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Kentucky by Heart: Deaths leave a void and legacy: Mountain Santa, Bob Wagoner each made mark

I was saddened by the recent passing of Mike Howard, aka “Mountain Santa.” He lived at Wallins Creek, in Harlan County, and since the mid-seventies, the wiry-built, talkative man became an icon to thousands in his community by playing Santa Claus, collecting and delivering Christmas gifts to the poor, largely transporting the gifts using pickup trucks. He did that with the support of a legion of helpers inspired by his amazing heart of compassion.

Mike Howard

Mike was a sincere man of amazing, yet simple Christian faith, who demonstrated it by doing much more than a seasonal project, as great as that endeavor was. He regularly visited inmates at the local jail and strummed his guitar as he sang gospel songs and listened to their individual stories. One often found him visiting nursing homes and bringing residents treats such as bananas and milk shakes, and he was known to help pay electric bills for those who came on bad times.

I first heard about Mountain Santa from a friend several years ago who suggested that I include him in my Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series. So after reaching Mike by phone, he agreed to meet me at his home on, ironically Santa Lane, in his tiny Wallins Creek community. He made it clear, however, that he would use the time to “give God the glory” and not to himself.

We met, and it turned out to be a banner day, at least for me. Mike called before I drove down to Harlan County from Lexington. He let me know that he and his wife would have lunch waiting. I pulled in his driveway to the sound of rippling creek water close by and the smallish man looking nothing like Santa walked out to meet me at my car. I immediately fell in love with Mike’s Appalachian brogue while he led me into his modest, but well-kept house, where we sat down at the small kitchen table. There, we ate a bountiful meal of beans and cornbread, and we had a stirring conversation.

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 for 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.”

With very little prodding, Mike began telling me all about his childhood and how he did some mean-spirited things until about age 16 when “the Lord started dealing with me.” He poured out his heart about all the little stories of people he helped when God led him to them. He told me about his literal “prayer closet” in the house he visited regularly and how he went up into the mountains to pray, too. He continually heaped praise on his wife, Barbara, whom he considered a gift from God; he called her “my backer.” It was also obvious, too, that he loved his three children: April, Michael, Jordan, along with his five grandchildren.

As we talked, he portrayed a humble human being who had an on-going conversation with his God, and his God encouraged him and sometimes gently chided him to show more faith. He often showed a hint of tears, those of the joyful kind.
Allow me to call him “real,” because he was.

In those couple hours spent with Mike, I caught a glimpse of what a child-like faith put into action could produce; and that faith spurred him to move a mountain of people to follow the lead of their better angels in reaching out to others.

Judy Hensley, a retired educator who taught at Wallins Middle/Elementary School, a short distance from Mike’s residence, knew well the difference he made in Harlan County. “He didn’t ask for anything for himself, no thanks, no accolades,” she said. “He was a man who loved God and out of that love came his compassion for people. For the truckloads of love he gave out, people loved him in return and counted a privilege to help him in any way they could.”

We could sure use a lot more Mike Howards. Rest in peace, honorable servant.

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Bob Wagoner

The loss of Robert “Bob” Wagoner this past week also brought a sense of grief to my world. Bob, until his retirement in July 2017, was the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association (KRTA) executive director for fifteen years. He lived with his wife of 45 years, Mary Alice, in the small town of New Castle, in Henry County, and was a long-time Kentucky educator at all levels.

Personally, Bob meant a lot to my career as a writer and speaker. In 2009, he asked me to speak at the annual KRTA state convention on the recommendation of a fellow educator. It honored me to share my experiences about “everyday heroes” around the state of Kentucky before some 400 teacher retirees–my colleagues–at the Louisville gathering. He asked me again to share at the 2015 event, and he was gracious in promoting my book series, which included several stories about teachers.

Bob was held in high respect by those in the educational community across the state, and he fought long and hard for the betterment of Kentucky’s retired public school teachers. This fine man—who died from complications of the flu– left the planet far too soon, and he’ll be missed.

Contributions in tribute to Bob are encouraged to be directed toward an organization that helps retired Kentucky teachers who are in dire need because of unforeseen circumstances:

Kimbler-Bourgard Foundation
c/o KRTA
7505 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40291

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former 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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One Comment

  1. Rita Setness says:

    Wonderful, moving article. I am challenged to love and help more by this shining example. I am sure that God pulled him close and said, well done good and faithful servant.

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