obituary piece, an involved story from the Kentucky section of the Cincinnati Enquirer. She figured I’d like it, a story that reminded her of the kind of stories I write about in the in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroesbook series.

Aunt Sue was right, and the person profiled had roots near my childhood homes of Claryville and Grants Lick. After reading the piece, I so wish I could have met and interviewed this amazing person.

Her name is Ruth Harris, affectionately called “Miss Ruth.” She was a long-time public school teacher in Northern Kentucky. She died in 2013 at the mature age of 101. According to the Enquirer, she lived an admirable life, being inspired to teach in 1928 at age 17 as a 4-H Club member on a trip to Washington, D.C. There, her group had a personal audience with President Calvin Coolidge.

Ruth Harris (Photo provided)

Ruth Harris

Her career in teaching began in one-room schools in southern Campbell County, around the area I called home. Later, she taught at Newport High School. I discovered that perhaps the most telling example of her sterling character was the way the unmarried Harris loved her family. A relative related that Miss Ruth had a strong dislike of hospitals, nursing homes and hospice centers. Consequently, she dedicated a new house she built to take in and give compassionate care to all her family members who were in need. Some might see her cynical opinion of the aforementioned institutions as a bit misguided, but no one will deny that she stepped in and provided a workable solution to what she considered problematic.

Incredibly, the saintly woman extended her compassion outside the realms of her classroom. Miss Ruth lived out her religious faith by participating in mission trips to Viet Nam and China. She was all about sacrificial giving.

Wish I could have known her when I was a child and could have watched her living the way most of us only talk about living. It would be hard to fathom the sheer number of lives uplifted through the influence of such a full life, one lived so unselfishly—and for 101 years.

Miss Ruth, you are still with us. How can you not be?

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Moving from the wholesome to the unwholesome in Northern Kentucky topics, Robert Shrage authored a 2011 book about the murder of a powerful Covington politician during World War II. He examines in detail the events around the crime. I reviewed it a few years ago for Kentucky Monthly:

Carl Kiger book

Northern Kentuckian Robert Schrage thinks big thoughts from his residence in the Ohio River hamlet of Rabbit Hash. Enough to have authored five books, mostly about the part of the state where he lives. Not all, however, are of the good and honorable aspects.

In Carl Kiger: The Man Beyond the Murder (The Merlot Group, 2011), the author deals primarily with the time before the August 1943 slaying of Covington’s Carl Kiger and his son, Jerry, along with the wounding of his wife, Jenny. Kiger, according to Schrage, “worked his way up from his poor West Covington neighborhood to become Covington’s most powerful and controversial elected official.”

Schrage has meticulously combed the Kentucky Post archives to present a picture of Kiger amidst the times of rumored mob connections in Covington. He examines Kiger’s relationships and political effectiveness—and the general assumption that he was a man on the rise, who “would have eventually been mayor,” said the author.

Perhaps most intriguing in the biography is a glimpse at Kiger’s wife and daughter Joan’s lives in the aftermath of the murders, a scenario on which readers might rightfully gaze in wonderment.

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A highly important World War I human resource for the United States was born in 1892 in the tiny hamlet of Priceville, Kentucky, in Hart County. He later moved with his family to Louisville, where, ironically, he was given custody by his paternal grandparents.


Lee Collins always had an interest in mechanical things, starting with his childhood. He must have been pretty strong-minded, too. The Encyclopedia of Louisvillereports some fascinating information on the precocious, inventive young man who, the book said, “insisted that he be the one to wind all clocks in his house, ran a miniature train set and constructed a string telephone for his friends.”

At about age 13, Lee created his own gum dispenser that he placed in stores in his Louisville neighborhood. A few years later, while preparing to attend college, both Lee’s father and grandfather died, leaving him to take care of his family.

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.”

He worked at the Courier-Journalat nights as advertisement manager while being privately tutored in chemistry, engineering and physics. That tenacity and intelligence later led to an important military asset for the U.S. Navy in World War I.

This Kentuckian, the Encyclopediastated, “devised a system by which long-range artillery on United States ships could automatically aim and fire in the direction of approaching subs, which the military quickly put to use.” The idea was moved along by the impetus of one Thomas Edison, iconic inventor, who sat on the United States Naval Consulting Board.

The article also stated that the U.S. had difficulty with a delivery system for spreading their war-time propaganda across enemy lines against Germany. Lee Collins, it can be noted, offered the idea “to suspend the propaganda from gas-filled balloons that would ride the prevailing easterly winds into Germany and release their cargo when a fuse burst the balloon.” The idea was implemented, and it was considered successful by leaders from both America and Germany. In the Korean War, Lee’s invention of a method of guiding airplanes by radio control was also used by U.S. forces.

That’s pretty heady stuff for a person born in Hart County, Kentucky, of humble parentage. Richard Lee Collins died in 1976 and is buried in Resthaven Memorial Park, Louisville.

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“Soon after, I returned home to my family, with a determination to bring them as soon as possible to live in Kentucky, which I esteemed a second paradise, at the risk of my life and fortune.”
Daniel Boone

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

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