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Kentucky by Heart: Stories behind names of high schools reveal unique look at Kentucky’s past

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

While recently looking over information about public high schools in Kentucky, it occurred to me that a lot of them are not named after their locations. Most are, however, with one example being in Pike County, where there is “Pike County Central High School” and “Phelps High School” (among others in the county). Both indicate locations with their names.

But interestingly, quite a few high school names were given in tribute to a noted person, often with local connections. And when I perused the list of such schools, I quickly realized that many of those names — despite me being a student of Kentucky life and history — were ones for which I was largely ignorant.

I decided to follow my curiosity and pore over the list of “people names” to educate myself and figured that some of my readers might appreciate what I found.

I’ll be brief on each; maybe it’ll whet your appetite for more research. Some of the school names wouldn’t have been my choice, but I wasn’t asked, either. My information gathered is drawn from the schools’ web sites, Wikipedia, Newspapers.com, or The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

Conner High school

In Boone County, there are three high schools named after individuals: the Conner family, Larry A. Ryle, and Randall K. Cooper. Conner High is in Hebron and is named after the Conner family, who donated farmland after Boone County High School became overcrowded. Larry A. Ryle was a former superintendent, administrator, and teacher. Randall K. Cooper, ironically, was the first principal of Ryle High School, serving from 1992 to 2006. Both Ryle and Cooper Highs are in Union.

Paul Blazer High School, in Boyd County, is named in tribute to the founder, president, and CEO of the Ashland Oil and Refining Company, Inc., an economic mainstay of the area for many years. Breckinridge County’s small high school in the town of Cloverport goes by Frederick Fraize High School. Neal Tindle, a former guidance counselor there, told me that the Fraize family donated money to the school in honor of Frederick, who died in the 1917 flu pandemic.”

George Rogers Clark (Image from Wikipedia)

In 1963, George Rogers Clark High School was named after the noted surveyor and military officer. That event occurred after the consolidation of the Winchester and Clark County High Schools. George Rogers Clark was the older brother of William Clark of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame.

There are four such high schools in Fayette County: Henry Clay, Lafayette, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the newest, Frederick Douglass. Henry Clay was the influential national politician in the early to mid-1800s from Kentucky who is often nicknamed “The Great Compromiser.” Lafayette, obviously, is in tribute for the French General Lafayette, who fought with the Continental Army and visited Lexington, with great fanfare, in 1825. Paul Laurence Dunbar was a noted poet, novelist, and playwright born to Kentucky slaves in 1872. Frederick Douglass was also a slave and became a social reformer, abolitionist, and statesman known for his skillful oratory.

The eastern Kentucky school of Betsy Layne, in Floyd County, is named after the town where it is located. According to my research, not a lot is known about who “Betsy Layne” was, rather than likely being a local resident. Franklin County started an alternative institution in 2018 called the William Cofield High School, named after the first black to be appointed to the Franklin County Board of Education, and who has been a leader in the Kentucky NAACP.

William Cofield (Photo from NAACP)

John Hardin High School, in Radcliff (but served by Elizabethtown address), is named after a noted American Revolutionary War soldier who later lost his life serving as a peace emissary to the Shawnee for President George Washington. Ironically, Hardin’s nickname was “The Indian Killer.”

As one might expect, the largest public school system in the state, Jefferson County, has the most with the names of individuals. Ballard High School, on the east end, was founded in 1968 and named after Bland Ballard, who served as a scout with George Rogers Clark’s expeditions. Ballard County, in far western Kentucky, also has his namesake. The J.M. Atherton school represents the person of local businessman and politician John McDougal Atherton, who helped change Louisville’s school administration from trustees to a board of education.

Butler High School stands in tribute to Suda E. Butler, a former teacher and school supervisor in Jefferson County, and Doss High School is named after Harry Doss, a former school board member. Du Pont Manual High School originated, according to Wikipedia, when “Louisville factory owner Alfred Victor donated $150,000 to the Louisville Public Schools to establish a training school to teach young men industrial arts (manual) skills that would fit them for their duties in life.” In time, it became a highly acclaimed academic magnet school. The Brown School, which has students from kindergarten through twelfth grade enrolled, is named after local philanthropist J. Graham Brown, who built the Brown Hotel in Louisville.

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)

And there are more in Jefferson County. Moore High School’s name comes from Marion C. Moore. She emerged as one of the first guidance counselors in the Jefferson County system and is also noted as the first female elder in the Louisville Presbytery. The name Waggener High School came from the educational leadership of Mayme Sweet Waggener, who was the former principal at the Greathouse School, which later took her namesake.

Covington Holmes Junior/Senior High School, in Kenton County, came about in 1919 after Daniel Henry Holmes sold seventeen acres and his Holmesdale Mansion for $50,000 to the Covington Board of Education. Lloyd Memorial High School was named after pharmacist and novelist John Uri Lloyd, who made significant donations to the school. Scott High School (not to be confused with Scott County H.S.) honors the work of Robert Riggs Scott, a Kenton board of education member who gave $1,000,000 to fund college scholarships for county graduates and also for members of his church. Simon Kenton High School stands in remembrance of pioneer and Revolutionary soldier Simon Kenton.

Martin County’s Sheldon Clark High School was named after the school superintendent when the Inez and Warfield schools consolidated in 1972. Nelson County’s Thomas Nelson High School opened in 2012 to alleviate crowding at Nelson County High. It was named after Thomas Nelson Jr., the fourth governor of Virginia and a Declaration of Independence signee. In Shelby County, Collins High School is named after Kentucky’s first female governor and a Shelby County native, Martha Layne Collins.

It seems a good idea to me that schools should be active in educating their students about whom their school is named. It can promote a sense of unity and appreciation of the community’s heritage and an example of making history studied in the classroom as highly relevant. Having said that, it might also be prudent to periodically review the name and determine if it best fits the evolving values of communities… and to consider making a change.

That starts by being informed.

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