A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Judge Leigh Anne Stephens remains focused on community, despite hard times

Hazard District Court Judge Leigh Anne Stephens has an affinity for the welfare of kids in her community. That might be true mostly because she had so much fun growing up and playing with an abundance of kids in her Hazard neighborhood. Those experiences partly inspired her to lead in establishing Camp Promise, a week-long gathering of recreational activities and positive mentoring for young boys thought to be at risk for becoming future lawbreakers or, simply, need guidance in the midst of trying circumstances.

Leigh Anne wants today’s youth to experience the positives she and friends did; she’d rather not see them standing in her court as a lawbreaker. Her own firm home foundation taught her honesty, compassion, and an amazing ability to overcome severe life obstacles.

She’s thankful that she had trusting parents who understood it was safe enough in the neighborhood that they’d allow her to play outside with friends until ten o’clock at night.

Judge Stephens recuperating at St. Joseph Hospital, Lexington (Photo provided)

“It was a special time. I had a real good childhood,” she said, grinning. “We were like a gang of kids who rode our bikes and the other neighbors watched out for us. We played on the river bank and dug holes in it (and) hiked up the mountain. We kept the grass worn down in one neighbor’s yard, and they didn’t mind.

“We could walk to town without an adult…go to movies, go to the drug store and eat there. Life has changed so much for kids. They’ve missed out on all the fun, and kids today are stressed beyond belief.”

Her family attended the First Baptist Church in Hazard, but little Leigh Anne was not above a little childhood mischief. She remembers looking down from a higher floor to watch her mother teaching her Sunday School class. “I started dropping crayons down on her class,” said Leigh Anne, eyes twinkling, “…little tricks like that.”

She graduated from Hazard High School and attended Georgetown College in her home state for a couple of years, then transferred to another, the University of Kentucky. There, she met her future husband, Dwight Avery. From UK, the two entered Memphis State University, he to go to optometry school and Leigh Anne to enter law school. They are now divorced, but Leigh Anne termed their relationship today as being good friends. “He is still my eye doctor,” she said with a good-natured smile.

Acquiring the law degree at Memphis, she launched her career with a Perry County land company that leased mineral rights, doing title work. She worked there for over a decade until she became the assistant county attorney and stayed in that position for two and a half years. It was a happy time for Leigh Anne, traveling in the mountains and meeting new people and, ironically, enjoying her passion for collecting unique names. “So many interesting names in the mountains,” she said.

In 2002, she ran for the local district judgeship and won, overtaking the incumbent. She has remained in the position since. Her positive, outgoing personality did her well in the new endeavor. “I liked to campaign,” she said, “(but) Mom did more than I did!” Today, the satisfactory work she does in her seat is the best campaign she can run.

She considers herself a fairly strict judge, partly because she sees her function as not only being fair to those brought before her court, but also to help protect those around her community.

Long, hard days with disappointments are a part of every judge’s duties, but there are a couple of events in Leigh Anne’s career that stick out above the others. Neither happened inside the courthouse. In 2010, she was attacked by a man while she dined at a local Hazard eatery. She was somewhat aware of the person.

Judge Stephens with her secretary, Debbie Hall, in the courtroom (Photo provided

“I had seen him at the restaurant before,” she recalled. “He’d been stalking me. I had jury trials that day and was there late (for lunch). I’d just finished eating and out of the blue he came running up behind me. I turned real fast and screamed. I turned off to the side and was fighting him off.”

If the judge ever considered the possibility that we all have a personal angel guarding watching over us, this was the time it made tangible sense. Victor Gainer, a man who formerly worked in the courtroom with Leigh Anne, happened to be in the restaurant that day. Though a gentle man, he was also a big and physically strong person who reacted quickly to the unfortunate incident occurring.

“All he had to do was say ‘hey’ and that stopped everything long enough for me to run and the man started running after me,” she explained. “I kind of slung a chair in his path and Victor picked up a chair, like a lion tamer, and pushed him through the plate glass window.”

Out in the parking lot, Victor followed his initial actions by placing, then sitting on a chair on top of the attacker, holding him captive until police arrived. According to Leigh Anne, the gentle Victor was apologetic to the attacker as he held him down. “Victor said “I’m sorry I have to do this to you but I’ve got to sit here until the police come,’” she said, with a hint of a grin.

Ironically, Leigh Anne had been stabbed with a knife, handed to her after the incident by a waitress—though she didn’t realize the fact of being stabbed at the time. She demonstrated herself to be one tough person, noting: “It happened on a Friday and I went back to work on Monday.”

In 2015, she collided on a Perry County rural road with a person driving intoxicated. He was rounding a curve in the middle of the road, running into Leigh Anne’s vehicle. The man died and his girlfriend was seriously hurt. He had stood in Leigh Anne’s court previously for a DUI charge, though the tragic accident, by all accounts, was coincidental.

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.”

Leigh Anne, with her cousin and her two dogs as passengers, was injured seriously. One of her dogs was killed. She spent 42 days in a Lexington hospital recovering, and despite a gallant effort by doctors to save her lower right leg, it had to be amputated and she now walks wearing a prosthetic device.

Today, despite the obstacles incurred by the length of time she spent recovering, along with the daily challenge of adapting to a new way of moving around, Leigh Anne is upbeat and energetic, at work in the courtroom with focused eyes. Much of her invigoration likely comes from her deep desire to help others. Zach Sandlin, who, among others, worked with Leigh Anne to get Camp Promise established, describes her this way:

“She’s a truly genuine person when it comes to wanting people to get all the advantages,” said Zach, “not a ‘hands out’ person but a ‘hands up’ one. She’s constantly trying to figure out solutions, and she doesn’t care who gets the credit…just as long as it gets done by the end of the day. She just wants people to win.”

Camp Promise, located at the Middle Fork of Macy’s Creek, is now scheduled for its tenth year in 2018. It appears to be a big winner in the Hazard community, with adult volunteers from many walks of life providing mentorship to the young in regard to finding out about careers and making wise, responsible decisions. Funding comes from private donations. Past campers have become successful as teachers, police officers, and many come back to help at the three-night, four-day camp.

“We want to show (the campers) that ‘we’re on your side…not your enemy,’” said Leigh Anne.
Recently, Leigh Anne announced her retirement from the judgeship after nearly 15 years, effective until the end of 2017 or afterward until she is replaced. Sitting for long periods of time in court while dealing with a certain amount of pain from her leg injury has made it difficult to listen as carefully as needed, she mentioned. She also would like to spend more time with her aging parents. Leigh Anne will continue to serve as a retired fill-in judge, however.

“Now I can actually do more for Camp Promise,” she said.

Tim Farmer, long-time host of the popular public television show, Kentucky Afield, and himself one who deals with the disability of not having the use of his right arm, has been a regular volunteer at Camp Promise since it started. He has high praise for Leigh Anne and her desire to help others. “She has compassion and is trying to head off these kids before they go too far into trouble,” he said. “They have seen things in their lives that I could not imagine.”

Leigh Anne, according to Tim, doesn’t strive for personal publicity in what she does, calling her “extraordinary…and there needs to be statues of her all over the place,” he said.

Well, she wouldn’t ever allow that sort of recognition, but she always gets a warm feeling when someone expresses how they’ve been helped by her tough love, or the camp she started, or how they are inspired by the way she has handled adversity.

Those things beat having a statue of one’s self any day.

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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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